The Rumpus Interview With Meredith Maran

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Meredith Maran published her first poem in Highlights For Kids at age six, her first national magazine article at age fifteen, and her first book at age eighteen. In the years that followed she built a house and raised goats outside Taos, lived with the cast of Hair in London, and installed brakes and union consciousness on the Ford assembly line in San Jose.

During the 1980s and 1990s, a sex-abuse panic spread across the country, beginning with the infamous McMartin preschool trial. Tens of thousands of Americans became convinced that they’d repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, and then recovered those memories in therapy. Maran was among them. She accused her father of sexual abuse and then eight years later she realized that he was innocent. Her new book My Lie: A True Story of False Memory is a raw and self-revealing account of the events of those years and the outcomes for her family and herself.

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The Rumpus: Firstly, I’d like to know—what do you most want to be asked about this book?

Meredith Maran: The connection between the brainwashing of Meredith Maran and the brainwashing of the American public. I started working on the book when the 2008 presidential campaign was unfolding. Even before the Birthers we were hearing about Obama being a socialist and palling around with terrorists. So the book’s greatest import, in my mind, is to examine where beliefs come from and how dangerous it is to manipulate the public consciousness for political, material or religious goals.

Rumpus: You did a good job of conveying, in My Lie, how the media hysteria ramped up and took hold of the public’s imagination. It seems clear from your book that the field of therapy and also the feminist movement of the time were driving forces behind that momentum. What are your feelings about both now?

Maran: I was a therapy consumer for the greater portion of my life. My parents took me to a psychiatrist at four or five and again at thirteen. I went against my will these first few times, then took a break until my marital, monogamy, motherhood, mortgage years. I never missed it. But then when my marriage was falling apart and I wanted to do something about it, the resources were very limited. We don’t have wise village elders or shamen—or even really good drugs. We just have one thing, and that’s therapy. Obviously, I think wounds that are drained heal better then ones that aren’t. But we have very little, as a culture, to avail ourselves of when something goes wrong.

So, that’s a way of saying that I hope never to go to therapy again. I have had personal challenges, relationship challenges since I quit therapy, but none of them has quite driven me round the therapeutic bend just yet.

Rumpus: And you also implicate the feminist movement of the day.

Maran: Definitely. But it’s not a ‘they’ I blame; it’s a ‘we’. In the early ‘80s I edited a book for a feminist researcher whose study showed that one in three American women had been sexually abused in childhood. After that, I felt like a missionary—an evangelist shining a light on the truth about incest. So, I am fully responsible for the feminist piece of it and the journalistic piece of it.

Most of the feminists had been in the anti-domestic violence and Take Back The Night movements. And where would we be without that? Well, we’d be a lot more raped on campuses and more women would be dying from domestic violence. So that was a good thing. I know very few social movements that have ever gone from A to Z without a big mess of excess in between, and I think that’s a lot of what this was. I’m very glad that my kids got, ‘if anybody does anything to you that doesn’t feel good, tell somebody’ training in school. I’m glad my sons know that it’s not ok to have orgasms and not care if the woman they are having sex with is having one (or more) also. All these things came out of the feminist movement. And I think that the net effect of the whole mass panic was that we saved a lot of lives, and a lot of kids who wouldn’t have been believed were being believed. So, it’s that messy grey area: it’s not satisfyingly right or wrong.

Rumpus: The achievements of the feminist movement of that era were incredibly important. And yet, it lost its way quite dramatically over this issue of recovered memory and child sex abuse.

Maran: I was a feminist in Berkeley in the early 70s and then became a Marxist-Leninist factory organizer in the mid 70s. I worked at the Berkeley Womens’ Health Collective and the Berkeley-Oakland Womens’ Union, and vibe was definitely ‘us against them’. In the anti child sexual abuse movement, in the beginning, I was surrounded by people who felt very isolated – the researchers, professors, therapists who were sounding a warning but no one believed us. It added fuel to the fire of our evangelism. This is the essence of fundamentalism: when you set yourself up in this dynamic—where only you and your colleagues know the ‘truth’— that is some dangerous shit.

Rumpus: On a more personal level, in the book you very publicly about-face on these very strong convictions that you had. You speak candidly about the repercussions for your family. You don’t spare yourself or your public image. I wanted to acknowledge your humility and willingness to put it all out there.

Maran: Well, before we make me a hero… I interviewed a lot of people who had been falsely accused back then and almost universally they told me that I needed to understand that I was a victim of this too and not to be so hard on myself. I appreciate the generosity in that but I reject the argument. I’m a big girl, and as an activist I can’t have it both ways. I can’t say that each of us has to make our own decisions about what we believe is right and wrong and act on them—and then say “Oh, I was a victim of mass hysteria.”

Rumpus: But you’re human, Meredith. You even mention the Salem witch hunts in the beginning of your book, so you obviously understand the power of mass hysteria.

Maran: Right, and when I ask myself ‘how did this happen to me and to so many other people?’ I have to find a balance between taking responsibility and making clear what I’ve always tried to get across in my work: that the personal is political, the political is personal and that nothing happens in a vacuum.

If there had been nothing in the news, if my friends, my lover, pretty much everyone I knew wasn’t on the same hunt, if there wasn’t a huge incest recovery industry all around me that was profiting in many ways, some of it very well intentioned; some not so much, would I have accused my father? I think the answer is no. At the same time, if I were as strong a person, as independent and critical a thinker as I’ve always liked to believe I am, could I have been convinced for eight years that something that never happened to me, happened? I don’t think so.

Rumpus: Your entire community created a structure that made it too easy for you to believe what you did.

Maran: I think it takes a perfect storm. And there were a lot of thirty-something, middle class, mostly white, well-educated women running around with a very similar perfect storm waiting to happen. They were schooled in feminism: they understood their childhoods to be steeped in misogyny and that their mothers didn’t have the lives that they wanted. They knew that their fathers had taken power from them, denied them the education their brothers got, or dismissed them or flirted with them—whatever form that misogyny took. We were psychological powder kegs waiting to explode—and feminism lit a match. But that doesn’t absolve me. I wont speak for anyone else, but for me it was a very simple diagnosis of a very complicated problem. And where human beings are concerned, unfortunately, simplicity rarely cuts it.


Alison is originally from London but now delights in calling San Francisco home. Back in the old country, Alison edited a poetry fanzine and promoted a variety of spoken word events. Since then she has collaborated on satirical sketches, short plays and performance art. She writes poetry and creative non-fiction and is currently pursuing a creative writing MFA. More from this author →