Girl Talk: I Recovered A Repressed Memory Of Abuse

At age 37, while working as an incest writer and researcher, Meredith Maran accused her father of molesting her. Based on a combination of “symptoms” like depression and guilt and disturbing incest dreams, the accusation would ignite an estrangement that kept her children from spending time with their grandfather for the next eight years.

Ten years later, she retracted those claims, confessing that she’d been caught up in the whirlwind of repressed memory fever that overtook the nation in the ’80s and ’90s. These experiences are outlined in her new memoir, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, released this month. When I received a review copy of the book, which was being called “fearless” and “brave” in the back cover blurbs, I cracked its cover with some trepidation, because I had also recovered a memory of childhood abuse.

The difference is that my memory is true.

No matter how many psychiatrists told me that repression is a common response to experiences too traumatic to process, it was hard for me to understand how my brain could have tricked me so thoroughly.

In 1997, at age 14, I was the victim of an assault. The perpetrators were a group of older boys (ranging from 16 to 21) that I considered my friends. My equally precocious friend Courtney and I spent unsupervised time after school with the motley crew of oft-unemployed dropouts and losers, playing “Vampire: The Masquerade” and smoking weed. One day, we were messing around with a pair of handcuffs when the dynamic suddenly changed.

They locked my arms behind my back and stripped my clothes off, before forcing me to perform oral sex on a group member. The ringleader spoke to me in a sadistic manner, telling me I deserved what I got and threatening to burn me with cigarettes. I eventually managed to escape by begging and explaining that we’d all be in trouble if I wasn’t home when my parents got there. It was an experience that should have been horrifying, except that whole thing was immediately submerged somewhere in the recesses of my memory, where things too traumatic to be remembered are stored.

Of course, the event didn’t disappear completely. It continued to wreak havoc from my subconscious, playing at least some part in the promiscuity, extreme weight gain, and alcohol and drug abuse that would define the rest of my teenage years. But it wasn’t until several years later that the memory bobbed back up all at once into my conscious mind.

Although I didn’t doubt that it had happened, having such an upsetting memory pop up seemingly out of the ether is confusing. As I have since learned is common, there were gaps, seeming inaccuracies, and hazy sections that I had trouble making sense of. And no matter how many psychiatrists told me that repression is a common response to experiences too traumatic to process, it was hard for me to understand how my brain could have tricked me so thoroughly. And it’s difficult for others to understand as well, hence the ongoing controversy surrounding the veracity of repressed and recovered memories.

So when I heard about Maran’s book, I was afraid that her story would only reinforce what feels to me like a prevailing skepticism about repressed memories. People seem to intuitively feel the same way as prominent psychologist and memory expert James McGaugh, who Maran quotes, that “strong emotional experiences leave emotionally strong memories.”

But the human memory works in funny ways; ask any crime victim or survivor of a natural disaster about their memories of the traumatic event and you’ll find that they often have a distorted sense of the duration and order of events — time seems to speed up or slow down and memory jumps around or focuses in on small details in exclusion of the big picture. The brain does what it needs to in order to survive and function long enough to get us safely through the trauma.

I don’t begrudge Maran the telling of her truth. I believe that her story is a valuable one and she had a right to tell it. In the case of the sometimes-absurd and life-ruining “recovered memories” that daycare practitioners all over the country were participating in ritual satanic sexual abuse, that right may even have been a responsibility. But her book turns the corner into irresponsibility when she uses her story as evidence against the existence of recovered memories, anywhere, for anyone.

Maran doesn’t just denounce her own recovered memory, she trots out a series of experts and anti-recovered-memory activists to denounce the phenomenon. She quotes a 2007 news article saying, “A team of psychiatrists and literary scholars reports that it could not find a single account of repressed memory, fictional or not, before the year 1800,” and McGaugh claiming, “I haven’t seen a single instance in which a memory was completely repressed and popped up again.”

What I experienced was nothing like what Maran describes. My recovered memory was specific and detailed, not a bad feeling or indefinable sense that something is wrong. I was a young adolescent, not a young child, when the event in question happened and it didn’t involve any family members. And my memory came back within a few years, not a few decades. But as the quotes against repression stacked up in the book’s final chapters, even I began to doubt myself. Surely all those experts knew more on the topic than one little girl who had been hurt so badly that her brain shut down?

Luckily, I was able to independently verify my memories through one of the perpetrators who bravely agreed to speak with me and share what he recalled of that day. (He even verified details that I had always assumed had to be inaccurate, like the fact that we were in a warehouse space when the incident happened.) But I can only imagine such a confession is rare – will Maran’s book make an already cripplingly difficult situation even more distressing for others with true repressed memories?

It was brave of Maran to tell this story, but it was cowardly of her to let her own experience dictate what’s possible. There are experts on both sides of the so-called “memory wars,” and in telling such a potentially controversial and harmful tale, she should have gone out of her way to represent them. Instead, her conclusion seems to be, “If it didn’t happen to me, it doesn’t happen,” an untruth that in my opinion is just as potentially damaging as a false accusation.

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