How much does our brain do to protect us? What repressed memories might surface one day with the right stimuli? In “Behind the Red Door,” author Megan Collins explores how childhood events can be suppressed, altered, misremembered, and deleted. Main character Fern Douglas is happily married to a fabulous pediatrician and she enjoys her job as a school social worker. She knows how to talk to kids, how to get them to admit to abusive living situations and how to help them understand it’s not their fault that they have abusive parents.
We learn that she knows how to do this from her own personal experience. Her father was the victim of abusive parenting, and she herself was neglected and abused horribly as a child. At the start of the book, she doesn’t realize that her parents were neglectful and abusive, but slowly, the facts and memories surface.
The stimulus to the events in the story is the disappearance of Astrid Sullivan, which makes all the news shows because it’s the 20th anniversary of Astrid’s kidnapping when she was fourteen years old. Astrid’s recently published memoir about her kidnapping immediately becomes a best seller, and as Fern watches the news, she has the strange feeling that she knew Astrid. Random dreams and memories surface, and Fern, who sees a therapist for anxiety, isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t.
When her father calls her and says he’s retiring and moving to Florida — which seems totally unlike him — and that he needs her to help him pack up his things, she rushes to help him. Her father needs her; something that has never happened before. We see in Fern a woman who will do anything to win the love of a father who appears not to have a drop of compassion in his soul.
Her father is a psychology professor who studies fear. And Fern’s childhood consisted of “Experiments” that her father performed on her to study her fear. He created terrible situations to frighten Fern and then would interview her about her reactions. No wonder poor Fern suffers from anxiety! Fern’s mother is an artist, and she worked constantly in her studio, even sleeping there when the spirit of creation was upon her. Fern knew from an early age that her parents, whom she called Ted and Mara, were not kindly beings who cared for her and loved her, but rather people who would give her what she needed only when forced to. And love was never one of those things.
So Fern returns to Cedar, New Hampshire, her childhood home which sits at the edge of a forest that evokes dark feelings in Fern. Some things have not changed. There is no air conditioning, her father is constantly at his typewriter, clacking away, her mother’s studio is filled with her art. Mara is away on a cruise and Ted is in the middle of a new idea for a study. Fern is left to investigate the mystery of what her connection to Astrid is and who kidnapped Astrid a second time.
Interspersed with Fern’s first person narrative are excerpts from Astrid’s memoir which help Fern — and us — understand what happened twenty years before the events in this story. Adding to Fern’s mental distress is the fact that she has just found out that she is pregnant. Fern doesn’t know if she wants to be a parent, if she has the ability to be a good mother, and if she can protect her child from all the evil in the world. But her husband desperately wants a baby and finally it’s happened. But Fern can’t bring herself to make that pregnancy real by actually telling her husband, Eric, about it.
There are many red herrings, and many clues. It’s not really that difficult to figure out who the kidnapper was, but that doesn’t take away from the constant emotion of fear that pervades the novel as Fern tries and tries to bring back the repressed memories that tease her dreams and engulf her days. And when Fern does, finally, discover who the kidnapper is, will that help Astrid? The author provides an unexpected twist to keep us guessing until the very end.
This is not a happy beach read. There are some really dark themes of child abuse and bullying throughout the pages. But ultimately, the story is of redemption and overcoming cruelty. It’s a story that will linger in our mind as we consider our own memories and how true they are.
First reviewed by Bookreporter.com.