More on False Accusation Culture: A Memoir That Exemplifies how False Accusations Are Motivated by “Mass Panic”

Posted on March 8, 2015


Meredith Maran, in writing about falsely accusing her father of molesting her, has been lauded for her bravery, compassion, and honesty by no lesser literary lights than Anne Lamott, Elizabeth Loftus, and Michael Chabon. One must wonder, however, whether a memoir by her father about the torment of being falsely accused and alienated from his grandchildren, particularly if Ms. Maran had maintained her story of abuse, would have received the same sympathetic interest, never mind the same critical acclaim.

Thanks to how Google News is prioritizing its returns for the search term “false accusations,” I came across a interview the other day (published in 2010) that speaks significantly to how false claims of abuse, even “false memories” of abuse, can be socially coerced. What it relates exemplifies why how we talk about violence is a very big deal.

More than 20 years ago, Meredith Maran falsely accused her father of molestation. That she came to believe such a thing was possible reveals what can happen when personal turmoil meets a powerful social movement. In her book My Lie: A True Story of False Memory (the introduction of which is excerpted on Salon), Maran recounts the 1980s feminist-inspired campaign to expose molestation, which hit feverish levels in 1988 with the book The Courage to Heal. As an early reporter on the story, Maran observed family therapy sessions, interviewed molesters, and steeped herself in cases where abuse clearly took place. Meanwhile, she divorced her husband and fell in love with a woman who was also an incest survivor. Maran began having nightmares about her own molestation and soon what had been a contentious relationship with her father turned into accusations of unspeakable crimes. Eventually, she came to realize the truth. She was the person who had done wrong.

Toward the end of her memoir, her father asks her, “What I really want to know is how the hell you could have thought that of me.”

Ms. Maran tells Salon reporter Michael Humphrey that she was a thrall of “mass hysteria” (of “mind control” or “brainwashing”).

I was working as a feminist journalist, writing exposés of child sexual abuse, trying to convince the world that incest was more than a one-in-a-million occurrence. In the process, I convinced myself that my father had molested me. After five years of incest nightmares and incest workshops and incest therapy, I accused my father, estranging myself and my sons from him for the next eight years.

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. I was one of the lucky ones. My father was still alive, and he forgave me.

The early ’90s, coincidentally, was when restraining orders entered full swing, and the Violence Against Women Act emerged—and allegations of “epidemic violence,” largely from feminist quarters, have never broken stride since.

Ms. Maran’s memoir presents a case study in the coercive effects of rhetoric, especially when it’s backed by widely embraced “social science.”

In 2007, I was out for a walk with someone I wasn’t even that close to. She asked me if I’d ever done anything I was ashamed of and had never forgiven myself for. And without hesitation I said, yeah, when I was in my 30s I accused my father of molesting me, and then I realized it wasn’t true. She stopped walking and stood still, just staring at me and she said, “The same exact thing happened to me.” When I came home from that hike I started calling people I had known back then and speaking to some of the therapists I had seen during that period. With the exception of my ex-lover, every other person I talked to who had accused her father in the ’80s and early ’90s now believed she had been wrong.


It really shocked me, I must say, to see how much influence the external had on the internal. That the most intimate emotions and relationships can be so affected by the dominant paradigm.

Today’s “dominant paradigm” (a.k.a. dogma) is that accusers who allege abuse are telling it straight, especially if the accusers are female and they’re alleging violence. Conscientious voices continue to meet with vehement hostility, even for making the mild (and very reasonable) suggestion that allegations shouldn’t be treated as facts.

[T]he statement of accusation is all it takes to put the wheels in motion. Either legally or in your family. One thing I’ve learned is the relevance of the phrase “the perfect storm.” Not only for me, but for a lot of women I know who made these false accusations, it was very much a social phenomenon. Metaphorically, everything we were saying was true. But there was a confusion between a metaphor and a fact. And it was a highly relevant difference.

Put plainly, the difference Ms. Maran remarks is between real and fictional—a “highly relevant difference” indeed. So much of the rhetoric that continues to exert a governing influence on social perspectives mirrors what we “want to think” or what we’ve been motivated or conditioned to think (what it’s “right” or politically correct to think). There’s a broad and vocal contingent of “true believers” who are deeply invested in the notion that “violence is epidemic” and that “victim’s” needs should preempt all other concerns, including justice and the false implication of the innocent.

Mr. Humphrey’s interview with Ms. Maran ends on a chilling statement that’s worthy of reflection, coming as it does from a woman who’s written a book acknowledging that people may be led to falsely accuse and that she herself was “brainwashed” into doing so.

In the middle of the book, while you are still deeply in the mind-set of being molested, there’s a notion you agree with that if one innocent man goes to prison, but it stops a hundred molesters, it’s worth it. Do you still agree with that notion?

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?

So would you make that choice?

I think so.

In closing, appreciate these facts: (1) A false accuser isn’t pilloried but praised for “bravely” admitting the truth years later, years during which someone else—may we also say “bravely”?—lived with the isolating stigma of her accusations; and (2) the same false accuser who “saw the light” nevertheless opines that other people’s lives are arbitrarily expendable for a virtuous cause.

If these compound horrors weren’t bad enough, the view the memoirist expresses is generally shared and, for all intents and purposes, held by our own “justice system” (consequently).

The question the interviewer poses isn’t a “Sophie’s choice.” The character in William Styron’s novel is forced by a Nazi soldier to choose which of her children should be allowed to live. The choice wasn’t a moral one. Opting to punish people for crimes they haven’t committed to make “object lessons” of them against their will decidedly is.

Whether it’s “worth it” to expediently destroy some other person’s life for the betterment of society isn’t a decision anyone gets to make but the owner of that life—and how dare anyone presume otherwise.

Copyright © 2015

*The definition of expedient in my dictionary (World Book) includes this model sentence: “No honest judge would make a decision that was expedient rather than fair and just.”