Meredith Maran on the 80s’ Sexual Abuse Hysteria: ‘I’m Glad it Happened’

As much as Meredith Maran comes off as utterly sincere about the revelations of her own personal journey from observer of the 80’s hysteria about child sexual molestation, to active participant in that hysteria, and finally to her confession that hers was all a lie, there’s a lot that doesn’t ring true. Does she truly see the errors of her ways or would she do something similar again if the chance came her way?

Let’s be clear; Maran is unequivocal in her self-denunciation. She clearly repudiates her accusation that her father sexually molested her. She doesn’t just say she was wrong; she says she lied. That must mean that she had access to the truth, but chose to ignore it and say something she knew not to be true. So Meredith Maran isn’t pulling her punches.

And she seems truly remorseful about falsely accusing her dad. She seems to understand that what she did was wrong, hurtful and destructive both of him and his reputation, but as well of her relationship with him and her family generally.

Beyond that, her book, “My Lie: A True Story of False Memory,” is not just an exercise in self-promotion of the “it happened to me, therefore it must be important” type that’s become all too prevalent. On the contrary, based on her interview with here, she’s got something important to say (, 9/20/10). It is that mass movements, even if they’re based on lies (perhaps especially if they are), can act on vulnerable personalities to “breed demons.” It’s a cautionary tale and one we would all do well to heed, particularly in a country whose “paranoid style” has been the book-length subject of an eminent historian.

And yet, reading her interview, I wasn’t convinced that Meredith Maran understands. I’m not convinced that her interviewer understands. It’s not just the Freudian slips in which the interviewer not once but twice refers to Maran’s molestation (there was none) or that Maran fails to correct him. It’s not just the fact that Maran portrays herself as passive, a leaf in the wind. In the 80s, the fad among certain women was to see yourself as having been sexually abused by your father whether or not you had been, and Maran fell in with the crowd. And then,

In the early 1990s the culture flipped, and so did I. Across the country, falsely accused fathers were suing their daughters’ incest therapists. Falsely accused molesters were being freed from jail — and I realized that my accusation was false.

(Note the phrasing: “falsely accused molesters,” and understand that, if they’re falsely accused, they can’t be molesters. A Freudian slip of her own.)

As important as it is to understand the effects popular culture can have on people in their basic comprehensions of themselves, which Maran at least takes a stab at, it’s also important to understand the self who responds, or doesn’t, to those influences. Maran describes the sexual abuse hysteria as “the dominant paradigm,” but it was nothing of the kind. Significant as it was, ballyhooed as it was by the media, it actually affected only a tiny percentage of Americans. The only thing dominant about it was its effect on certain individuals of whom Maran was one. For reasons unknown to me, the abuse craze had a unique appeal to Maran and many others. She was one who responded to it. Most did not.

Why? What was it about Meredith Maran that caused her to say “yes” to the big lie of sexual abuse by her father? Did she need the attention? What made her actively avoid the truth by refusing to confront her father? What character traits made her a witch hunter?

Answers to those questions are not even hinted at in her interview. And yet, if she’s to help others see themselves in her and stop themselves before they ruin an innocent man’s life, she’s bound to explore them. Her theory of herself as helplessly battered by every ill wind is too facile by half. It elides more than it reveals.

And that’s important when we consider what comes next, which will stop most readers dead in their tracks. Looking back at the time of the mass hysteria, Maran says,

In the book there’s a conversation with a friend of mine who says very clearly, there were excesses, there were heartbreaks, there were tragedies in terms of our families. But at the same time, when you look at the overall impact on the world, I’m glad it happened.

Later, asked by the interviewer what she would think “if one innocent man goes to prison if it stops a hundred molesters.” She replies,

I’m fairly close to a man still in prison, and really believe he is innocent. I know how he’s suffered. I know he’s 80 years old and in ill health. He’s spent 20 years in prison, for no reason. If every elementary school child is now taught how to protect themselves from sexual abuse — and even more to the point, some father or preschool teacher who feels the urge to molest a child will be inhibited from doing so because they think there are guys still in jail for doing that — but innocent people are in prison, do I have to make that choice? It is a Sophie’s choice kind of thing. Would I allow an innocent man to sit in prison if it meant keeping children safe?

Pressed by the interviewer to say whether she would make that choice, Maran says,

I think so.

Really? What if the innocent man were her father? What if he were her son? The interviewer doesn’t ask those questions and the fact that every innocent man in prison is someone’s son seems not to occur to Maran.

But apart from what tugs at the heartstrings, the fact that Maran “is glad it happened,” and still harbors the notion that the sacrifice of innocent men to an admittedly just cause (the protection of children) is appropriate frankly gives the lie to her professions of remorse. Yes, she’s unhappy that she hurt someone close to her, but as long as the man isn’t too close or indeed is entirely unknown to her then sending him to prison for a crime he didn’t commit is perfectly fine with her.

It’s the age-old problem of unseen consequences. Kings and presidents who never see the carnage more readily send young men to war. It’s why President Bush, and apparently President Obama, have prohibited the photographing of the caskets of U.S. military dead returning from overseas. If the public doesn’t see the consequences of policy, it won’t worry as much about the policy itself.

Nor does Maran quite grasp one of the cornerstones of judicial wisdom – that it is better that ten guilty people go free than for one innocent one to be jailed. The reasons for that are many, but the main one is that we place a higher value on individual liberty and restrictions on state power than we do on whatever dubious deterrent effect jailing the innocent may have on the guilty. And it is that key value judgment that Maran fails to grasp or apparently even consider. She plumps for fascism in which the welfare of the state and the majority always trumps the rights of the individual.

Finally, discussing “The Courage to Heal,” the handbook of the sexual abuse hysteria, Maran says,

The movement that created that book doesn’t exist anymore.

Hmm. Maybe not in its extreme 80s form, but in other, less sensationalist ways it certainly does. Just ask Tonya Craft, the kindergarten teacher who just spent two years of her life and half a million dollars defending false allegations of child sexual abuse. For that matter, just ask the countless fathers whose wives have discovered for the first time in divorce court that their children have been abused. Family lawyers across the country tell us that allegations of physical and sexual abuse for the sole purpose of gaining the upper hand in custody battles are rampant. Does Maran not know about that?

Perhaps she does and simply feels that if one innocent father loses his children because of the lies of his ex, it’s all worth it because other dads will hesitate to abuse their children. Perhaps if a thousand do, or a million, then so much the better.

But whether or not the extreme craziness of the 80s is with us today, false allegations of everything from “economic abuse” to rape are common and actively promoted by the press and gender feminists. What Maran tells us is that there are plenty of people who can be counted on to respond to the public hysteria about those things with false allegations of their own. In that way, the ball will keep moving down the field and Maran, for all her pretensions to being a new woman, will make no move to stop it. She’ll be on the sidelines nodding approval, secure in her own redemption, happy in the knowledge that, after all, it’s for the children’s sake.

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