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False Recovery 

An unflinching look at recollected abuse could use some skepticism

Wednesday, May 14 2003
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Scott Heim published his novel Mysterious Skin in 1995, a year that now seems to belong to another planet. Al Qaeda, like the tech boom, was just a simmering threat; suburban kids hadn't yet started shooting up their high schools; and Monica Lewinsky wasn't even a White House intern. Maybe it was a symptom of relative calm that 1995 also turned out to be the height of the recovered-memory craze -- a fashion among therapists to cure people of their hang-ups by dredging for deeply buried memories of sexual abuse. The methods were not always scientific, and when a patient rooted out or invented the buried source of trauma there was usually some kind of lawsuit, if not an appearance on Oprah.

Heim's novel turns on a recovered memory. It deals with two boys from a Kansas town who were abused by their baseball coach at the age of 8. One of them, Neil, enjoyed it. Ten years later he's a hustler in New York City, but at least he hasn't lied to himself; he remembers most of the details. The other boy, Brian, repressed the bad episode and finds himself outwardly normal but troubled in his first year of community college. Brian is aware that five hours of his childhood have been airbrushed from his mind, and his desperation to fill them in leads first to a wavering belief in UFOs (also big in 1995), and then to a close encounter with Neil.

Prince Gomolvilas' adaptation of Skin at the New Conservatory Theatre Center is a sometimes-flaky mystery play, starting with an infomercial by a psychologist promoting his book on alien abduction. A fan of the book named Avalyn, in Kansas, convinces Brian that she was abducted by aliens -- "See, this is where they put my tracking device!" -- and suggests that maybe he was, too. Brian remembers his black-hole afternoon as a regular day at Little League, followed several hours later by a weird scene in a crawl space under the family house. He was hiding from something; he had a nosebleed. Why? What came in between? Well, Avalyn's UFO book says nosebleeds are symptoms of alien abduction.

The series of events that leads Brian away from that theory and toward the truth is forced: Gomolvilas had to condense the novel, and the lucky breaks he selects or invents for Brian belong to a gumshoe movie, not a gripping drama about a man struggling to understand his soul. Still, the memories themselves form a potent nightmare, and both Joseph Parks as Neil and Taylor Valentine as Brian perform the crucial scenes with feeling. Parks' speech, especially -- describing the tender molestation by the coach, sometimes in the coach's voice -- captures the odd, moral-free ambivalence Neil feels about becoming a grade-school catamite.

Avalyn also has a strong speech, in the form of a love letter to Brian; overall she's the funniest part of the play, at least as Rebecca Fisher plays her. She's nerdy and excitable and entirely out of her mind: a rounded character, in other words, unlike Neil's friend Wendy. Megan Towle plays Wendy as a flamboyant, noisy waitress in New York and an even more insufferable and noisy teenager in Kansas. "I am one pissed-off fag hag," she tells Neil in Manhattan, when he confesses to hustling again. The blend of overwrought acting and self-conscious writing turns Wendy into not just a pissed-off fag hag but a clichéd one.

The real trouble with Mysterious Skin, though, has to do with the way it falsifies human nature in order to build a story. There are no doubt many people who really have blacked out parts of a childhood sexual trauma, but the idea that these memories might just pop full-fledged into a person's head -- like monsters from the void -- with only gentle prodding (as Heim and Gomolvilas have it) seems a little much. The two write sharp satires of UFO theories without training the slightest bit of skepticism on recovered memory. In the years since that psycho-fad peaked, the public has learned that a lot of "buried" trauma had no more reality than UFO abductions, and that the psychologists who encouraged such memories used truth serum, hypnosis, and suggestive questioning to get their results. Of course, child abuse is still a harrowing and murky moral problem, which Mysterious Skin unflinchingly explores, but the authorial devices belong to that lost, more innocent year of 1995.

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