The most obvious question is why. Fred Clark chose a page-by-page trashing of Left Behind because he thought it was such an incredibly bad book. One can easily imagine a similarly thorough review of a work of great literature to illustrate its genius. But False Memory is neither. It is a decent potboiler, but nothing profound. It is copyright 1999 and clearly expected to come out in 2000, so it is nothing very new or groundbreaking today. So why bother with the painstaking review?
To that I can offer several answers. One is that I don’t read that many novels, so any one is memorable and something I want to record. Another is that I read False Memory around the time I returned from a vacation to discover that the plate glass of my sliding door had been broken, apparently by neighborhood children playing ball. The pet sitter taped a sheet of plastic in its place, but it took some time for my landlord to replace it. On the one hand, no real harm was done. It was in the middle of summer, so staying warm was not an issue. And I live in the back of a duplex that no one passing by on the street is aware of, so there was no actual danger. But Dean Koontz has a way of inspiring paranoia, so reading his novel with a window missing can be most unsettling.
Another reason is the provocative title. During the 1990's, the recovered memory movement flourished, based on the belief that many psychological problems were caused by childhood molestation that patient no longer remembered, and that the cure was to recover those memories in therapy. This, in turn, led to a backlash, motivated by the belief that those memories were false and manufactured by the therapist. The tension was especially acute in a number of cases in which children in daycare had memories “recovered” in therapy of frightful abuse and people were sent to prison based on those “memories.”
Conceivably, Koontz may be weighing in on the recovered memory controversy, on the side that such memories were false. If that is what he is trying to do, he signally fails. Once and only once, Koontz makes a serious effort to take on the issue. About pages 384-386, a doctor recounts how he was assigned by the court to examine children who alleged they had been sexually abused in preschool. Despite shocking tales of abuse, he found no evidence of injury. Then he was alarmed to discover that the psychiatrist examining the children was used hypno-regressive therapy. At this point, the characters ask the doctor whether hypnosis is an accepted therapeutic technique. He answers that it is becoming less so because hypnotized subjects are highly susceptible to suggestion, and children especially so. Children, he says, can be made to “remember” anything the therapist wants to hear. And then he found that the same psychiatrist had unearthed similar “memories” in earlier investigations. These are all worthwhile points. However, they take up less than three pages of a 627 page book. If Dean Koontz actually wants to refute the recovered memory movement, the rest of his novel does more harm than good.
Recovered memory therapists made two main arguments against the false memory movement. One was that the whole idea of creating false memories is “junk science.” The other is that, even if it is possible, it would be unethical for a therapist to do such a thing. As to the former point, it has been partially refuted. Psychologists in controlled experiments have created false memories by the power of suggestion, especially in children. How far this can go is not clear because, as recovered memory advocates point out, any more extensive experimentation would be unethical. What is “junk science” and clearly not possible is exercising complete control over another person, especially at a distance. Extensive, highly unethical experiments on the subject have been conducted, mostly by the Communists, but some by us, and it has clearly been proven impossible. Coercion is possible; “programming” is not. And as for the argument that creating false memories is unethical, no one is accusing recovered memory therapists of creating false memories intentionally. The accusation is that, sincerely believing there are genuine repressed memories of childhood abuse, recovered memory therapists end up creating what they believe they are uncovering. Dean Koontz does not make either of these points, however. He shows an evil, unethical therapist transforming people into obedient robots under complete mind control. This is no less a fantasy than vampires and werewolves.
But that is not the primary reason I want to deliver a thorough-going dissection of False Memories. The main reason is that the first 185 pages or so give the distinct impression of being an earlier draft, before the author had worked out the details of his premise. Undoubtedly, he knew from the start it would be about mind control, but he had not worked out the details of how that mind control would work. Around page 185, he decides and reveals to the audience what is going on, thus greatly reducing the suspense as the characters struggle to figure it out. But the first 185 pages or so are replete with clues as to what is going on that never go anywhere or are explained, and that occasionally contradict the system he ultimately decides on. I will therefore focus the greatest attention on the part before Koontz reveals his secret, pointing out the maddening clues he leaves dangling. The next section, from where he reveals what is happening to the reader until the characters figure it out, I will be less thorough about. And the final part, after the characters realize what is happening, I will breeze through except for sections that particularly interest me.