The lie that tore my family apart

In the '80s and '90s, thousands came forward with their own incest stories. I was one of them -- and I was wrong

Published September 20, 2010 11:01AM (EDT)

In the late 1970s, a handful of feminist scholars did some groundbreaking research and delivered some distressing news: one in three American women and one in ten American men, they reported, had been victims of childhood sexual abuse.

Their studies proved that incest wasn't the rare anomaly it was long believed to be. Incest happened often. It happened in normal families -- in the house down the street, in the bedroom down the hall.

A psychological phenomenon called repressed memory had allowed this outrage to go unacknowledged, even unknown. As Freud had first asserted a century earlier, the impact of child sexual abuse on young psyches was so profound that victims often lost their memories for years or decades. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were walking around with the time bomb of untreated childhood sexual abuse ticking inside them.

For better and for worse, these findings transformed incest from a dirty little secret of American family life into an American obsession. During the 1980s and early 1990s, several cultural icons, including Susanne Somers, former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur, Roseanne Barr, and Oprah Winfrey, went public as incest survivors. Incest memoirs hit best-seller lists. "The Color Purple," whose protagonist had borne two of her father's babies, won the Pulitzer Prize. Sympathetic and sensational incest stories proliferated on TV news shows and after-school specials and in newspapers and magazines.

Reported cases of child abuse and neglect surged from 669,000 in 1976 to 2.9 million in 1993. During those years, according to "Victims of Memory" author Mark Pendergrast, up to one million families were torn apart by false accusations of sexual abuse.

Mine was one of them.

Many of these accusations were made by adult daughters who claimed to have repressed and then recovered memories of childhood molestation by their fathers.

I was one of them.

In courtrooms around the country, daughters sat sobbing on witness stands, pointing across the room at their fathers, listing the atrocities their fathers had committed against their bodies and their souls.

If I'd been just a bit more suggestible (more impulsive, more vindictive), I might have been one of them.

Here's how I became convinced that this lie was true.

In 1982, I edited a book by one of those pioneering feminist researchers. I was shocked and moved by what I learned, working on the book I'll call "The Incest Secret." With missionary zeal -- and without considering the tunnel vision, good guy–bad guy polarization, and dangerous excesses that often accompany that kind of heart-thumping fervor -- I spent the next few years writing exposés of child sexual abuse for local and national newspapers and magazines.

As a journalist doing what journalists do -- slouching toward objectivity, stumbling over my preexisting prejudices and proclivities -- I helped spread the panic: basing conclusions on skewed studies I believed to be accurate, citing manipulated statistics I trusted, quoting experts who proved more attached to their points of view than they were to the facts.

Along with other writers on both sides of the issue, I used quotation marks to declare my allegiance, calling it recovered memory, not "recovered memory"; incest survivor, not "incest survivor"; "false memory syndrome" not False Memory Syndrome.

I didn't just hand out the Kool-Aid. I drank it. I didn't just write about recovered memories; I spent a decade trying to recover my own. Shortly after the 1988 publication of the Bible of the recovered memory movement, "The Courage to Heal," I joined the ranks of self-identified incest survivors and accused my father of molesting me.

The full story of how I came to that conclusion is complicated. [To read an interview with Meredith Maran, click here.] During that time, I was in love with a woman who identified strongly as an incest survivor. I was in therapy with a woman who believed in recovered memory. Many of my friends were incest survivors. I'd been plagued by strange dreams -- dreams in which little girls whose fathers had raped them told me, night after night, that I was one of them. I made a list of the "evidence" and presented it to my brother over dinner one night. I've never seen him look so miserable.

"I've read your articles," he said finally. "I know this kind of thing happens all the time. I just never thought --"

"I know," I said. "Me neither. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to put the clues together," I said. "But there's no other way it makes sense."

"Doesn't that seem weird to you?" he asked. "Your girlfriend was molested. Your best friend. Now you."

Tears sprang to my eyes. "It's shocking to me, too," I said. "But I really need you to believe me." 

"I do," my brother said. "I do believe you."

In the 1990s, the backlash began.

In March 1992, accused parents banded together to form the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF). "When the memory is distorted, or confabulated," the FMSF newsletter declared, "the result can be what has been called the False Memory Syndrome; a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes."

Although false memory syndrome was the invention of laypeople, not a medically identified condition, the phrase burned its way across the country, setting off the firestorm that would come to be known as "the memory war."

Even characterizing the conflict was cause for controversy. Was the "outing" of child sexual abuse a brave crusade to save children's lives, or a witch hunt reminiscent of others in the American hall of shame?

Nearly overnight, "false memory" replaced "recovered memory" on the American tongue. Therapists were sued for implanting false memories, stripped of their licenses, ordered to pay six-figure settlements to clients who'd once credited them with saving their incest-ravaged lives. Accused molesters' convictions were overturned. Many but not all of the accused were set free.

Families devastated by incest accusations were now bifurcated, also, by warring beliefs about truth and memory. If the outraged parents -- my outraged parents -- were right, they were the victims, and their daughters were -- I was -- the perpetrator. If the daughters were right, we were the victims, our parents the perpetrators, denying the trauma they'd inflicted upon us. Each side allied itself with a phalanx of opposing experts who built constituencies and careers on unproved certainties.

When the culture tilted toward disbelief, I leaned that way too. In 1996, I faced the truth that my accusation was false. I apologized to my father and my family, quit incest therapy, and broke up with -- truth be told, was dumped by -- my incest survivor lover.

A few years later, just when I'd fully regained my mind and my memories, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and began to lose his.

Redemption-wise, my father's diagnosis left me two options.

I could hope my father would forget the wrong I did him, along with the other bits and bytes that were slipping through the fissures in his brain. Or I could convince him to have a conversation with me about what I did and why I did it and how sorry I was.

A girl can dream: maybe he'd even forgive me, so I might step into that shaft of light and begin to forgive myself. But first I needed to understand. How had I -- more neurotic than some, but surely less neurotic than many -- come to believe that my father, a man lacking the cruelty to squash a spider, had sexually abused me throughout my childhood and spent the next twenty years covering it up?

How had so many other people come to believe the same thing at the same time?

In "Creating Hysteria," Joan Acocella's 1999 exposé of the sex-abuse panic of the 1980s, she wrote, "One of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of psychotherapy seems to be coming to an end."

Acocella's prediction was true, and false. The sex-abuse panic did recede. But ten years later, it still hasn't come to an end.

"When you once believed something that now strikes you as absurd, even unhinged, it can be almost impossible to summon that feeling of credulity again," Margaret Talbot wrote in The New York Times Magazine on January 7, 2001. "Maybe that is why it is easier for most of us to forget, rather than to try and explain, the Satanic-abuse scare that gripped this country in the early 80's -- the myth that Devil-worshipers had set up shop in our day-care centers, where their clever adepts were raping and sodomizing children, practicing ritual sacrifice, shedding their clothes, drinking blood and eating feces, all unnoticed by parents, neighbors and the authorities.

"Of course, if you were one of the dozens of people prosecuted in these cases, one of those who spent years in jails and prisons on wildly implausible charges, one of those separated from your own children, forgetting would not be an option. You would spend the rest of your life wondering what hit you, what cleaved your life into the before and the after, the daylight and the nightmare."

As Talbot says, the panic hasn't ended for the preschool teachers and fathers and uncles who were convicted of child sexual abuse 20 years ago and remain incarcerated today.

It hasn't ended for the children, now adults, who testified against those prisoners at age four or 10 or 30, some of whom have since acknowledged that their accusations were false.

I'm guessing it hasn't ended for the 1.8 million people who have bought copies of "The Courage to Heal." Or for the book's coauthor, Laura Davis, whose books and workshops are focused, now, on forgiveness and reconciliation.

It hasn't ended for the tens of thousands of families still struggling to recover from false accusations made decades ago.

Most important, it hasn't ended for a society that decries the mass hysteria of Salem and McCarthyism while continuing to elect presidents, wage wars, and deny its citizens health care and civil rights based on confabulations presented as facts.

Recent American history is rife with examples of the damage done when millions of people become convinced of the same lie at the same time. Choose your favorite fiction from this list, or add your own.

The George W. Bush "victory" in the 2000 election. The list of books that Sarah Palin allegedly banned from the Wasilla Public Library. The persistent rumor that her youngest son was actually her daughter's child. The allegations of Barack Obama's foreign birth, terrorist associations, reverse racism, and socialist tendencies -- first promulgated to prevent his presidency, later used to derail it.

How many and how much have we lost in the seemingly endless War on Terror, triggered by the fictional connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks? The phrase "Weapons of Mass Destruction," invented as a cry for war, has become shorthand for cynical political manipulation and the mass, willful suspension of disbelief.

President Obama's efforts to provide Americans with health care were nearly defeated by the myth that if the program were enacted, "death panels" run by government bureaucrats would decide whether Granny lives or dies.

Gay people's right to marry (my right to marry) is still being denied in most of the "united" states, ostensibly to protect the heterosexual nuclear family from destruction, and -- wait, it gets more incredible still -- to keep American children from being recruited to homosexuality in their classrooms.

In November 2008, the Wall Street Journal predicted, "In 300 years' time, our descendants -- who will, of course, pride themselves on their superior rationality -- will read of the recovered-memory-driven prosecutions of parents (usually fathers) as we now read of the Salem witch trials."

"We may expect further such episodes of popular delusion and the madness of crowds," the article warned, "unless we straighten out our thoughts about the way our minds work -- or, if that is not possible, at least about how they don't work."

I wanted to look back, 20 years later, at one episode of popular delusion -- mine, ours. My painful, public exposé of the way my mind worked and the way it didn't is offered up with remorse, yes, but also with a pulse of hope: that I, and we, will learn from this history so we're not destined to repeat it.

Meredith Maran is a contributor to Salon. Her book "My Lie," from which this is excerpted, comes out from Jossey-Bass on Sept. 14.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Life Stories Memoirs Psychology Real Families Sexual Abuse