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Repressed, recovered or false memories – a journalist explains the differences. How a spate of abuse allegations shattered thousands of families, including her own, in the eighties and nineties and whether the phenomenon could happen again.
- Meredith Maran Journalist and author of several nonfiction books, including “Dirty,” “Class Dismissed,” and “What It’s Like to Live Now.”
- Frank Kane A volunteer spokesman for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.
- Richard McNally Professor and director of clinical training, department of psychology, Harvard, and author of "Remembering Trauma" and the soon to be published, "What is Mental Illness?"
- Christine Courtois A psychotherapist and author of the just published second edition of "Healing the Incest Wound."
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in today for Diane Rehm. In the 1980s, Meredith Maran was one of the early journalists to report on the recovered memories of incest survivors. She observed family therapy sessions, interviewed molesters and steeped herself in cases where abuse clearly took place. In a new book, she recounts how she got caught up in the mass hysteria of the times and falsely accused her father of molesting her.
MS. KATTY KAYShe's written a booked titled, "My Lie." Meredith Maran joins us in the studio to tell a true story of a false memory. Meredith, thank you so much for coming in.
MS. MEREDITH MARANDelighted, Katty.
KAYThe phone here is 1-800-433-8850, the e-mail address is email@example.com and we will, of course, be taking your questions and comments later on in the program. Meredith, I was reading your book last night. It's a hard read in many ways. Why did you decide to tell your story?
MARANI don't think I would have done it if it were just a matter of disclosing what a horrible person I had been and how I came to see what was wrong with my memory and what I did about my memory.
MARANI did it because I was in a process of reconciliation with my family and I felt that making amends, apologizing, making myself available to them to say what they needed to say to me for what I had done was such a moving process to me, so emotional. And I saw echoes of that process much needed in our culture as well in friends' -- my friends' lives and also I started writing the book during the presidential campaign of '07 when there was so much lying going on and people making huge political decisions, as well as personal decisions, based on things that just weren't true.
KAYOkay. For our listeners who have not read the book.
KAYWhat was it you did?
MARANI became convinced that my father had molested me during the mid to late '80s when there were a lot of people becoming convinced of that or a lot -- also a lot of people becoming convinced that their children were being molested in preschools around the country. Hundreds of people went to prison, including preschool workers, janitors and fathers and unknown tens of thousands of women, like me, most of them my age at the time in my 30s and most of them in big cities started going to therapy and exploring the possibility that we were also incest survivors.
KAYAnd how did you come to believe that your father had sexually abused you?
MARANIt was what I..
KAYWhat triggered it?
MARANExcuse me? What triggered it? There was an immediate trigger which was, as you said in your introduction, I was a journalist. I was very early on in the period of time when the mass media suddenly realized that incest was not the one in a million occurrence that it had long been believed to be. And feminist researchers had come up with a new statistic, which is that one in three American women had been molested as a child.
MARANAnd so I had become kind of an evangelist, a fundamentalist, in a way, trying to get this message out with this idea that I had to save all these children from what was being done to them in their homes. So early on, before many people were covering this story, I was flying around the country going to treatment centers and I was sitting in a group of perpetrators, men who had been convicted of molesting children, and one of the men, who happened to resemble my father physically, not the trench coat wearing sleazy guy, but a businessman like my father, starting describing how when his daughter became sexual, or as he put it, started seeing other men, he had freaked out. And that was because he had been her lover, as he saw it, and it reminded me of what had happened when I became sexual and my father freaked out.
KAYWas there something specific that you remembered, that you thought you remembered?
MARANThere was never a specific memory of being molested and that's one of the keys, I think, to how I got released from this delusion. There was a long list that I was keeping in my journal. Many of us had incest journals in those days and we wrote down our dreams and the symptoms and the mysterious things that had happened in our childhoods for which there was no plausible explanation and I had a whole list of symptoms, but not one of them was remembering being molested.
KAYBut you still became convinced that your father had done this to you?
MARANI still did and this is where the book is -- the book is primarily my story. It's a story that I -- on which I take the reader through the experience that I had. I began it in 1980 -- in the early 1980s and it ends pretty much in the present. And throughout are scattered the news reports and the TV shows and so on that were flipping from incest never happens to incest happens all the time. Oprah Winfrey's an incest survivor and Miss America to, oh, we've all gone overboard and we need to sue these therapists who made these women believe that they had been molested and so on, so my way through that sort of mirrored what the culture was going through.
KAYWhat happened when you confronted your father or your family with what you thought had happened to you?
MARANOne of the most convincing arguments for me to believe that this had happened was the first person I told was my brother, with whom I'm very close, and he took no longer than a few seconds to believe that it was true, and the irony, of course, is that part of why he believed it was true was that he had been steeped in the articles I had been writing and publishing over the years, the gist of which was, always believe the children. If a child says she was hurt or he was hurt, believe the child, and so he hesitated for a moment and then said he believed it and he could see how it had happened because in fact, in our family, there was a dynamic that very much mirrors the incestuous dynamic of...
KAYWell, explain that a little bit more.
MARANWell, from a very early age, I was my father's best friend, you could say surrogate wife. There was a lot of tension in my parents' marriage. It ended when I was 19, as soon as my brother -- my younger brother left home. My father and I had tons in common. We loved to do the same things and I mirrored him, you know. I did what he did. I played his trumpet in the orchestra, which at that time, a girl playing the trumpet was really unusual. He had been a frustrated screenwriter. We wrote plays together and acted them out. We liked to have hamburgers for breakfast. There were all these little things that we liked that my mother didn't participate in or my brother. And that's very typical, as I had learned doing my research as a journalist, that a sexual incestuous relationship is often reflected in the emotional dynamic in the family.
KAYSo you told your brother and then what happened?
MARANAnd then my -- I told my mother. My mother was devastated. It was one of the hardest moments in our relationship and she initially believed me and then told me that it couldn't possibly have happened. And then my brother, who has two children the same ages as my two kids, had to decide whether to let his children continue to hang out with their grandfather and step-grandmother and so I suddenly began to realize that this statement I had made, out of some place of uncertainty, was having huge repercussions throughout my family.
KAYMeredith Maran is the author of, "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory." We're joined now on the phone by Frank Kane. He joins us from his home in Acton, Mass. He's a volunteer spokesman for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. In 1991, his daughter who was then 25, accused him of sexually abusing her when she was two. She retracted the accusation a few years later. Frank Kane, thank very much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. FRANK KANEOh, thank you Katty and to thank you, Meredith, for writing your book. Oh, excuse me. Yeah, well, this happened to me, obviously. I got a letter from my daughter. I was on a research program in Boston. I got this letter from my daughter and accusing me of incest and it was filled with all sorts of biblical tract stuff and I'd like -- first I'd like to say that in the middle of all the cultural stuff that was going on that Meredith referred to, my family had also gone into a born again, very charismatic, evangelical, non-denominational church and they were heavily into spiritual warfare, et cetera. I think Satan was behind every bush.
KAYAnd Frank, do you think that that was part of what prompted your daughter to accuse you falsely of molesting her?
KANEWell, I think it was part of it. I think the large part was the emotional. She had just become a born again Christian and she was heavily embedded or inured with the thought that she was born again and therefore, she could never be deceived and she started reading some of the self-help books that were out there, particularly a couple of evangelical ones, and then she met a young woman who had gone to a therapist in New Hampshire who -- and then this therapist had told her she'd been abused when she was five.
KAYAnd Frank when you -- when she called you up and told you that you had abused her how did you respond?
KANEOh, God, it was -- I was in Boston and I was in a study, a physical study, in there and I got this letter, so I opened the letter and it was like my world ended. I immediately rushed down with the letter to the social worker who was working on our program and I couldn't even read it to her. And she read it and said, oh, my God, your daughter sounds like she's disturbed.
MARANFrank, can I interrupt? This is Meredith, and ask you a quick question?
MARANMy dad told me later when I -- after I had apologized for my false accusation that there was actually a moment when my accusation made him wonder whether he had in fact molested me. Did you have a moment like that?
KANENo, no, I didn't. It never -- it never even occurred to me but the first thing that hit me was that how do you prove a negative? How do you prove that something didn't happen, especially when her letter referred to something -- it sounded like a dream paralysis scene and she talked about a specter coming into her room and this was when she was two and half years old which...
KAYFrank Kane, we have to take a short break, thank you very much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to have more on recovered memories after this quick break.
MARANThank you, Frank.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. I'm joined by Meredith Maran, she is the author of "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory." We'll be opening the phones in just a while, 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number here. firstname.lastname@example.org, of course, the e-mail, you can find us on Twitter and Facebook as well. Just before we went to break, Meredith, we were speaking with Frank Kane whose daughter had accused him and you asked him what I thought was a very interesting question, about whether when his daughter accused him he started to believe it, too.
KAYIs that what happened with your father?
MARANThat is what happened with my father. As I was saying earlier, there was a lot of uncertainty within my family. My mother initially thought it might've happened and then was clear that it hadn't. My brother was -- pretty immediately went over to the idea that it had. And my father told me years later that, in fact, he had called my mother from whom he'd been divorced for years and years to say, is there any way I could've done this?
KAYAnd what was her response to him?
KAYSo you think that your father, then, became persuaded having it -- maybe for a glimmer of a second thought maybe he'd done it then became persuaded he hadn't done it.
MARANI think it's an indicator of how flexible memory is.
KAYMemory can be.
MARANAnd how fleeting. And to add to the complication, as I was recovering my memory of the truth, which is that he had molested me, had not, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and began to lose his. So when he was asking my mother that question, his memory had already been jangled by the disease and also by time.
KAYLet's speak now to Dr. Richard McNally, he's a professor and director of clinical training for Harvard's department of psychology. He's the author of "Remembering Trauma," and the soon to be published, "What is Mental Illness?" Dr. McNally, thank you so much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."
DR. RICHARD MCNALLYThank you for having me.
KAYListening to this conversation with Meredith and hearing perhaps before the break, I don't know if you had a chance to hear -- listening to Frank Kane as well, from a clinical point of view, can a traumatic memory be forgotten and then remembered, do you think?
MCNALLYWell, truly traumatic events -- truly traumatic events, the sorts of things that are life threatening, overwhelmingly terrifying and so forth are usually involved with the release of stress hormones, which consolidates the memory. Makes it very strong, makes it very vivid as in the case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD. So people who are exposed to genuinely traumatic events, life threatening, overwhelmingly terrifying events tend to remember them all too well.
KAYBut can a traumatic memory then be created and remembered as true?
MCNALLYWell, there certainly were cases in the 1980s when this certainly seemed to have occurred. Perhaps the best example of that were people who began to recover memories of satanic ritual abuse, being involved in all kinds of weird cult rituals, cannibalizing babies and infant sacrifice and things of that sort. When the FBI investigated all of these cult crimes, they never could find any physical evidence of these crimes. And many of these people later retracted these memories. But after they began recalling these memories in certain types of psychotherapy, they would -- they originally had depression and then they developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder apparently on the basis of false memories.
KAYWhen you listen to Meredith's story and some of what happened to her was while she had been talking to therapists and did seem to be, as you were suggesting, in the 1980s, this kind of whipped up fervor of exposing abuse, I mean, to what extent is the therapy profession and the psychiatry profession at that point to blame for this?
MCNALLYWell, at that period of time, there was sort of a resurgence of interest in some of Freud's earlier work, his pre-psychoanalytic work, from the 1890s and this was based upon the notion that he believed that children who were molested at preschool age, that they would often repress these memories and then later in adulthood, develop hysterical symptoms and things of this sort due to these repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. And he felt that you could cure hysteria by helping these people recover these repressed memories.
MCNALLYThere was never very -- any very convincing evidence of this sort of a thing even in Freud's day and they eventually abandoned that theory, but the theory became popular once again and thereby spreading the idea that the mind protects itself by vanishing memories of trauma that are too horrific to contemplate. But this really runs counter to the way the mind works as exemplified by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And so I think in part, it was due to sort of a misguided theory that regained popularity again at the end of the 20th century.
KAYListening to Frank Kane earlier, it was quite interesting, 'cause he described the fact that his daughter had joined -- had become a very fervent born again Christian and he thought that that was tied into his -- her accusing him of having molested her as a two-year-old, but, you know, I'm sitting here with Meredith here, there was no particular trigger like that. I mean, how do you explain how ordinary intelligent people can come to believe that they have a memory of something that didn't happen?
MCNALLYWell, if you take someone who's having psychological difficulties for whatever reason, many people ask themselves, why, why me, why now. What could possibly be the cause of my psychological distress? And when you're in a cultural climate that encourages the view that the mind protects itself by blocking away these sorts of memories of early abuse and also fosters the belief that hypnosis and certain types of techniques are the royal road to uncovering these memories and that's the only way you're going to recover from your distress, you're really setting up a perfect storm of factors that can lead anyone, highly intelligent or not, down that path.
KAYMeredith has a question for you, Dr. McNally.
MARANWell, and a comment as well. I completely agree and I have to say even all these years later, having published a book called "My Lie," I, needless to say, fight defensiveness and the remorse that I feel every hour of every day and it's validating to hear your scientific explanation. I guess what I wanted to say is that during the period in the '90s when this mass panic began to abate, people started calling it the memory wars or the recovered memory wars. And there remains to this day a huge debate among scientists, brain scientists and among laypeople like me about whether repressed memory is real or unreal and et cetera, whether it's PTSD that people are suffering from, et cetera.
MARANAnd what I want to say, I guess, is that what really is important to me and I think to our culture is first and foremost, that we need to protect children from child sexual abuse. That's the first thing. Whether or not they remember their abuse in the future is secondary to prevention in the first place. And the other thing is that I think that one of the reasons I wrote the book is that I was astounded by my ability to become deluded and I am equally astounded by the ability of people I see around me today to become deluded about where President Obama was born, for example, or what religion he practices. And so I think one of the most important things for our culture, beyond the issue of memory and the science of memory, is really the ethic and the awareness that it takes for us to develop an ability to actually know what's true.
MCNALLYMm-hmm. Well, yeah, it's certainly the case that memory is a very fallible instrument. There was a very popular myth that the memory -- memory operates like a videotape machine, that all of our experiences are somehow encoded and stored in the brain like the instance of a tape, but that's not true. When we recall something, we reconstruct the elements of the memory that are distributed throughout the brain into a recollection, so memory doesn't operate like that and it is quite fallible. It plays tricks on us in many ways.
MARANSome of the scientists, if I can jump in, told me that when I was doing the research for the book and actually used the analogy of a book. They said that we used to think you'd put a memory on a shelf and you take it down and it's the same book that it was before. Whereas, in fact, memory operates more like a videotape or, you know, a disc that you can record over and over and over, as you say.
MCNALLYWell, yeah, my reference of the videotape analogy was the notion that it's infallible, but that when you recall something, it's like replaying the videotape...
MCNALLY...rather than recording over it. Yeah, it's really quite a reconstructive process.
KAYDr. Richard McNally, professor at the department -- director of clinical training at Harvard's department of psychology. Dr. McNally, thank you so much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."
MCNALLYThank you for having me.
KAYI want to get back a little bit to your story, Meredith. After you had told the family about what you thought had happened to you, you then decided to keep your children away from your father.
KAYWhat kind of impact did that have on your kids, what kind of impact did that have on your family?
MARANHorrible, horrific. And it is my greatest regret. You know, as much as I'm sad and remorseful for the pain that I caused my dad and my mother and my stepmother, I am responsible for my children and my niece and nephew, with whom I've always been very close, my brother's children. And the four of them were really devastated by this accusation in a way that will never be healed. They lost -- they had one living grandfather, all four of them. My niece and nephew continued to hang out with my father and his wife during the eight years that I was estranged from my dad. And the irony for me, of course, is that I actually thought I was keeping them safe. I thought my father was a child molester and there was no way I wanted my kids to be around him. And in the interest of keeping them safe, I did huge damage to their relationship with him and their relationships with their cousins.
KAYWhen you told your stepmother that you thought this had happened to you, she called you up and you met with her and she said, well, if this happened I have to divorce him because...
MARANThat -- yeah.
KAY...I cannot live with somebody who is a pedophile.
KAYAnd at that point you said, well, I think it happened.
MARANThere were certain -- I mean, that, that moment, which is described in the book, it was one of the most horrific moments. I think there -- I had this sense in part -- again, I'm walking that line between taking responsibility for what I did and attributing some of what I did to what was going on in the culture, but I think I had this sense that nothing I said was really being taken that seriously. And so when there were these moments of impact and that was one of the worst, I would suddenly realize, oh, my God, I said this thing, words came out of my mouth. There's no proof that it happened, there's no proof that it didn't happen and now my father's wife, who he was madly in love with and who was madly in love with him, was thinking of divorcing him and that really made me take a step back.
KAYAnd there was nobody in the professional sphere, in the therapy sphere at that point, who knew enough about recovered memory to say to you, hold on a second. The fact that you're not sure makes us think that we should go through certain steps to try and find out whether this was real or not.
MARANExactly. That's a very cogent way of putting it. Mostly people talk about it from the opposite point of view, that there were so many therapists. Many of my friends' therapists, my lover's therapist at the time were having women come in and say, God, I can't sleep or I'm having these weird dreams or I'm uncomfortable with sex and they would immediately suggest -- they were being trained and encouraged by the professional conferences they were going to to immediately suspect child sexual abuse and would begin exactly as the doctor described it, hypnosis. I myself was hypnotized at my own request by my therapist because I was so desperate for answers.
KAYLooking back and picking up on something that Dr. McNally said there, do you think that when this happened, when you decided you had been abused, you were at a particularly vulnerable time in your life...
KAY...when you were open to suggestion?
MARANYes. I think part of...
KAYWas that an important factor in this?
MARANYes. I think, you know, there are these two elements to it. There is this -- and I totally agree with Dr. McNally that it was a perfect storm in me, in the culture, in the other women that this happened to or who made this happen. There was a combination of a particular vulnerability in my relationship with my father. I had adored him as a child, we had gone to war when I was a teenager and then we had become very distant. He had moved to another country, married a woman I didn't know, et cetera and had just moved back to near where I live and so the issues between us that had been sort of buried all these years really came forward with a vengeance when he moved nearby.
KAYOkay. Joining us from her office in Washington, D.C. now, is Dr. Christine Courtois, she's a psychotherapist and the author of "Recollections of Sexual Abuse." Dr. Courtois, thank you very much for joining us. When you listen to what Meredith is saying and picking up on what Dr. McNally said earlier, wasn't there somebody in the therapy profession who should have seen red flags when she said, I'm not sure that this happened, but I think it did?
DR. CHRISTINE COURTOISWell, unfortunately, I'm at a bid of a disadvantage because I'm just joining the show directly coming out of a counseling center session and I haven't heard the descriptions that were given.
KAYWell, there were stages in which Meredith Maran thought that her father had sexually abused her when she was a child, but she couldn't remember a specific incident and she wasn't totally convinced. And I was -- had asked Meredith just a couple of minutes ago, were there -- why somebody in the therapy profession wouldn't have said, listen, if you're not sure, perhaps we need to investigate this further.
COURTOISI can't answer that except to say that I think some of the whole controversy was about people not taking that kind of cautious or conservative position enough.
KAYYou mean at that -- in that -- in the 1980s and 1990s?
COURTOISIn that time period, yes.
KAYWhat other particular sets of problems or symptoms that are recognized today that are associated with victims of childhood sex abuse?
COURTOISThere is a whole constellation of symptoms and part of the problem is that they're nonspecific, so there are any number of things that can be associated with a long-term reaction to having been sexually abused as a child. And I think that the therapist needs to be mindful and experienced in looking at those, but there's no one symptom picture that's going to say that this actually happened to someone. And that's a mistake that some therapists made, is to automatically make an assumption. But we look at a broad constellation, we do try to do a very careful assessment. Family functioning really plays in, historical factors and other factors play in, so it should be something that's very comprehensive and very carefully done usually over time.
KAYAnd what should people consider? When people who have been sexually abused or think they've been sexually abused and they are looking to talk to a therapist, what should they be looking for from their therapist?
COURTOISOkay. They should be looking for a therapist who has knowledge about past child sexual abuse and how it might express and who has experience and it's not the first case that they have dealt with and they should look for a therapist who is -- will assist them with self-exploration and tolerate that there's no certainty if there's not definitive documentation or witnessing or something like that. And a therapist needs to be neither suggestive nor suppressive of material that comes out. The therapist's job is to be quite balanced and to help the individual explore, but also, if there is a symptom picture and symptoms, to help resolve those symptoms and to help the individual stay functional.
KAYAre there certain clinical techniques which are particularly effective and others which are not?
COURTOISWell, the ones that are really counseled against are the use of hypnosis, in particular, for memory retrieval, per say. That has been debunked. There are a number of techniques that can be used generally with persons who have trauma histories and memories that can help them to process them to some point of resolution, but those techniques come into play later in the process rather than sooner in the process. And the more early technical factors are helping the person with their symptoms.
KAYOkay. Dr. Christine Courtois joining us from your office in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much. We're gonna take a quick break and then we will be opening the phones for more of our conversation with Meredith Maran.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Katy of the BBC sitting for Diane Rehm. You've joined my conversation with Meredith Maran, she is the author of "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory." We're going to go to the phones now, the number here is 1-800-433-8850. Do join us if you have any questions or comments on false memories. I'm going to Steve in Cambridge, Mass. Steve, thank you so much for joining "The Diane Rehm Show."
STEVEThank you. Good morning.
STEVEMeredith, you were convinced that you were deluded then.
MARANI am now...
STEVEHow do I know...
MARAN...I am now convinced that I was deluded then.
STEVECorrect. How do we know that you aren't deluded now and correct then?
KAYBut you are convinced that it was not true?
MARANI am convinced.
KAYBut if you were convinced before that it was true...
MARANIt's a very valid...yes.
KAY(unintelligible) Steve's question is how do we know which is the real conviction?
MARANVery valid question and I can only say that, you know, it's up to each of us to know our truths and if you read the book, you'll see it was a very thorough investigation.
KAYLet's go to Michael in Durham, N.C. Michael, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
MICHAELUnderstanding the need to be succinct, I only say it by way of background that my daughter and I were both victimized in the 1980s in a custody litigation which Ms. Maran will understand is a very special circumstance...
MICHAEL...in common and although seven years of litigation and perseverance got me exonerated, my daughter was convinced by her family to believe a falsehood. After 20 years plus now, I'm fighting very hard with my emotions to just ask you this question. It's sort of a selfish one, but you'll understand. How do I come to terms after all these years and I still haven't with the reality that -- of the harm that was done to my daughter and her lost relationship with her father and the lost relationship that I had, but so much more than a lost relationship, the harm that was caused that I try to live with every day?
MARANFirst I just wanna say how very sorry I am that you are going through this. I can't pretend to understand. I'm not the father in this situation, but I definitely hear your suffering and I'm really sorry. And I notice when you speak, you talk about what was done to your daughter and you don't speak first about what was done to you and that tells me that you are a very loving father and all I can say is that time is on your side. I was 45 years old when I realized what was true and reconciled with my father. And the truth -- you know, I do believe the truth will win out and the best thing you can do for your daughter is let her know at once that you love her, you'll never give up on her and you know that the accusation is not true.
KAYMeredith, when you went back to your father...
KAY...and said, actually it was a lie...
KAY...that it was a false memory, what was his reaction?
MARANHis initial reaction was to reconcile with me on the condition that we never talked about it again. And for 10 years, we didn't.
MARANAnd then when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and had had some heart incidents, I realized it was now or never and I spoke with his wife, who also felt that for his sake it was better for him to have some resolution about this before he lost his memory. And she convinced him to have a conversation with me, which I recount in the book.
KAYAnd when you listened to Michael there...
KAY...and he's clearly...
KAY...still in incredible pain...
KAY...from what has happened to him...
KAY...and the alienation he's had from his daughter and what happened to his daughter...
KAY...is that what your father went through when you were alienated from him, do you think?
MARANMy father was completely baffled, as he said to me. He's a very funny guy. And as he said to me when we did have this conversation, I was more likely to bat for Barry Bonds for the Giants the next day than I was to have done that to my daughter. So he was just baffled and he did go through different phases over the eight years we didn't speak. At one point, he cut me out of the will. At one point, he considered suing me for deformation of character. And then at one point, I think the Alzheimer's was probably setting in at this point because he had a plan that he tells me about in the book, which is that he will just not call me for years and I'll forget I have a father and then he'll call me and the element of surprise will make me apologize. I said, Dad, I'm never -- I never would've forgotten I had a father.
KAYAnd what about your sons? What's their relationship now with their grandfather?
MARANWell, certainly, it's better than it was, but they were, you know, they were in their mid to late teens by the time we reconciled and that's really -- that's where I feel the kind of grief that the caller was just expressing, except the grief was caused by me.
KAYLet's go to Ann in Falls Church, Va. Ann, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNHi, thank you for taking my call.
KAYYou're very welcome.
ANNI'm finding this whole topic incredibly upsetting, because, first of all, I'm, you know, listening to all this and hearing that Ms. Maran, you know, has dealt with all these women who had childhood sexual abuse and it seems like that the overlying message is you can't trust people's memory with that.
ANN...and I don't -- really don't appreciate that. I really feel -- my heart is beating with all the other people, women or men, that have experienced childhood sexual abuse and I'm finding -- I've had a very -- I'm 44 years old and I am finding -- and to this day, I feel like I still have to deal with everything that happened to me as a child with incest. And I'm finding that you're presenting this and the way that you're presenting it is very much subverting against the things that have happened to me and I'm surprised that you're not talking more -- and are not talking more about -- you've dealt with so many people that have had these experiences, but yet all I'm hearing you say is your experience with, you know, what you call your lie, but there are a lot of people that it's not a lie to and that the abuse -- and it's real, you know. This -- the reason why these things don't come out is because it's hard. It can ruin your life. I mean, I have struggled with this so long and I'm just finding you presenting it in this way, you, someone who's has talked to these people and know real stories, you know, you're subverting this and I just wonder if you're realizing how much damage you might be causing doing this. Instead of keeping this a personal thing for yourself, you're taking -- you're using it -- this umbrella of childhood sexual abuse to talk about, you know, false memory and I just find that really disturbing.
KAYOkay. Ann, I'm gonna put those comments -- and I'm so sorry for clearly the pain that you have gone through and that you are still struggling with.
MARANYes. And me, too, Ann. And, you know, I completely understand how you're responding. And the greatest danger that I feel I face with publishing this book is that it will injure in any way not only adult survivors like you, but the efforts that I was part of in the '80s to bring to light the -- you know, the prevalence of child sexual abuse and in the book itself, I hope that if you're able to read it, that you will come away feeling that I put those stories of my early reporting on true sexual abuse in the book and it takes up quite a bit of space in the book precisely for that reason, because I don't wanna be misinterpreted to say that that issue of child sexual abuse, it definitely needs more attention. And, you know, the issue really isn't statistically how often it happens because as far as I'm concerned, if one child is sexually abused, that's one child too many and we need to be addressing it as a culture.
KAYThis -- Ann really gets to the dilemma that we face...
KAY...when a child says that they've been sexually abused or an adult says that they were sexually abused as a child, of how to make sure we protect the children...
KAY...whilst at the time -- same time making sure that people who are innocent and falsely accused don't end up suffering and going to jail because of it.
MARANYes. And one of the things that came out of this extreme reaction to child sexual abuse was the good touch, bad touch and so on training that children get now in the elementary schools because of this. I think there's two answers to this. One -- one good thing that a therapist did say to me during this time was whether your father molested you or not, incest allegations do not arise in healthy families. And so any child who is going to an adult and saying he or she was sexually abused, something needs attention there and what's needed is our trained professionals, as the doctor mentioned, several people mentioned, who actually know how to do this investigation in a way that is not in itself harmful to the child and can actually get at the heart of the matter, but there is never a case where a child is saying to some adult, I'm hurt in any way that it should be ignored.
KAYDo we have any idea, Meredith, from that period in the 1980s how many people who were falsely accused went to jail?
MARANHundreds. Hundreds that I know of and I -- you know, again, I say I know. Everything that I say today and for the rest of my life after having gone through this is, in my mind, questionable. What I believe right now is that there are about 25 people in prison today who are falsely accused of sexual abuse and there is an organization that's working on their cases specifically to try and free them.
KAYOkay. Let's go to Elizabeth in Michigan. Elizabeth, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show." Elizabeth?
ELIZABETHI'm calling because I had memories come forth when I was in counseling, but they didn't come forth 'til my father was dying. Anyway, all the evidence that -- and I can -- I can really say the counselor didn't put these ideas in my head. And my family agrees. My father almost admitted it in saying that he had done something like that, but I still have a hard time believing it myself. And so this show is kind of very nerve racking to me, too, because I try to believe it and yet, I'm not positive.
MARANI'm really sorry. Believe me, I understand how unsettling it is to be uncertain about this. That's part of why my accusation burst forth because sitting with that kind of uncertainty is really exhausting and devastating and I do understand that. I guess I would suggest to you that you ask yourself the question, what would be different in your life if you knew that it did happen and what would be different if you knew that it didn't. Because at a certain point in life, we do go on and we get the tools that we need to go on with whatever our particular suffering is.
KAYWhat does neuroscience now tell us, what are we, 20 years later? Have there been any developments that neuroscience can tell us about how so many people could've been so sure that they were right when, in fact, they were so wrong?
MARANWell, yeah, in part of my investigation when I was writing the book was to go to neuroscientists and ask the question, if I came to you today with the uncertainty that I had in 1988, would you be able to put me into a machine and tell me, yes, it happened, no, it didn't? And I know that lie detection technology has advanced quite a bit and they use FMRI machines and so on to track the amount of blood to the brain when one lies and all that, but the bottom line is the answer is no. They can't -- they can only tell if your physiology seems to be indicating a higher level of stress. They can't -- they can't -- there's no technology for identifying a lie.
KAYI'm Katty Kay, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, please do call 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number or send us an e-mail to email@example.com. Christine writes to us from Cleveland, Ohio, "I wonder how much of the Roman Catholic priest abuse scandal is actually another aspect of the false memory syndrome." Do you know anything about that, Meredith?
MARANI've been asked that a lot and I actually spoke with several survivors of -- or people who say they are survivors of church abuse and what I will say for myself, having really worked on the question, how do I know what's true, I also have developed an instinct for people who are telling the truth when I hear their stories. And I'll say that the two men I talked to, who say that they were abused by priests in their childhoods, were experiencing such feelings of betrayal and grief that I had no question that that was true. Is it also true that this is a case of follow the money? Yes, absolutely. We live in a society where people are looking for ways to make any easy buck and I do believe there are people filing charges for that reason.
KAYLet's go to Barbara who join us from southwestern New Hampshire. Barbara, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
BARBARAYes. I felt so very sorry hearing these stories. I was in "a therapy" and I use that with air quotes, in the '80s with a therapist who then eventually formed a group with six or seven other women. The group went on for many years. And through the '80s, I'd say that about five out of seven of us began to believe that we were incested by our fathers. And the way that this was reinforced with going to the therapist, we would -- you know, some of the parts -- some of the things that we would do were drawings or dream analysis and say if I went to the therapist with a drawing that had a phallic part of the drawing, it'd be like, mm, incest, mm, incest.
BARBARAAnd so then I would -- with my dreams, mm, incest. You know, or maybe I would say, do you think it could be incest? And she'd go, mm-hmm. Then I would go back to the group with my drawings and my dreams and say, I think I was incested because and then they would give me feedback and say, well, I always felt like you were incested, too, I wondered. And then, you know, eventually, it felt like, you know, four or five out of the seven felt like we were incested. So now my father had died, so -- but I wasn't incested and I just feel that it was part of the therapist pushing me to feel like I was. And if I were to say, why, you know, did I want to believe this? Because I felt like that, you know, I was in therapy, obviously, 'cause I was struggling with some things. I thought, well, maybe this would be if I was incested, this was the reason why I was struggling and all my problems would fall away, so...
KAYDo you think that what Barbara is saying there describes, really, in a nutshell almost what happened on a big scale during the 1980s?
KAYAnd do you feel angry when you hear that description of the therapist prompting people to believe...
KAY...something that didn't happen that was very damaging for families?
MARANDespite my intense critique of the therapeutic industry during this time, therapists are people, too. And some of my best friends are therapists. And I actually -- for the book, I actually went back and spoke to some of the therapists I had seen during that time and it was like going behind the curtain with the wizard of Oz. And one therapist in particular said that she would go to these conferences -- therapy conferences and there was such pressure on the therapist that this is what you should be looking for. And if a woman comes in and has these symptoms, you should dig and dig and dig and help them recover these memories. And so I believe that their intentions, for the most part, were good. The lawyers, who were making millions of dollars from lawsuits against fathers and therapists and so on, not so much.
KAYMeredith Maran is a journalist and author, her book is "My Lie: A True Story of False Memory." Meredith Maran, thank you very much for joining me here in the studio.
MARANThanks for this wonderful interview.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC, I've been sitting in for Diane Rehm. And thank you all so much for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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