Pendergrast was born in 1948 to Nan and Britt Pendergrast, the fourth of seven children. He was raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Harvard College, after which he taught for several years in public schools. Pendergrast later attended Simmons College in Boston, where he obtained a Master of Arts degree in Library Science. He worked as an academic librarian and freelance writer until becoming a full-time writer in 1991. Pendergrast lives in Essex Junction, Vermont.
Pendergrast has published four books on various topics. Two are histories of caffeinated beverages (Coca-Cola and coffee). He is currently working on a fifth non-fiction book, a history of the Epidemic Intelligence Service.
Pendergrast has also reviewed books for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has contributed articles to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Analyst, The Sun, Vermont Life Magazine, Sea History, Library Journal, and Professional Psychology.
Pendergrast co-edited The Aftermath: A Survivor's Odyssey Through War-Torn Europe, a Holocaust memoir by Henry Lilienheim. He has spoken at scientific and journalism seminars and on college campuses. He writes a regular column about coffee for the Wine Spectator.
Pendergrast is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the League of Vermont Writers. He is a member of the governing board of the National Center for Reason and Justice, a nonprofit organization which works with innocent people falsely accused or convicted of child abuse (related to the subject of his book Victims of Memory). That book's introduction states that Pendergrast is a member of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, which provides information for "distraught accused parents, mental health professionals, and all those caught up in the repressed-memory phenomenon."
Pendergrast's non-fiction books have received generally positive reviews in the press.
For God, Country and Coca-Cola
"A detailed and marvelously entertaining history . . . a book as substantial and satisfying as its subject is (at least in nutritional terms) inconsequential." Lawrence Dietz, Los Angeles Times
"Few coffee drinkers suspect that they are affecting American foreign policy, the domestic policies of Latin-American and African countries, and the habitat of migratory birds. Pendergrast shows how and why they are. He has taken on a huge subject, but he organizes the facts skillfully and puts personalities in the perspective of their times. This encyclopedic volume is the entertaining result." The New Yorker
"Psst . . . want to save $160,000? Don't send your son to college; slip him this book instead. It shoehorns an entire liberal arts education into a cultural history of mirrors that touches on architecture, anthropology, sex, painting, myth, religion, math, science, magic, astronomy, literature, business, espionage and warfare, and travels from the Big Bang to the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman empires, the waxing and waning of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the discovery of the New World, and at last, space: the final frontier. Anyone who masters the contents of Mirror Mirror need never fear Trivial Pursuit again." Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review, 10 August 2003.
"Mark Pendergrast, the ultimate free-lance journalist with an eclectic mind, writes about deceptively narrow topics that in fact have figured in world history." Steven Weinberg, reviewing Mirror Mirror for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (6 July 2003).
Victims of Memory
Victims of Memory is Pendergrast's most controversial book to date. As he revealed in the book's first edition, by 1992 he had lost contact with his two adult daughters, apparently in connection with psychotherapy they received which involved "repressed memories" of childhood sexual abuse, although the women never revealed details of what the alleged abuse supposedly involved. In attempting to understand this personal tragedy, Pendergrast discovered that this pattern of accusation and self-estrangement following unearthed "repressed memories of sexual abuse" had become popular in the United States and Canada in the late 1980s; adults were encouraged by self-help books, such as The Courage to Heal (1988), and by many therapists, to believe that some of their problems as adults were because they had been sexually abused in childhood.
In a review in Applied Cognitive Psychology, British clinical psychologist Chris Brewin, who supports the repressed-memory theory, characterized the book as being well-researched but biased. He says the author makes unfavorable comments against those he disagrees with; that he accepts arguments that support his theory while criticizing arguments that do not.
Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychology professor who has written extensively on the subject of memory, reviewed Pendergrast's book favorably in Scientific American magazine: " . . an impressive display of scholarship . . . a comprehensive treatment of the recovered-memories controversy . . . Pendergrast demonstrates a laudable ability to lay out all sides of the argument . . renders a sympathetic portrayal of recovery therapists as well-intentioned but misinformed players in a drama that has veered out of control."
Many introductory psychology textbooks now include references to repressed memory and suggestibility with discussions on the plausibility or implausibility of these concepts, and Pendergrast's scholarship is sometimes cited.