The Power of the Human Denial System

Two interesting cases of trauma and child sexual abuse, show exactly how a child, or adult, might retract previously disclosed accusations of child sexual abuse.

Milton Erickson, who studied both cases, documented the truth of each of these cases, as being completely proven by the details of the offenses, which are supported by the factual and specific corroborated testimony.

In the first case, further proof unfolded by way of medical exams, which verified that the two young girls had been sodomized and raped. The victims were also interviewed separately, and their stories were virtually the same.

The girls, ages nine and eleven, were brought into the care of authorities when their parent’s brothel was raided. The parents and twelve male clients were arrested. In the first interview with the girls, each victim showed negative emotion towards what they had endured. Both girls displayed powerful resentment and abhorrence for their parents and the men who abused them.

The girls also showed anxiety and fear about their physical state, which included having syphilis and gonorrhea, and they felt gratification about the penalties given to the adults. In addition, the two girls had received enjoyment from some of the sexual contact and they were full of shame and guilt about this.

The next interview documented less of a need from both girls to speak about what had happened, and they were more concerned with the venereal diseases and discomfort from being under quarantine. They also began to minimize the details of their previous stories. The girls were even contradicting themselves and denying accounts they gave in the first interview.

By the third interview, the girls gave insufficient facts about their abuse, as well as inadequate details about the most important aspects of their experiences, and specific elements were being minimized more radically. The sodomy was now being completely denied by both girls and their denial included hostility towards the interviewer. The girls also denied having given naked erotic dances for the patrons.

The girls quickly began to display the beginnings of being protective towards their parents. They made statements of personal denial and said their parents would “never” have let other people sexually abuse them. The girls were now characterizing a portion of the more monstrous acts as “lies.”

By the third interview the girls both withheld any mention of feeling physical pleasure and any former feelings of content over the punishment that the adults received had vanished.

Six months later the girls were interviewed for the last time. The victims both showed resentment for the interviewer’s interest in their trauma and pain. This was especially visible in the younger girl. The girls said that all the accusations were “nasty lies.” The parents were both defended by the girls and the parents were regarded with kindness. The victims expressed anger towards law enforcement, and became strong and sincere in their new belief that the trauma and sexual abuse did not happen.

Eventually, the girls repeated their original stories, but called them fabrications, and continued to say that their parents were the victims. When Milton Erickson mentioned their venereal diseases, he faced angry denials and the girls gave trivial reasons for how they contracted the diseases.

Erickson noted the girls had no conscious recollection of their experience as being a reality. Their new opinions and their honesty in those beliefs could not be challenged by anyone.

The explanation for their denial most likely stems from various reasons and the reasons may be different for each girl. It is possible that in order to keep the truth alive, it meant facing that their parents did not love them. The truth also meant being separated from the rest of society, their friends, and childhood activities previously enjoyed.

This is equivalent to adult retractors who find that once they disclose the abuse, and are subsequently alienated by friends and family, they prefer the complacency of their lives before they told of their memories.

It can be extremely painful to be cut off from family members. As Erickson noted in his work, the girl’s isolation contributed to the early stages of retraction. When an abuse survivor speaks openly about their memories, the result can be just like isolation if the biological family ostracizes the survivor. The girls may also have retracted their disclosure because of the personal trauma. The girl’s denial system rejected what was demoralizing, monstrous, and what was perpetrated by their loved ones.

Another chief reason for a person to take back an abuse allegation could be because the child felt good when they had sexual contact with their perpetrator. In this instance, incrimination of the abuser also means self-incrimination for shame.

The second Erickson case offers another clear example of a victim’s fantasy bond with their tormentor. The second case shows that even when the perpetrator is not a family member, victims cannot comprehend that another human being can be so cruel.

The case involved a young woman who was in a car crash with a man who had recently been paroled from prison. It is unclear what their relationship was prior to the accident, but the article indicates that they had intended on staying at a prostitute roadhouse when the car accident altered those plans.

The man had been driving and the accident trapped the woman under the car. The vehicle caught on fire and the woman had to be rescued by strangers who came upon the scene because her companion had left the area without making any attempt to save her. He later confessed to the entire incident. The motorists who rescued the woman confirmed the testimony of the man, and the victim also testified to the same facts at the trial. She had been extremely angry over being abandoned to die.

Yet without any intervention in the case, the woman sought out a re-trial eight months later under the appeal of her own testimony being false. The woman began telling Milton Erickson that she truly believed her escort had desperately tried to save her. She insisted that “no human being would do such a thing, nor could anybody endure being so treated.”

The victim even went so far as to create a detailed ‘false’ scenario. Interestingly, she recounted how one might feel if left to die in such a way. She even elaborated on the story, as if she was fantasizing about her own reality. It is evident that the woman needed to believe the man was a decent person. She said the incident could not have taken place because it would have been intolerable and that no human could have endured it. This shows that when a person faces human cruelty, the denial system can overpower personal experience, common sense, and facts.

Even the man who had been driving the car told Erickson that the woman was crazy, confused, or “nuts.” The man said the woman had been honest in court and that the accident happened just the way she had originally testified to.



Negation or Reversal of Legal Testimony, Hypnotic Investigation of Psychodynamic Processes, Milton Erickson, The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis Volume 3, Edited by Ernest L. Rossi Irvington Publishers, Inc, 1980, page 221-224

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6 Responses to The Power of the Human Denial System

  1. little nel says:

    I just read a statement from Scott Paterno.

    He said, “I know my father did not know Jerry was a pedophile and did not suspect he was a pedophile.”

    How could Joe Paterno not suspect anything when he was aware of eye witness accounts of Jerry with children naked in the showers having sex with them?

    This is denial at it’s best.

    • manuela says:

      Sorry, little nel, I don’t want to argue with you, but regarding this phrase “this is denial at it’s best”, I am tending to believe that you are way to kind with that person. He is not denying, he just wants to protect his father through LIES. He is just a BIG LIAR.

      • little nel says:

        Thank you, Manuela. I stand corrected.
        You are 100% correct. I agree that he is just a BIG LIAR.

        Like father, like son.

        Joe Paterno lied about Jerry’s activities to the Grand Jury.

  2. little nel says:

    Hi Alethea,

    Well, the cat’s out of the bag about the Penn State scandal.

    The consensuses was what you stated at the onset of this story.

    The leadership at Penn State didn’t give a damn about those children who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky.

    They empowered Jerry and ignored the sexual abuse of those little boys. The well being and protection of those small victims was not a consideration of the Penn State officials. Protecting Jerry was the only focus.

    Those fucking assholes!

  3. little nel says:

    “It can be extremely painful to be cutoff from family members.”

    After being “removed” from my family home because of my mother’s neglect, I suffered the most severe emotional pain imaginable for a 9 year-old child. Then to add more pain to that separation anxiety, I was sexually abused by a same-sex matron who worked the night shift. I remember thinking that I will never be OK again because I was broken so badly.

    I was traumatized in the same way as a kidnapped and raped victim, but I did not realize it until I got into therapy for PTSD.

    If lying or recanting could have spared me all that pain back then, I would have lied and/or recanted, but it never came to that, as I was told to “never talk about it” by my mother when she appeared in court to regain custody. I was ordered to keep silent, so I did out of fear of being “removed” again by the police, to never see my family anymore.

  4. little nel says:

    Human cruelty has been an accepted form of “re-educating” dissidents and/or changing a witness’ story by those wishing to benefit from the recanting.

    Who wants suffer the consequences of their illegal, immoral, and unethical behavior when witness tampering is a viable solution?

    What child wants to incriminate their parents when the consequences seem worse for the child than the abuse which has ended in their mind?

    Children do not know that their abusers will not stop until they are arrested, prosecuted, and jailed.

    They are no different than the officials at Penn State who believed that Jerry had stopped abusing because they caught him and had talked it over with Jerry and he promised to stop. The abuse had ended in their minds.

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