Memories of Sexual Abuse Often Encoded in the Unconscious Mind, But Display Themselves in Daily Life

“When the movie “The Prince of Tides” debuted in the early 1990s, Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea’s phone started ringing off the hook.

Frawley-O’Dea is a licensed psychologist, psychoanalyst and trauma specialist who serves as counseling director at the Presbyterian Samaritan Center in Charlotte, N.C. “The Prince of Tides” is the Hollywood version of Pat Conroy’s best selling novel about a dysfunctional South Carolina family with a dark secret to hide.

The connection?

Frawley-O’Dea’s practice deals primarily with patients who suffer from long-repressed memories, so a movie about someone revealing their buried secrets unleashed a flood of memories in Frawley-O’Dea’s patients.

It sounds a little strange but the human mind is a strange place. Frawley-O’Dea said a variety of sensory experiences can trigger memories of childhood trauma that the brain didn’t record normally, and she has seen them come into play many times. In her work with victims of clergy sexual abuse, the smell of incense, the sight of candles at the altar or the sounds of organ music have triggered painful memories of assault.

The concept of repressed traumatic memories has been coming back into the psychoanalytic lexicon during the past two decades, and since 2000 more scientific research has appeared supporting the theories behind it. But the concept remains a source of debate.

That debate will no doubt be at the forefront of the sexual abuse civil lawsuit filed in Chesterfield County recently. In the suit, two currently anonymous, adult, male plaintiffs allege that between 1975 and 1980 former Fourth Circuit Solicitor Jay Hodge and the now deceased William C. Hebard sexually abused them while serving as Boy Scout leaders of Troop 663, sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Cheraw. The case is currently just a civil matter, but current Fourth Circuit Solicitor Will Rogers sent the case to the South Carolina Attorney General for consideration late last week.

The civil case will almost certainly hinge on the plaintiffs’ argument that prior to 2011 they could not have reasonably discovered the causal relationship between the abuses and their psychological damages. That’s important, because while there is no statute of limitations on criminal charges of child sexual abuse in South Carolina, civil suits are limited to six years after the victim turns 21 or three years after the memories are discovered.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Trey Cockrell, said that the case was filed 32 years after the fact because, until recently, the specific memories of the incidents were suppressed. That’s true, Cockrell said, even though symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder — including depression, suicide attempts and sexual dysfunction — were ever-present in the men’s lives.

One exhibit filed with the suit is a 30-page psychological evaluation of one of the plaintiffs conducted by Frawley-O’Dea in February. The report includes a narrative of the abuses and details that this plaintiff always remembered Hebard’s abuses, but it wasn’t until 2010 that he began to recall Hodge’s abuses after being exposed to pornographic images on Hodge’s computer during a work-related investigation.

Though Frawley-O’Dea cannot discuss the actual case, she is an expert in the field of treating adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and has been doing so for 30 years.

She says that the term “memory repression” is actually a misnomer because the human mind is not just split by a line into above or below consciousness — there are different states of consciousness. She said it is actually disassociation, a phenomenon that many are familiar with in common situations, such as when someone drives along a highway for 10 miles and suddenly “comes to” with no recollection of what happened or where they’ve been. Researchers say this happens because the brain has two different memory coding and retrieval systems.

“The pathways are similar for both except that traumatic memories do not engage the frontal cortex because it’s more expedient and more efficient to leave that pathway out,” Frawley-O’Dea said. “So the memories or experiences are encoded in the limbic system and they’re not encoded with words often or even pictures as much as they are encoded with feelings, moods, senses of self and other sensory details.”

In other words, because a person’s brain is severely over-stimulated during trauma, the brain processes the memory more quickly and skips some normal steps. Researchers like Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts have shown in PET scan research the the frontal cortex has been left out of particularly horrible memories.

Frawley-O’Dea said this is basically a defense mechanism because the events are so horrifying people essentially do not want to remember them.

Meg Temple is the clinical director at the Durant Children’s Center in Florence and treats children who have been abused. She said that reactions can vary greatly in individual children and the disassociation can hinge on whether a child has the appropriate mental skills yet to deal with the trauma. Some will remember sexual abuse incidents forever while some will immediately disassociate it until a trigger brings the memories back.

According to Frawley-O’Dea, disassociation can happen more often when a trauma involves extreme betrayal by someone the victim trusts, be it a woman raped by a loved one or child fondled by a priest, because the actions are in such conflict with how the victim perceives their abuser.

There is no hard rule as to how often child sexual abuse victims disassociate their memories, if they disassociate at all.

Most widely cited is a 1994 study by Linda Meyer Williams, a Massachusetts-based sociologist and criminologist, which looked at 129 women who were treated for sexual assault at a Philadelphia hospital in the 1970s. When interviewed 17 years later, 38 percent of the women did not mention the documented incidents when asked about being sexually abused as children. Williams argued that most of them would have disclosed the incidents if they remembered them because they often detailed other sensitive, traumatic experiences.

Of course there have been methodological rebuttals that some of the incidents were not very impactful and were simply forgotten or that the interviewers did not make reference to the specific incidents. Others say the number could be low because the abuses were actually reported, while there is perhaps more disassociation when children are pressured by their abusers not to tell.

“I think the silence was worse than the rapes.”~ From the film, The Prince of Tides

Frawley-O’Dea said by the time she is treating a patient, they usually have some concept that they were abused as children and have sought her help to begin the healing process. However, some patients find their way to her with seemingly disconnected symptoms like anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, nightmares, regression and anger issues, and then work through the symptoms and vague feelings to uncover the source of the problems.

She’s aware that when victims of childhood sexual abuse come forward with “discovered memories,” there are some people who write it off as a witch hunt. And there’s still some lingering doubts about the theory from the early 90s because the technique itself was abused. Untrained therapists would provide rape as an answer to a psychological symptom instead of allowing patients to devise their own answers with their own memories.

“Someone would have a dream about rape and be cutting themselves and a bad therapist would tell them they must have been raped,” Frawley-O’Dea said. “The implanting of memories is abuse in and of itself, and it never works out. The suggestions never stand the test of time.”

Frawley-O’Dea has served as an expert witness in several cases were plaintiffs were sexually abused by teachers and priests. She said though she cannot say definitively whether a patient was molested as a child, she can carefully study someone’s symptoms, memories, nightmares and ways of recounting incidents and professionally say in a deposition that it is “more likely than not” that a person was abused.”

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15 Responses to Memories of Sexual Abuse Often Encoded in the Unconscious Mind, But Display Themselves in Daily Life

  1. SurvivorSunshine says:

    I was hypnotized when I was sexually abused by my psychopathic father (he’s in jail for life w/o parole for hiring a hitman to murder my mom, brother and brother’s nurse), so as you can guess- it took a very LONG time (my 30s) for my memories to resurface. And they are just shades of memories or strong feelings when I see a little girl being affectionate with her dad. Sometimes body memories, as well. I relate to you, Djuana. Movies, like “The Prince of Tides” and “Bastard Out of Carolina” are very disturbing but very emotionally relevant to me. I will never, ever forgot those movies. They made me feel like other people understood my pain, even if they were fictional characters in a movie. Thanks again, Alethea, for touching on a topic that reaches me to my core. I feel happy that people on this blog can share and understand that kind of truama and pain, after a lifetime being around so-called friends and family in deep denial.

    • Alethea says:

      Hi Sunshine 🙂

      I just put Bastard Out of Carolina on my Netflix list.

      My Blog is also a place for me to feel not so alone, and to feel a connection to others who have been through the same things –especially repressed memories. Thank you so much for your continued support and sweet comment.

      I also get a little freaked out inside when I see a father and daughter being overly affectionate.

      • DJuana Flowers says:

        Whew, glad to know I am not the only one who reacts to seeing fathers and daughters, or any man and girl showing a lot of affection. Actually I am usuallt suspicious. On the other hand, I am glad for daughters that can feel such love, affection and trust in their fathers. Those Hallmark commercials, for me, are like watching some curious foreign custom.

        • Alethea says:

          DJuana, I have serious issues with Pampers commercials. They are often eye candy for pedophiles. Pretty disgusting sometimes…really. I have no doubt that some large corporations are run by child sexual abuse ring leaders. Pampers might be one.

        • SurvivorSunshine says:

          I’m ALWAYS suspicious, especially if it’s a stepfather or boyfriend with young girls or boys. Even of my own family members because I know incest and sexual abuse is prevalent in BOTH of my families-paternal and maternal. So it makes sense why my parents “found” each other. The subconscious mind is so strong. I feel God gave me heavy discernment so I try to calm down my suspicions and just observe. Sometimes I’m wrong and the father (or mother) are healthy, well-adjusted parents who are extremely affectionate. The other times, I say a silent prayer that what is done in darkness will eventually come to light.

      • little nel says:

        I get a little freaked out when I see a step-father and daughter do activities together on weekends, without the mother or anyone else present.

      • SurvivorSunshine says:

        Alethea, I just want to warn you that movie is a very heavy trigger, especially for young victims of rape by an adult man. It is extremely graphic and has amazing performances by all of the cast. It shocked me but it also made me enraged. I made a vow to NEVER stay quiet about any type of child abuse after watching that movie several times in a row.

        Angelica Huston directed it and I often wonder if she had been abused as a young child growing up in Hollywood.

        • Alethea says:

          Thank you Sunshine for the warning.

          I watched “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” recently and did pretty well.

  2. Sue Morel says:

    I went through repressed memory treatment through the VA. I had previously remembered sexual abuse by my brother, but had not remembered that he nearly killed me by beating me one night. He was 19 and I was 14. I’m from Mass. and the statute of limitations has prevented me from doing anything. (I am now 56). I have contacted a few lawyers. I need to find out if I can sue him for damages. The VA helped me greatly. I always knew I was afraid of my brother, even into adult hood, but now I know why. If anyone can help me, please offer me advise. Thank You.

    • Alethea says:

      Hi Sue.

      Anything that threatens our life in such a serious way, can cause us to block it out completely. I am not surprised that you repressed this.

      I would say that, if your brother still poses a threat to anyone, you ought to think about being open about what he did. Or was this something that he did when he was a teenager, and he has since cleaned up his life?

      The attorneys you have contacted should be able to have advised you accordingly. Some states allow a civil trial if the victim discovers much later in life that their physical and psychological problems stemmed from denied or repressed childhood abuse.

      I have to wonder how helpful it would be for you to sue him if he was trying to get his life on track, and isn’t around children. Sometimes, finding compassion for those who are sorry and who are not a threat anymore, is better than trying to get back at them or making them pay. I sympathize with you very much. Believe me, I know how much therapy costs and know that our abusers should help us pay for it, but you might want to step back and look objectively at your motivation. Is it to hurt him, or to get justice and protection of children? If it is for justice and the protection of children, then be strong and vocal.

  3. Matthew says:

    There are lots of interesting books about this subject. One of the best is “Cult and Ritual Abuse” by James Randall Noblitt and Pamela Sue Perskin. You can read about it on amazon. Unfortunately, since satanic cults practice ritual abuse in order to make their victims dissociate, cult members always go online and attack any book that tells the truth about this subject. That’s why you get some one-star reviews mixed in with the five stars. By the way, the correct term for this phenomenon is not “disassociation,” it’s “dissociation.” The disorder used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder and now it’s been changed to Dissociative Identity Disorder. P.S. Thanks for all the interesting articles, Alethea.

    • Alethea says:

      Hey Matthew. Thanks for the great comment. SRA and RA survivors always have my extra compassion because of the denial system that permeates society.

      So glad you enjoy the articles! Thanks for being a reader.

  4. DJuana Flowers says:

    In the early 70s I saw a movie that depicted two fathers on vacation with their two teenage daughters. On a beach in France, maybe, the girls decided to go topless and just bounced up to the dads as if it were typical behavior. I was sick. I couldn’t stay in the theatre. I was newly married and had no idea what was happening to me. After a long time, one shrink doubting it, I began to believe myself. No memeories, lots of synmptoms. Many years later and there are still triggers that bring on feelings, but no memeories. Other people’s memories have served as verification. I tell people, repression/ dissociation is real. Believe her.

    • Sue Morel says:

      Please see a psychiatrist that specializes in repressed memories. It will be worth it. I have so much more faith in myself. I now know why I did what I did all of my life. It all makes sense. Good luck

      • DJuana Flowers says:

        Thanks Sue. I do realize why I behaved the way I did. Have done a lot of work and study and prayer. Having the memories does’nt seem important anymore. Matthew…yikes! I had forgotten about the condition once being called “multiple Personality Disorder”. I don’t think that would fit me, or a lot of other people. Shades of Sybil, and Eve…great films though.

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