Repression and dissociation of trauma is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).
I don’t particularly like the word “disorder” because I believe that memory repression is an ingenious, rational, and methodical way for a child’s mind to handle severe trauma, sexual abuse, death threats, and extreme emotional betrayal.
Repressed traumatic memory is normally diagnosed as “dissociative amnesia” or sometimes called “psychogenic amnesia.” There are several diagnostic features for dissociative amnesia. The main component is one’s inability to remember vital, personal information, and this lack of memory is too substantial to be explained by normal forgetting. The memory loss can last months, or years –often, decades.
Most professionals use two different terms to explain how a victim ends up with amnesia for a sexually abusive experience in childhood. “Repression” was defined by Freud as a method of defense in which a victim of severe abuse or trauma forces the overwhelming, extraordinary, and horrifying events out of the conscious mind and into the unconscious.
Pierre Janet preferred “dissociation” as the explanation for blocking the distressing information. Janet believed the trauma was split off from the conscious mind rather than pushed away. Experts continue to interchange the two terms and some disagree about which mechanism is utilized by victims, although, dissociation seems to be the preferred explanation among mental health professionals. It is possible that some people mentally “split” from the trauma and others repress it. Maybe some victims do both.
There are many significant factors about traumatic amnesia that have not been widely discussed. Some of the common causes of the amnesia can be any or all of the following:
- The trauma or abuse began at an early age.
- The trauma or abuse continued for an extended period of time, usually years.
- The abuse involved rape and intercourse or other forms of violent acts.
- There were threats to the victim or their loved ones.
- The victim’s need for self-survival was a major part of the abuse (The abuser was a trusted care-giver or parent, and or, there was a lack of protection by the other primary care-giver or parent).
- The child had an inability to express what was happening.
- The experiences were so personally overwhelming and horrific, that retaining the memory of them, would cause extreme psychosis, suicide, or “craziness” (insanity, madness).
Each of these very significant reasons can directly contribute to DA, but denial, shame, and guilt can indirectly contribute to the amnesia.
Let’s examine the theories for why dissociative amnesia takes place:
Nature’s System of Self-Survival:
Human beings have an intrinsic fight or flight system. When an authority figure, a primary care-giver, or a powerful stranger is sexually abusing a child, then the fight mode is normally ineffective. The child is physically powerless, so when fleeing is impossible, the child must escape mentally.
Physical Threats and Heinous Acts:
Threats of death and harm to others or pets are probably more linked to dissociative amnesia than the child’s age and some research supports this. Heinous acts -that are so shocking or frightening to the victim- would also contribute to the victim’s psychological need to mentally remove themselves from the abuse.
One repression case involved a woman who had been forced to eat her own vomit and drink her own urine. She was also forced to eat her feces after it had been smeared on her.
To the adult survivor of child sexual abuse, that included death threats, remembering the abuse can be equated with severe punishment or death.
Truddi Chase on Oprah
Truddi Chase, author of When Rabbit Howls, was threatened with death if she told, and her mother reinforced the threats by telling her that she would kill her if she misbehaved. Truddi went through the same experience as I did when she began to write her own book. She felt she was “breaking the rules” by writing her story. She was an adult and the threat was gone, but to her subconscious mind, the danger was very real. For Truddi Chase, and me, telling our story was equated with death. (note: my book manuscript went on hold several years ago when I had to deal with major life changes and new memories of sexual abuse that I have not disclosed on my Blog).
People wonder how a person can block out repeated and brutal experiences, but it makes more sense to repress shocking trauma than to have a clear recollection of it. Not only did I do exactly what my father told me to do when he used a knife to threaten me with death, but I obeyed his threats so well that I pushed the abuse and the threats, right out of consciousness. We can’t disclose what we don’t remember. Self-survival is the strongest component in human nature. By blocking the abuse out, I assured myself of keeping the secret and thus, staying alive. If my mother would not protect me, I had to do it myself.
Frequency of the Abuse:
Repeated events allow a pattern of defense to be generated. The victim might automatically and instinctually teach themselves a sort of self-hypnosis. They may also begin the process of denial, numbing or ‘leaving their body’ during the abuse.
In the book, Betrayal Trauma, by Jennifer Freyd, she explains how continuous trauma and betrayal by a primary care-giver can create the need to develop amnesia for survival. When a child is being molested, raped, or threatened by the person who is providing them with shelter, food, medical care, and emotional attachment, then the child cannot react in a normal way to the harm being done to them. Even though the abuse is degrading, painful, and brings terrible trauma and shame, the child is forced to try and survive in the home with the perpetrator. Repression is sometimes the only way the child can endure the cruelty, and at the same time, physically and emotionally survive. This is why dissociative amnesia is more likely to be found in cases of incest.
When memory repression is found in circumstances where the abuser was not a family member, but someone the child loved or trusted (like a priest or family friend), then the amnesia may be more connected to shame, guilt, denial, and threats of death. Although, in some cases, being sexually abused by a priest can equal the depth of betrayal by a parent.
Age the Abuse Took Place:
Some experts still believe that a significant factor in repression is the age of the victim at the time of the first sexual assault (many mental health experts have minimized this reason). The theory is that if a child is pre-verbal when he or she is first abused, then the violation would not be understood in a context that allows the victim to form any thoughts about it. If the child is too young, then the abuse would not be symbolized and it would go unspoken. Therefore, it would remain unorganized in the mind of the child, and subsequently, not comprehended. The young child would have no understanding, or judgment, of what is happening to them.
Even if the abuse continues after the initial trauma, and the child is abused well into their teens, every subsequent act of sexual abuse will still be blocked out by the older child, or teenager. This is why Marilyn Van Derbur blocked out her father’s rapes –even when he was still raping her at age eighteen.
Denial and Grief:
In families like mine, the only way to survive was for everyone to blind themselves to what was happening. If everyone is acting as if nothing is wrong, if the child is incapable of understanding what is going on, and if the perpetrator acts normal when he is not actively being abusive, then the child would have every reason to question their own reality. The family then reinforces the victim’s denial and the child is never allowed to outwardly suffer emotionally or to grieve.
In a 1992 case of repressed memories, the victim was raped at around the age of ten by her father. The victim was told by her father that disclosing the abuse would break up the family and that he would kill her. She was also given the responsibility to initiate the sexual encounters, which she did, but only to stop him from molesting her younger sister.
When the child attempted to tell her mother about the “white substance” on her genitals, her mother did not help the child, she instead gave the child a book about menstruation. This girl was forced to behave as if nothing was wrong. She was not given the opportunity to properly express her pain because her mother would not hear her. She was also forced to take care of herself, and her mother was subtly telling her that she needed to protect herself from getting pregnant with her abuser. When a child is forced to suffer in silence, unable to grieve, and forced to protect themselves, the child can easily begin to repress the abuse. But this method only lasts so long. The day eventually comes when the memories, psychological dysfunction, or an illness surfaces. If childhood trauma and emotional grief is not spoken about, then the body will do the talking.
Professional research confirms that mothers who look the other way to the sexual abuse, or who directly allow the abuse to happen -blaming the child, or allowing the perpetrator to have easy access to the child- is a contributing factor in traumatic memory impairment. It makes perfect sense that a child’s self-protective system would immediately need to shift into high gear when their mother does not rescue them from a predator, and instead, embraces the victimizer. Sometimes the mother also participates in the sexual acts, and this magnifies the need of the child to mentally block out the events. As Lenore Terr M.D. says, “Denial stops memory before it gets much of a start.”
Lack of Validation for the Victim:
Skeptics ask why so many victims of the Holocaust remember details about their traumatic experience. Many war crime victims do not remember much of their experience, and others remember nothing at all.
Nevertheless, the tormentors in the war were not trusted family members and there was no secrecy about the crimes within the prison camps. It was common knowledge among everyone in the camps that suffering and imprisonment was taking place and the victims had each other to validate what happened each day.
Prisoners of war did not go to school, to the office, or to social parties during their time in the camps and then later return to being victims of war crimes after the normal activities had ended. They did not take vacations with their perpetrators, or go to church or a synagogue with them.
In addition, people rarely tell victims of war they were never imprisoned, that it was their imagination, or blame them for being prisoners of war. More importantly, friends and relatives of war crime victims do not coerce them into thinking that their captors were “good” hardworking people who loved them.
Prisoners of war were eventually liberated at some point by people who confirmed the atrocities and who provided them with some kind of help. In concentration camps, there was also a great deal of corroborating evidence. Victims of war often have tattoos with their camp number or there are military documents about being liberated.
People who endure prison camps don’t normally have the same level of interpersonal shame and guilt that a victim of child sexual abuse does. Even if guilt and shame had been a factor during the camp imprisonment, it was not a secret guilt or a secret shame. Incest and child sexual abuse involves deep humiliation. It is a dirty secret that was perpetrated by a loved one, or trusted care-giver.
Children of war were not being raped by a parent and they did not engage in family meals, celebrations, or loving moments with their victimizers. They did not have to deal with the confusion that a child of incest endures when they try to find reality in the midst of two different worlds. One world is full of pain, rage, fear, betrayal, guilt, and isolation. The other is one of birthday celebrations, Merry Christmas dinners, movies, popcorn, and trips to Disneyland.
As noted in Behind the Playground Walls, a child being abused within the family makes accommodations in a “world where few things are as they seem and the power of the abusers is pervasive and magical.”
This conformity creates defenses that are seen as crucial by many children. They block the bad, only remembering the good, or at least what is humanly bearable. For many children, it is more useful to repress the trauma than to retain the memory of it.
It is not usually advantageous for a child, or an adult, to preserve the knowledge that someone they loved sexually violated, abandoned, or threatened them. Repression and dissociation allows the child to remain attached to the parent or other loved one who is assaulting them, and simultaneously providing the child with food, shelter, and the necessities to live.
In Memories of Sexual Betrayal, an incest victim revealed she had been forced to watch her father rape and sodomize her sister. She then described that after a night of sexual abuse, life was back to normal the next day. Her mother was preparing the family breakfast and her father was reading the paper. She said, “Everything was just as it had been the night before when I went to bed.”
Jennifer Freyd points out that repressed memories of incest is more likely to be found in families that are somewhat functional.
I see Marilyn’s face saying, ‘I am keeping his secret and pretending that nothing is happening…It’s even a secret from myself.’
Marilyn Van Derbur and her sister Gwen, came from a prestigious and outwardly functional family. Even though both sisters grew up in the same home with the same sexually abusive father, and the same mother who ignored the signs of abuse… the dynamics of the two sisters were very different. Consequently, the sisters displayed two very different coping defenses.
Marilyn, who felt no anger for her father while growing up, was the one who repressed the abuse entirely. Gwen on the other hand, felt hatred for her father and wanted to kill him. The remarkable difference is that Gwen has always remembered being sexually abused by the father.
In 1992, Ross Cheit began having dreams and memories of being molested almost nightly by a camp counselor for the San Francisco Boy’s Chorus named William Farmer. Ross had spent the summer at the camp as a child. Cheit’s memories began to return after two separate incidents. The first was a phone call from his sister. She was calling to tell Ross that she was sending her son to a San Francisco Boys chorus. The other trigger was a newspaper article about Father James Porter who molested and raped hundreds of young boys, decades earlier.
After Ross Cheit remembered that his perpetrator was his camp counselor, he searched for more victims and discovered that other perpetrators also worked at the camp. Cheit subsequently discovered an enormous cover-up at the boy’s camp. He found at least a dozen other victims who had been molested by Farmer or another camp employee.
Madi Bacon, founder and director of the Boy’s Chorus, openly admitted to Cheit that Bill Farmer had done questionable things with some of the boys at the camp, but Madi Bacon blinded herself to it.
Madi Bacon told the boys many times they were lucky to have Bill Farmer, and this is how she helped create a distorted reality for the boys at the camp. She generated the image of a respectable perpetrator, while denying his dark side, and she pretended the camp was a joyous and normal place for the boys.
Madi Bacon said she kept things at the camp a secret because she wanted the camp to have “a happy ending.”
Madi Bacon is the epitome of those who shove child sexual abuse under the rug. She is just like all the mothers who choose not to see incest going on because they want the outside world to see a “normal-looking, happy” family. In this case it had been the reputation of the camp which was preserved over the children’s well-being.
After an emotional and difficult phone call to Bill Farmer, Ross Cheit waited for a promised apology by mail, which never came. Farmer refused to admit much responsibility at all and acted as if the abuse was no a big deal.
He probably learned that from Madi Bacon.
A contributing factor to Ross Cheit’s repression was most likely due to the fact that each morning, after Ross was molested by Farmer, life was back to normal. Everyone engaged in his or her daily routine, including Bill Farmer and Ross Cheit.
If an adult continues to tell a child wonderful things about the person who is abusing them, and creates the fantasy of an all-American home, then the child will cling to that false image, instead of relying on their own experiences. When a child has no sense of self-worth and cannot even trust their own experiences, and when the majority of the other family members do not acknowledge what is happening… the child will say to themselves, “Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it never happened.”
When a child, who has just been raped by his or her father, comes to the dinner table to find that everything is normal again, and no one says a word about the molestation or rapes, and the child hears “please pass the potatoes” or “would you like some more milk?” The child is forced to choose his or her reality.
Does the child choose the reality of the incest and rapes, or is it the pleasantries and falseness of the dinner table?
The victim chooses the dinner table in order to survive.
Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools, Jill Waterman Ph.D, Robert J. Kelly Ph.D, Mary Kay Oliveri MSW, Jane Mc Cord, Ph.D, 1993, The Guilford Press page 242
Stacey Lannert, Free Stacey Lannert Website, Stacey’s Writings
Dissociation, Repression, and Reality Testing in the Countertransference, Jody Messler Davies, Memories of Sexual Betrayal: Truth, Fantasy, Repression, and Dissociation, Jason Aronson Inc., Edited by Richard Gartner, Ph.D, pages 60-61
Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Child Abuse, Jennifer J. Freyd, Harvard University Press, 1996, page 45, 76, 77, 78
Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found, Lenore Terr, M.D. Basic Books, 1994, page 146
Bearing Witness A man’s Recovery of His Sexual Abuse as a Child Mike Stanton The Sunday Journal Massachusetts edition of The Providence Sunday Journal Volume CXI, No. 19 A-1 May 7 1995
Bearing Witness A man’s Recovery of His Sexual Abuse as a Child Mike Stanton The Providence Journal Morning Edition of the Providence Journal Bulletin South County Monday May 8 1995 A-8 and A-9
American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision, Washington D.C., American Psychiatric Association, 2000).
Recovered Memories, Linda Stoler, Kat Quina, University of Rhode Island, Anne P. DePrince, Jennifer Freyd, University of Oregon, 2001)
Posttraumatic stress associated with delayed recall of sexual abuse: A general population study. Special Issue: Research on traumatic memory. Elliott, Diana M.; Briere, John U California-Los Angeles Medical Ctr, Child Abuse Crisis Ctr, Harbor Campus, Torrance, US Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1995 Oct Vol 8(4) 629-647
The Recovered Memory Project” Ross Cheit, Memorandum and Order, pp. 1-2; Hewczuk v. Sambor, C.A. 91-6562 February 18 1993
Lenore Terr’s work described and quoted in Betrayal Trauma, pages 138-139, Freyd, 1996, Harvard University Press
Betrayal Trauma, page 139, Freyd, 1996, Harvard University Press
In a personal letter to me, used by permission via personal correspondence.
Unchained Memories: True Stories of Traumatic Memories, Lost and Found, Lenore Terr, M.D. Basic Books, 1994, page 129