Diana Russell, author of The Secret Trauma: Incest in the Lives of Girls and Women, finds cases of delayed memories of father/daughter incest to be suspect. Russell bases her belief in part on her book. Her suspicion comes from using her book as a source to compare never-repressed memories of father/daughter incest, with the cases of women who, at one time, recalled being a victim of father/daughter incest, but later retracted their claim. 1
In Russell’s study, fathers were most commonly the perpetrator in cases involving delayed memories, as opposed to the continuous memory group of incest survivors, whose recall consisted of other relatives as the perpetrator.
The betrayal, shame, and guilt attached to father/daughter incest is far greater than if another male relative sexually molests a child. When a father is sexually abusing his child there is also a high probability that the victim’s mother is facilitating or ignoring the abuse, which can contribute to the amnesia. It is also more likely that the abuse will be covered up and denied by other family members when the father is the perpetrator. This veil of secrecy aids in repression.
In the cases of delayed memory, biological fathers were named as the abuser far more often than in the continuous memory cases, which involved more stepfathers.
Father/daughter incest is undeniably linked to deeper emotional pain, guilt, shame, and betrayal —especially if the child enjoyed being touched or having sexual intercourse with her biological father.
The complicated dynamics of a biological father committing incest on his child increases the chances of repression. An adult survivor of father/daughter incest might also be more likely to deny the memories of her father being a sexual perpetrator and subsequently retract previous accusations of incest.
The number of years that a child is abused, and the age that the abuse began, are two elements that some experts believe contribute to amnesia. Biological fathers usually have access to their children in the early stages of the child’s life. Many step-fathers don’t come into the picture until the children are much older, at an age less likely to repress the abuse. In addition, step-fathers aren’t usually a part of the family long enough to have abused the child for many years.
In the Russell study, the victim of a step-father may have been an older child when the abuse began, or even a teenager. Therefore, there is less of a chance of Dissociative Amnesia developing inside the victim’s mind.
In the cases of repression, the mothers were commonly involved as co-perpetrators or facilitators. Russell calls maternal incest “rare.” She adds that “many mothers are not aware of the abuse by their husbands.”
Proclaiming that maternal incest is rare is irresponsible at best, and unethical at worst. Maternal incest is far from rare, as most cases go unreported. Not enough information exists on this topic, but the United States Dept. of Justice says that thirty-eight percent of documented cases of child sexual abuse involve female perpetrators, including mothers. 2
People who have been sexually abused by their mother, struggle to be believed and to believe themselves. It can be psychologically damaging to a victim when people, especially a mental health professional, scoff at claims of a mother sexually violating her daughter or son.
Mothers being a co-perpetrator do not invalidate the memories. On the contrary, it adds credibility to memories because of the deep shame involved in female to female intra-familial sexual abuse. The denial, secrets, and lack of protection for the child would be severely enhanced in a home where a mother sexually abuses her daughter along with the spouse or boyfriend. Thus, the need for the victim to repress the incest becomes stronger.
If a daughter felt any pleasure from engaging in sexual acts with her mother, then her shame and guilt would be so magnified that she would probably do anything to deny the abuse, including blocking it from consciousness. Maternal incest is one of the greatest violations a child can endure. A mother is supposed to be the ultimate protector, not assaulting a child’s body and defiling their sexuality.
Russell declares that many mothers are not aware of father/daughter incest going on in the home but this is the exception, not the norm, and deliberate lack of maternal protection is a main contributing factor in cases of repression. 3
One study found that 43% of mothers knew about the sexual abuse in their home and did nothing to stop it.
Some women do manage to leave an abusive husband, or at least confront him and force counseling, but this means a minimal system of denial within the family, and therefore, less of a chance of the victim developing Dissociative Amnesia.
The deep shame and betrayal attached to mother/daughter incest is so intense that we have no true idea of the real numbers of incest perpetrated by the mother. The need to repress the horrible feelings, thus the entire incident, would especially take place if the child felt any pleasure in the acts. It also means that women who have been sexually molested by their mother are usually going to keep their secret forever. A sparse amount of women want to openly admit that they engaged in oral sex with their mother, or worse yet, that it felt good.
In cases where the sexual abuse has been retracted, the perpetrator was often a female.
Not only does a mother’s vulgar violation of her daughter’s trust drive the shame much deeper, but the victim’s personal denial would be greater. Further, the collective denial system to maternal incest may be the contributing factor in retractions.
Victims know damn well that many people roll their eyes to the accusation of a nicely-dressed, church-going mother sexually abusing her daughter.
There are few experiences more difficult for a person to come to terms with than their mother sexually molesting them, especially if the previous victim begins to remember that they enjoyed some of the acts. When a victim begins to deny that mother/daughter incest ever took place, it allows them to deny that they liked being sexually stimulated by their own mother.
Rape was commonly reported among those who experienced repressed memories, as opposed to a small percentage of rape in those with continuous memory.
The entire process of Dissociative Amnesia has to do with repressing trauma. Rape constitutes shock, severe emotional pain, and much more physical suffering than oral sex and fondling. The suffering of molestation victims, who have not experienced rape, is not to be minimized. I know that all child sexual abuse is terrible and can seriously damage a person, but Russell seems to be overlooking the obvious trauma involved in child rape.
A study by Elliot found that ninety-four percent of those who reported never-forgotten abuse had not been penetrated by their perpetrator and the predominance of those with full memory loss, had been raped. 4 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is highly associated with repression of trauma, is linked to penetration. 5
I interviewed a woman with continuous memory of being molested by her grandfather. After he fondled her, the memories stop just as her grandfather came at her as if he was about to rape her. She lost all memory at that point, yet she suffers from a sharp pain in her vagina that has plagued her well into adulthood and the affliction has no medical explanation.
In the cases of repressed memory, the abuse always involved more than one incident, while the cases of continuous memories often involved a single occurrence.
There are a multitude of studies which show that prolonged severe trauma is more likely to be repressed. In addition, Dissociative Amnesia cases involving abuse that lasted months or years, have been corroborated and documented with abuser confessions, witnesses, or court convictions. 6
The more frequent and long lasting, the more traumatic and damaging child sexual abuse becomes. People who have continuous memory of only one incident may have been rescued after the molestation or rape occurred. This significantly lowers the chance of repression and strongly indicates little or no denial within the family. It also suggests that trauma was usually not involved in Russell’s cases of always-remembered abuse. Family denial is a strong contributor to repressed memories.
The incest in repressed memory cases is commonly remembered as beginning when the child was pre-verbal. In Russell’s study, the average age of abuse was eleven to fifteen years. Only eleven percent of the victims were under age five.
This is no surprise and only validates that repression is linked to the incest beginning at a young age and the amount of trauma inflicted on the child.
Evidence shows that infants and toddlers can remember trauma. 7 Nevertheless, whether or not the child remembers the incident, the abuse must be processed within the child’s mind. If an infant or toddler is sexually assaulted, they will still register it as trauma. The child may not be able to verbally express their pain or even understand it, but the trauma is being inflicted on the child’s body and on their emotions. The event has to be recorded in some form. The experience does not just bounce off the child’s brain and fly into the cosmos.
There is nothing surprising about the continuous memory group being much older when they were molested. When a teenager is sexually abused, they are more able to deal with the situation in a young-adult manner. Teenage victims are going to react very differently than a four year-old being raped or a six year-old being threatened with death while she is having her father’s penis forcibly shoved in her mouth.
In Russell’s study, the acts of sexual abuse in the repressed memory cases “almost always” involved multiple perpetrators, while those with continuous abuse memories overwhelmingly remembered only one abuser.
Families with a system of denial, and which harbor inter-generational incest, are likely to have more than one perpetrator living among them. The abuse by one family member can create an entire atmosphere of incest. If everyone is silent about the primordial incest, then other family members with a potential towards abusing children, might feel they have been given a green light to also begin molesting the child. The very fact that no one stopped the original abuse, and because the child may be so weak and victimized, the child is automatically set up to be attacked by others.
Sometimes the perpetrator orchestrates sexual acts with other family members that include the victim. The abuser may use threats to initiate the acts, or they may have a willing participant, like an older brother, an uncle, or even an older sister.
Occasionally, the compliant partner is the mother or step-mother. A sexualized child might learn a pattern of how to gain attention and seek it from other men (or sometimes women) in the family. Once the system of repression begins, the child learns how to automatically block out the incest being committed by multiple perpetrators.
Many people who retracted their previous accounts of abuse memories had previously reported experiencing Satanic Ritual Abuse.
A part of me used to want to deny that satanic ritual abuse can possibly exist. It is difficult to comprehend such things. However, we must comprehend it. People must become conscious of the kind of world we live in and allow themselves to know about the bizarre crimes which happen behind closed doors. Society cannot blind itself to SRA because victims of this crime already carry an incredible amount of their own denial about their experience. Victims must be believed.
Due to society denial, and the personal denial of the victim, retracting memories of SRA is totally understandable, and victims are often programmed by a cult member (or by a participating family member) to give a far-fetched account of the abusive acts. This way, if memories ever return, the adult survivor will be disbelieved to such an extent that they are forced to recant.
Russell notes that retractors became significantly worse during therapy. Problems included suicide attempts, hospitalization, or both. Russell’s study on continuous memory found the clients had improved or were about the same at the end of therapy.
People with continuous memory of child sexual abuse have had years or decades to deal with the memories. They have had ample time to consciously process at least part of the abuse and adjust to living as a survivor. They have most likely spoken of their childhood with supportive friends or a spouse. They may also have had therapy off and on, or counseling at school or college.
Anyone who experiences any kind of trauma for the first time, will certainly go through a crisis stage. When a person begins to remember previously repressed memories of child sexual abuse, the person feels as if the sexual assaults just took place. The adult survivor will go through turbulent emotions, physical reactions, and mental changes. When memories surface in adulthood, there is a level of emotional trauma because their lives have been shaken to the core.
One analogy would be that a person who is born without a leg, or who loses their leg as a small child, will quickly adapt. If someone loses their leg as an adult, there is a serious crisis period immediately following the loss of the limb. The adult may even suffer emotionally for years before coming to terms with such a tragedy.
In addition, victims who recall abuse memories as adults, frequently face re-victimization after remembering the trauma. This can be brought on by some or all of the following circumstances:
- Disbelieving family members
- Being cut off from the biological family
- Not being included in family reunions, holidays, or celebrations
- Being called horrible names by loved ones
There will also be added stress when the survivor has a husband and children who hear about the sexual abuse for the first time. Survivors with continuous memory most likely told their spouse of their history before they were married. Others may have disclosed their abusive past later in the marriage when they felt the time was right. The sexual abuse became knowledge that the family adapted to over time. Once the molestation and rape becomes a part of the survivor’s personal history, the shock factor wears off.
Any downward spiral after memory recall might also be the result of ineffective therapy practices —not that the memories are false. Behavioral Modification Therapy, positive thinking, “reality therapy,” or any therapy which involves prescription drugs can often make a patient worse and offers no real answers for their suffering.
According to Russell, victims, who always remembered their abuse, did not wrestle with belief about the memories. Her study found that vacillation between denial and belief was common with people who, as adults, recalled having been abused in childhood.
Those who have continuous memory of child abuse don’t need to question themselves (although, I have spoken to two people who do). Validation for continuous memory is more readily available than in repressed memory cases. This is obvious.
People who remember the trauma after years or decades, have lived without such awareness for so long that when the truth comes out, it can be taxing on their belief system. The survivor not only has to deal with their own denial system, but they must now face the denial of family members; so questioning themselves becomes inevitable.
I don’t think Marilyn Van derbur questioned herself (at least I do not recall ever reading that she did), but Marilyn’s sister, Gwen, openly admitted that her father had also raped Gwen as a child. Unlike Marilyn Gwen never forgot. So in Marilyn’s case, she had strong validation from her sister. This is unusual.
Only a small amount of the subjects in the continuous memory group spoke about deviant, unusual, or bizarre abuse. Those who had previously suffered Dissociative Amnesia tended to have memories of “hard to believe” events, which escalated during the process of remembering.
The subconscious mind has a system which protects a person from the most difficult memories until deep into the remembering process, and at a point when the person has the strength to come to terms with what is being remembered. Memories of the most severe aspects of child sexual abuse, invariably come toward the end of therapy or much later in the course of recall.
It is beyond dispute that Dissociative Amnesia is associated with extreme abuse and trauma. Abusers often use serious threats to silence the victim into a deliberate dissociation. Threats on the life of a child cause unrelenting trauma, and are congruous with a perpetrator who would do other extreme and deviant things to the child. Death threats have specifically been linked to delayed recall of abuse. 8
Bizarre or unusual violations are more likely to be covered up by those involved, which adds to the amnesia. The subjects of the continuous memory study did not appear to be severely traumatized.
Most of the accusations based on delayed memories have been made since 1990.
Repressed memory has been recorded for at least one hundred years prior to 1990, but it was not until the 1980’s that women felt they could finally talk about being sexually assaulted as children.
Prior to the 1980’s, mental health experts and society in general, did not allow themselves to know that child sexual abuse, much less incest, even existed. Or it was considered rare. Many judges and law enforcement blamed the victim. Is it any wonder that accusations about child sexual abuse were not heard of in any large numbers until victims and survivors found themselves in an era of refuge?
More women entering the field of psychology contributed to the ability of women to feel comfortable enough to speak with a professional about such sensitive issues. In addition, the first half of the twentieth century harbored a generation that did not believe in seeking help from mental health professionals. It was considered a sign of weakness, and airing family problems was believed to be shaming and scandalizing to the family.
Contrary to survivors with continuous memory, those who did not remember their trauma, until they became an adult, ended up confronting their perpetrators and subsequently cut them out of their lives completely.
The word “confront” often implies that the accuser verbally attacks the accused when they first speak of their memories, but Russell gave no indication of how each accuser personally dealt with their abuser. Regardless, the manner in which a person approaches family members, or their abuser, is no indication that the memories are false.
Some people do sever ties with their biological family, but those who remembered their abusive childhoods later in life are not the only ones who do. I personally know various women who were sexually abused. Nine out of ten of them never repressed their experiences, and even they don’t speak with their abuser. A number of them “confronted” their perpetrator or the woman who didn’t protect them.
Even if a survivor chooses to sever ties with their abuser, or with other family members who respond badly to the truth being told, this does not mean the memories are false. People who repress their abuse and only speak of the sexual violation when they remember it, are often called terrible names by their family or told they are liars. Sometimes they are threatened or their integrity is attacked. It is the backlash -not the truth being spoken- which usually leads to any separation of the relationship.
It is logical that one group of victims would repress their memories and another group, with almost completely different experiences and circumstances, would not. The Russell study does not disprove the existence of repressed memory and why it takes place in the mind of some victims. On the contrary, Russell’s findings offer credibility to the accusations of incest and child sexual abuse that were once blocked from consciousness.
The proponents of “False Memory Syndrome” consistently attack therapy as “mind control,” when in reality, backlash from biological family members who are reacting to the unveiling of long-kept secrets, is the real mind control.
To my knowledge, the advocates of FMS have not addressed the fact that family members have a much stronger influence on a person than a therapist does. The family’s multiple and dysfunctional emotional dynamics can largely impact an adult who has spoken openly about child abuse memories. It is highly plausible that in many cases, family members, not a therapist, have re-created the truth of a person’s childhood. A therapist is an outsider and a stranger when the patient begins therapy. Family members have a powerful emotional bond that therapists do not have, and will never have.
There is nothing stronger or more potent than the emotional ties one has to their biological family.
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1. The Secret Trauma Introduction to the 1999 Edition of the Great Incest War: Moving Beyond Polarization, Diana Russell, Table 1-1 Contrasting Characteristics of Retrieved/Then Retracted Memories and Continuous Memories of Incestuous Abuse
New York, Basic Books/Perseus Press, 1999, xvii-xiii
2. Healing from the Trauma of Childhood Sexual Abuse: The Journey for Women, Karen A. Duncan, page 12
3. Williams, L. M. (1995, October). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8(4)
Trauma, dissociation, and post traumatic stress disorder in female borderline patients with and without substance abuse problems.
Van Den Bosch LM, Verheul R, Langeland W, Van Den Brink W.
Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2003 Oct; 37(5):549-55.
4. Traumatic Events: Prevalence and Delayed Recall in the General Population, Diana M. Elliot, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Philip C. Kendall Editor, Volume 65 No. 4, August 1997, page 814, Published by the American Psychological Association
5. Trauma, dissociation, and post traumatic stress disorder in female borderline patients with and without substance abuse problems.
Van Den Bosch LM, Verheul R, Langeland W, Van Den Brink W.
Aust N Z J Psychiatry 2003 Oct; 37(5):549-55.
6. The Recovered Memory Project, Ross Cheit, http://blogs.brown.edu/recoveredmemory/case-archive/
7. Babies Remember Pain, David B. Chamberlain Ph. D., Pre-and Peri-Natal Psychology, Volume 3 Number 4: Pages 297-310, Summer 1989
Dissociations in Infant Memory, Carolyn Rovee-Collier, Ph.D, Spring 1999 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 3, No. 3, pp. 26-30), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN).
8. Posttraumatic Stress Associated with Delayed Recall of Sexual Abuse: A General Population Study Diana M. Elliott and John Briere Journal of Traumatic Stress Volume 8, Number 4 October 1995 Special Issue: Research on Traumatic Memory Guest Co-Editor: Jessica Wolfe)