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Behind the Red Door


Behind the Red Door

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, Megan Collins explores how childhood events can be suppressed, altered, misremembered and deleted.

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 that it’s not their fault. Fern’s 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 mistreated her, but facts and memories slowly surface.

The stimulus to the events in the story is the disappearance of Astrid Sullivan, which makes all the news programs because it’s the 20th anniversary of her abduction when she was 14 years old. Astrid’s recently published memoir about the kidnapping immediately becomes a bestseller, and, as Fern watches the news, she has the strange feeling that she knows Astrid. Random dreams and memories surface, and Fern, who sees a therapist for anxiety, isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t.

"[U]ltimately, this story of redemption and overcoming cruelty will linger in our minds as we consider our own memories and how accurate they really are."

When her father calls her and says that he’s retiring and moving to Florida --- which seems totally unlike him --- and asks her to help him pack up his things, she rushes to him. He needs her, which 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.

Fern’s father is a psychology professor who studies fear, and her childhood consisted of “Experiments” that he performed on her. He created terrible situations to frighten her and then would interview her about her reactions. No wonder poor Fern suffers from anxiety! Her mother is an artist who worked constantly in her studio, even sleeping there while being blessed with the spirit of creation. 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 were adults who would give her what she needed only when forced to do so. Love was never one of those things.

Fern returns to Cedar, New Hampshire, her childhood home, which sits at the edge of a forest that evokes dark feelings in her. Some things have not changed. There is no air conditioning, her father is constantly at his typewriter, and her mother’s studio is filled with 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 her connection to Astrid and who kidnapped the missing woman a second time.

Interspersed with Fern’s first-person narrative are excerpts from Astrid’s memoir, which help Fern --- and readers --- understand what happened 20 years before the events in BEHIND THE RED DOOR. Adding to Fern’s mental distress is the fact that she has just found out she is pregnant. She doesn’t know if she wants to be a parent, if she has the ability to be a good mother, or if she can protect her child from all the evil in the world. Her husband desperately wants a baby, and finally it has happened. But she can’t bring herself to make that pregnancy real by telling him about it.

There are many red herrings here, along with a plethora of clues. It’s not that difficult to figure out who the kidnapper is, but that doesn’t take away from the constant emotion of fear that pervades the novel as Fern tries to bring back the repressed memories that tease her dreams and engulf her days. And when she finally does discover the abductor’s identity, will that help Astrid? Collins provides an unexpected twist to keep us guessing until the very end.

BEHIND THE RED DOOR is not a happy beach read. There are some very dark themes of child abuse and bullying throughout these pages. But ultimately, this story of redemption and overcoming cruelty will linger in our minds as we consider our own memories and how accurate they really are.

Reviewed by Pamela Kramer on August 21, 2020

Behind the Red Door
by Megan Collins