'I falsely accused my father of abuse'

Aine Nugent talks to Meredith Maran about coming to terms with her terrible false memory and its devastating effect on her family

Aine Nugent

'You look funny,' my dad said as I approached him. He looked me up and down. Did you always dress like that?'

"Why did I wear a clinging top to talk to my father about incest?, I asked myself."

This is how journalist Meredith Maran described the meeting, in 1988, when she accused her father of molesting her. After that, she cut off all ties: she didn't see him for eight years, and she didn't let her children see him either.

But then the sickening truth dawned -- she realised her memory had played the cruellest of tricks and that the accusation that tore her family apart and caused untold hurt was completely false.

Her book, 'My Lie', tells the heartbreaking story of a daughter who accused her own father of the worst betrayal possible and her later attempt to put the record straight before it was too late.

She remembers the turning point well. Her father had a heart attack and she knew it was then or never. "I considered showing up on his doorstep, but I was afraid he'd turn me away," she told 'Weekend'. "Instead, I sent a card. He replied, saying he was ready to see me.

"He was greyer than I remembered. Every time I tried to talk about what had happened, he changed the subject. We spent the afternoon, and the next several years, that way: no questions answered, no questions asked. And then, just when I'd fully regained my mind, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and began to lose his.

"I was left with two options. I could hope he'd forget the wrong I'd done him, along with the other details slipping through the fissures in his brain. Or I could convince him to have a conversation with me about what I'd done and why I'd done it -- and how sorry I was."

But how is it possible to recall such terrible acts if they never actually occurred?

"It's important to say that I never had a memory of being abused. I had dreams, suspicions and symptoms that seemed to add up, to me, to abuse," Maran says.

At the time, in the early 1980s, she was working as a reporter doing research on child sexual abuse, interviewing abusers in prison and their victims. It immersed her in a dark world and led her to connect dots that would otherwise have remained unjoined.

"'The Feminist' had uncovered information which suggested that up to one in three American women had been abused in childhood. This was startling to me -- up from something like the one in a million which we all believed at the time. I became an evangelist for the cause."

Maran admits now that neither statistic is accurate, but the hype surrounding the issue was reaching its zenith at the time.

"With feminist academia expanding, there were widely held beliefs about abuse. My background was as an activist -- at 15, I had put out a newspaper in high school against the Vietnam War. During the research on abuse, I saw many men who led respectable lives in other ways, just like my father. Abuse became the one-word explanation of misogyny at the time."

Maran's 'realisation' that she had been abused didn't come overnight.

"My father had been absent and distant from us for much of my life. He was one of the original 'Mad Men' -- working in advertising, and in many ways like any father of the 1950s -- he went to work in the morning, came home in the evening and ruled the roost. He had moved away and remarried, so geographically or emotionally we weren't close, although we had a great relationship when I was younger. He moved back to the Bay area [of California] about one or two years before we had our falling out."

The 'falling out' was initially due to Maran's latent coming out after a conventional marriage which had produced two sons. "We had a big fight on the phone. I had become involved with a woman and she was uninvited to a family event. He was unhappy I was in a homosexual relationship, but really he had forbidden me from seeing every boyfriend when I was growing up. Now I was 37, and it's the same stuff. It sparked our estrangement and, in my head, I was able to craft him as a monster."

Aiding and abetting the fermenting anger was her work. "I was bound up in editing and researching books on child abuse. I spent two years following a family, which I talk about in the book, through treatment."

Sitting in on therapy sessions with abusers, they began to ask Maran why she was there. "The inference was that it was possibly because I had been abused myself."

She was teaching a women's writing class where, she claims, "nearly every student was writing an unpublishable sexual-abuse memoir". She was, in her own words, "living on Planet Incest".

She even kept an "Incest Journal" -- recordings of memories that would add up to her false beliefs later.

"I remembered my father and I going to a horse race in another State. We were both horsey people. I can't recall what happened, but he pretended to be drunk after dinner and we went back to the hotel together. That sort of thing made me wonder."

A "wave of relief" washed over her when she "realised" she had been abused, although she was horrified.

In researching her book, Maran spoke with psychiatrists who explained that the brain is pre-programmed to seek certainty. "There's a release of dopamine when we feel sure of something."

Even something so dreadful?

"Yes, it helped me understand after being in therapy, and five years of being tortured on an hourly basis, so there was a relief when I came to a conclusion."

With the world beginning to sit up and take notice of feminist issues, it added fuel to Maran's smouldering fire. "Things like domestic violence and marital rape were getting publicity. It showed us what men were capable of doing in an era when women were not emancipated."

During the early 1980s, one particular case sparked huge controversy in the States. A Californian kindergarten school run by the McMartin family was accused of operating a paedophile ring after a child came home from school with an unusual rash on his genitals.

Parents became convinced of a conspiracy involving satanic ritual. It caused outrage, sparking the longest and most expensive trial in the state, before those accused were found to be innocent -- but not after some had spent time in prison.

Conspiracy theories interest Maran and she uses the book as a wider platform to explore the phenomenon.

"Lies, fear-mongering and propaganda show the relationship between the personal and political -- one becomes the other. The book's purpose isn't just my story, it's an attempt to explore the ways people come to believe things that aren't true."

But isn't it a leap to accuse a parent of the worst crime imaginable without even a coherent memory on which to base it? "My mother didn't believe the story," says Maran, "although I thought she did. She really tried to believe me and we disagree now on the memory of it. We already had a difficult relationship and it didn't help."

The relationship remains strained to this day, although Maran says they "work hard at making it better".

Her apology to her father came after eight years apart. She thinks now that the accusation wouldn't have happened if he had been a better father. He, in turn, acknowledged his shortcomings and told her, for the first time, that he loved her.

Maran realised then with a shock that it had actually been easier to believe her father abused her than that he loved her. With her father 82 now, and his health failing, they are getting on better than before.

'My Lie: A True Story of False Memory' is published by John Wiley & Sons