Was I Really Raped? How Our Memories Work

Was I Really Raped? How Our Memories Work

Think about popular sexual harassment cases for a minute. Probably not the most positive thing to ponder over, but bear with me. A few names come to mind – Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, Casey Affleck, Mattress Girl’s Paul Nungesser, and many others.  What to they all have in common? The alleged attacker was either acquitted of all charges, the case was dropped,  or the case ended in mistrial. Yes, even Bill Cosby’s case has recently ended in mistrial.

I’m not saying these guys are entirely innocent. But I’m not saying the women are completely innocent either.

It has been mentioned that some of these women reported these cases to the media because they feel regret, ashamed, or desire attention.

However, is it possible that some of these women were inventing memories of horrible abuse? If so, why would they do that?

Mark Manson’s new book, currently the #2 most read book on Amazon, entitled The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life (2016) cites the following examples and offers possible explanations:

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.

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