The Mind of a Sexual Abuse Victim: The Subconscious Often Keeps the Memories Hidden

A perfect example of how the subconscious mind works, is demonstrated in a case from Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools. 

The case involved a severely abused boy, who had been hung by his perpetrator high above ground in a harness. The child was told by his abuser that if he did not perform humiliating sex acts that he would be dropped.

Long after the abuse had been discovered and ceased, the boy was riding in the car with his mother when he suddenly began to cry and shake at the sight of a child, being walked by his parent on one of those child harnesses. Seeing the child on the street in a harness, triggered the boy right back to the memory of his torture. 1

Only this was not a memory, the boy was actually re-living his abuse. Even though the boy’s abuser was far away, and even though the boy was safe with his mother… time and space had vanished and the boy’s mind and body were back with his abuser.

Another example is that of an adult man who was sexually violated by his grandmother when he was a child. While standing in an antique shop one day, and without warning, the man was suddenly reminded of his grandmother’s abuse as he man watched a customer purchase a picture that resembled the wallpaper from his grandmother’s bedroom.

The instant his subconscious mind saw the picture, the man became nauseous, nearly vomiting in the store. Unlike most people, the man was able to recognize the mental connection. He knew why he had gotten sick. Most abuse survivors don’t zero in on the object or person that sets the past in motion. Most people would say “Whoa, that was weird. Why did I just become nauseous?” 2

In another compelling case, an eight year old boy would not eat his hot dogs until they were cut in half by an adult. The boy shouted and became frantic for someone to cut his hot dogs before he would eat them. The child would only eat bananas cut in half and he would take popsicles off their sticks in order to eat them with a spoon.

When asked why he did this, the child responded that if his food wasn’t cut up he would become fearful or angry, but admitted that he didn’t know why.

Almost from birth, the boy had been forced by his father to perform oral sex on him. Later the child had to do it for other men and this continued until he turned age six. The boy was sexually abused at a very young age, but the subconscious mind does not forget! This is why it is ridiculous for mental health experts to say that a baby being raped will not ever remember, or ever suffer from the rape.

The boy who had been orally raped so many times as a child, had grown to associate penis shaped objects with the violations he once suffered. His conscious mind did not know why he became so affected by the food, but his subconscious mind saw a penis –not a hot dog and not a Popsicle.

The researches noted that the child was unable to sustain a healthy relationship with food, and eating often provoked confusion and other adverse reactions in the form of somatic memories. One of the researchers wrote, “Each meal scratches at the slowly healing scars of his childhood.” 3

Each time the boy was faced with penis shaped food, he was re-living his trauma, but all his conscious mind could handle was the terror and rage. His subconscious kept the memory hidden.

The conscious mind deals with emotions, while the subconscious handles the father’s sexual violations. The boy had no idea why the food made him angry and afraid, only that it did. This blocking mechanism protects the child, or adult survivor, from having to deal with the devastation –the absolute reality—of the incest. The subconscious mind literally protects the victim.



1. 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.)

2. Strong at the Heart: How it feels to heal from sexual abuse, compiled by Carolyn Lehman, Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group, 2005, page 98

3.  Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. The Child Trauma Academy, Academy version of a chapter originally appearing in “Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma” (Edited by J. Goodwin and R. Attias) Basic Books (1999)

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