Be Careful What You Believe

In 1988, while in therapy, the journalist and feminist author Meredith Maran came to a startling realization: her father had sexually abused her as a child. It was a shock to her, a repressed memory she had spent most of her adult life oblivious to. But at the age of thirty-seven, she confronted her father and also told her family what had happened.

Meredith’s news horrified her entire family. Her father immediately denied having done anything. Some family members sided with Meredith. Others sided with her father. The family tree was split in two. And the pain that had defined Meredith’s relationship with her father since long before her accusation now spread like a mold across its branches. It tore everyone apart.

Then, in 1996, Meredith came to another startling realization: her father actually hadn’t sexually abused her. (I know: oops.) She, with the help of a well-intentioned therapist, had actually invented the memory. Consumed by guilt, she spent the rest of her father’s life attempting to reconcile with him and other family members through constant apologizing and explaining. But it was too late. Her father passed away and her family would never be the same.

It turned out Meredith wasn’t alone. As she describes in her autobiography, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, throughout the 1980s, many women accused male family members of sexual abuse only to turn around and recant years later. Similarly, there was a whole swath of people who claimed during that same decade that there were satanic cults abusing children, yet despite police investigations in dozens of cities, police never found any evidence of the crazy practices described.

Why were people suddenly inventing memories of horrible abuse in families and cults? And why was it all happening then, in the 1980s?

Ever play the telephone game as a kid? You know, you say something in one person’s ear and it gets passed through like ten people, and what the last person hears is completely unrelated to what you started with? That’s basically how our memories work.

We experience something. Then we remember it slightly differently a few days later, as if it had been whispered and misheard. Then we tell somebody about it and have to fill in a couple of the plot holes with our own embellishments to make sure everything makes sense and we’re not crazy. And then we come to believe those little filled-in mental gaps, and so we tell those the next time too. Except they’re not real, so we get them a little bit wrong. And we’re drunk one night a year later when we tell the story, so we embellish it a little bit more—okay, let’s be honest, we completely make up about one-third of it. But when we’re sober the next week, we don’t want to admit that we’re a big fat liar, so we go along with the revised and newly expanded drunkard version of our story. And five years later, our absolutely, swear-to-god, swear-on-my-mother’s-grave, truer-than-true story is at most 50 percent true.

We all do this. You do. I do. No matter how honest and well-intentioned we are, we’re in a perpetual state of misleading ourselves and others for no other reason than that our brain is designed to be efficient, not accurate.

Not only does our memory suck—suck to the point that eyewitness testimony isn’t necessarily taken seriously in court cases—but our brain functions in a horribly biased way.

How so? Well, our brain is always trying to make sense of our current situation based on what we already believe and have already experienced. Every new piece of information is measured against the values and conclusions we already have. As a result, our brain is always biased toward what we feel to be true in that moment. So when we have a great relationship with our sister, we’ll interpret most of our memories about her in a positive light. But when the relationship sours, we’ll often come to see those exact same memories differently, reinventing them in such a way as to explain our present-day anger toward her. That sweet gift she gave us last Christmas is now remembered as patronizing and condescending. That time she forgot to invite us to her lake house is now seen not as an innocent mistake but as horrible negligence.

Meredith’s fake abuse story makes far more sense when we understand the values in which her beliefs arose. First of all, Meredith had had a strained and difficult relationship with her father throughout most of her life. Second, Meredith had had a series of failed intimate relationships with men, including a failed marriage.

So already, in terms of her values, “close relationships with men” weren’t doing so hot.

Then, in the early 1980s, Meredith became a radical feminist and began doing research into child abuse. She was confronted with horrific story after horrific story of abuse, and she dealt with incest survivors—usually little girls—for years on end. She also reported extensively on a number of inaccurate studies that came out around that time—studies that it later turned out grossly overestimated the prevalence of child molestation. (The most famous study reported that a third of adult women had been sexually molested as children, a number that has since been shown to be false.)

And on top of all of this, Meredith fell in love and began a relationship with another woman, an incest survivor. Meredith developed a codependent and toxic relationship with her partner, one in which Meredith continually tried to “save” the other woman from her traumatic past. Her partner also used her traumatic past as a weapon of guilt to earn Meredith’s affection (more on this and boundaries in chapter 8). Meanwhile, Meredith’s relationship with her father deteriorated even further (he wasn’t exactly thrilled that she was now in a lesbian relationship), and she was attending therapy at an almost compulsive rate. Her therapists, who had their own values and beliefs driving their behavior, regularly insisted that it couldn’t simply be Meredith’s highly stressful reporting job or her poor relationships that were making her so unhappy; it must be something else, something deeper.

Around this time, a new form of treatment called repressed memory therapy was becoming hugely popular. This therapy involved a therapist putting a client into a trancelike state where she was encouraged to root out and reexperience forgotten childhood memories. These memories were often benign, but the idea was that at least a few of them would be traumatic as well.

So there you have poor Meredith, miserable and researching incest and child molestation every day, angry at her father, having endured an entire lifetime of failed relationships with men, and the only person who seems to understand her or love her is another woman who is a survivor of incest. Oh, and she’s lying on a couch crying every other day with a therapist demanding over and over that she remember something she can’t remember. And voilà, you have a perfect recipe for an invented memory of sexual abuse that never happened.

Our mind’s biggest priority when processing experiences is to interpret them in such a way that they will cohere with all of our previous experiences, feelings, and beliefs. But often we run into life situations where past and present don’t cohere: on such occasions, what we’re experiencing in the moment flies in the face of everything we’ve accepted as true and reasonable about our past. In an effort to achieve coherence, our mind will sometimes, in cases like that, invent false memories. By linking our present experiences with that imagined past, our mind allows us to maintain whatever meaning we already established.

As noted earlier, Meredith’s story is not unique. In fact, in the 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of innocent people were wrongly accused of sexual violence under similar circumstances. Many of them went to prison for it.

For people who were dissatisfied with their lives, these suggestive explanations, combined with the sensationalizing media—there were veritable epidemics of sexual abuse and satanic violence going on, and you could be a victim too—gave people’s unconscious minds the incentive to fudge their memories a bit and explain their current suffering in a way that allowed them to be victims and avoid responsibility. Repressed memory therapy then acted as a means to pull these unconscious desires out and put them into a seemingly tangible form of a memory.

This process, and the state of mind it resulted in, became so common that a name was introduced for it: false memory syndrome. It changed the way courtrooms operate. Thousands of therapists were sued and lost their licenses. Repressed memory therapy fell out of practice and was replaced by more practical methods. Recent research has only reinforced the painful lesson of that era: our beliefs are malleable, and our memories are horribly unreliable.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom out there telling you to “trust yourself,” to “go with your gut,” and all sorts of other pleasant-sounding clichés.

But perhaps the answer is to trust yourself less. After all, if our hearts and minds are so unreliable, maybe we should be questioning our own intentions and motivations more. If we’re all wrong, all the time, then isn’t self-skepticism and the rigorous challenging of our own beliefs and assumptions the only logical route to progress?

This may sound scary and self-destructive. But it’s actually quite the opposite. It’s not only the safer option, but it’s liberating as well.