How and Why a Child Forces Overwhelming, Extraordinary, and Horrifying Abuse Into the Unconscious Mind

Repression and dissociation of trauma is listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV).

However, 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, and betrayal.

Repressed traumatic memory is normally diagnosed as “dissociative 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.

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.

Each of these very significant reasons play a role, but in my research, and in my own situation, denial, shame, and guilt also contribute to the amnesia. Let’s examine the theories for why dissociative amnesia takes place.

Nature’s System of Self-Survival:

Humans 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 their 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 abuse and death threats, remembering the abuse can be equated with severe punishment or death. 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.

People wonder how a person can block out relentless 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 Betrayal Trauma Jennifer Freyd explains how continuous trauma and betrayal by a primary care-giver 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, abuse 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 others 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 awareness 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 young girl 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 made to protect himself, or herself, 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.

Maternal Abandonment:

Professional research confirms that mothers who look the other way is a contributing factor in traumatic memory impairment.

It makes perfect sense that a child’s denial 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:

Skeptics of dissociative amnesia ask why so many victims of the Holocaust remember details about their traumatic experience. First of all, 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 and that it was their imagination. 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.


Source Notes:

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

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9 Responses to How and Why a Child Forces Overwhelming, Extraordinary, and Horrifying Abuse Into the Unconscious Mind

  1. Why Not? says:

    Well, on Thursday my therapist and I talked about this very issue – on a very personal level.

    She told me to go home and cry, but I simply couldn’t find the “right time” to let go (actually, the courage to face some of those memories alone – by standing in the center of the fire and rescuing me from all that shame, so undeserved.)

    Here I am, after having read your most excellent and emotionally stirring post, ready to face them… the revelations in the post in one hand and the comments in the other…. I no longer feel ALONE and the courage has come…. the time is now.

    Just, WOW! Thank you (again) Alethea – and Thank You, little nel and Anonymous. I am so grateful that you all are here.

    • Alethea says:

      Why Not,

      No, Thank YOU. Thank you for your courage to face the past and to feel it. The only way out is through.

      Thank you for your strength and support.


    • little nel says:

      It was very hard for me to face the memories of my abuse because the abuse paralyzed me and the cover up was so intense that I fainted from fear.

      What ever those matrons used to revive me damaged my sinuses and caused me a lot of pain for a lot of years. Needless to say, I kept silent about everything. They knew how to handle “trouble makers” who wanted to tell on them.

      • little nel says:

        Through my therapy with Dr. Saint-Simone, I have found relief and healing from the physical symptoms that I had learned to live with, caused by the abuse and follow up abuse in my childhood.

        It was a relief to acknowledge the truth and learn that I could look at my abusers and admonish them for what they did to me.

        I got my “nanner… nanner… nanners” with my thumb to my nose and my fingers waving upright because their efforts were thwarted in the end, because I knew the truth about them.

        • Alethea says:

          Thanks Little Nel for posting. That is the power of this therapy, we get to turn the tables on our abusers at the subconscious level –the same level that the abuse happened. This is what heals us.

      • Alethea says:

        This therapy slowly allows us to gain the needed strength to face those memories at the right time, and when we do, we take power over having been paralyzed with fear.

  2. little nel says:

    This was good post, Alethea.

    Maternal abandonment and the lack of validation that you describe is what I call “follow up abuse” because it intensified my pain and shame.

    I can remember how I cried and cried when I tried to explain what happened to me at the hands of the matrons, and no one would acknowledge it. The only comfort that I received was verbal mocking in the form of being labeled a “cry baby” and a “liar” by my abusers and family.

    “I never saw little Nel being abused, so it didn’t happen the way she says it did. So, punishment is in order to address the “lying” and make sure that she doesn’t lie like that again.”

    “We will give her something to cry about (a spanking) and it will stop this nonsense”

    “You need to take responsibility for telling lies, so you deserve the spanking.”

    Depression was something that I came by honestly and I just accepted it as a part of my normal sense of feelings.

    “You can’t handle much stress, can you?”

    Well, gee, keeping the sexual abuse a secret has over-loaded my internal stress handling mechanism, so there isn’t much room for more stress, because I can’t unload what’s there already.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This article evokes a lot of emotion for me, but I am so glad to have it. Now there is something I can have close at hand to point to, here, see this…it happens. To be such an age, 57, and still not remember, wouldn’t be so bad except that my younger siblings do Have memories. Even one of our peers remembers an event between my father and I ! Only learned of that recently, from my sister.
    My brother and sister also have college degrees and successful careers. Something I was unable to accomplish. I am plenty intelligent enough, but it has been my life’s work to just function as a wife and mother, as a friend and volunteer on occasion. I always knew that I could not handle parenting and working full time also. Along time ago, my mother said, “You just can’t handle much stress, can you ?” LOL, I could have said, Lady I have been handleing stress since I can remember!
    I am pretty brave though. I have spoken out about abuse and abortion, to let people know the emotional effects that both can have on women. That may have helped someone. I hope so.
    It has often been a struggle to exist along with the depression and unravelling the symptoms of the abuse. Anyway, I am going to show this article to my long time school friend, and my (2nd) husband. Thank you so much.

    • Alethea says:

      Dear Anonymous:

      Your comment evoked emotion from me because I see myself in your feelings and experiences. I used to feel ‘less than’ those who had a college education. I never had the opportunity from my mother. She never encouraged me to go to college, just to work all the time…and so I did. Then I got sick in 1994 and the disease incapacitated my ability to work. For 15 years I was unable to work and could not attend college. The physical symptoms and PTSD symptoms were too much for me to function at a job.

      Later, when I began to fully heal from the disease, I started comparing myself to others in a very bad way for myself. I cried many times thinking that those with a college education were ‘better people’ than me. Then I started to realize that not only is each person unique, and given gifts from God that are special to that person, but I also saw that many people with a college education, and who were seemingly “successful” people, were also very self-centered and often unloving people who cared more about money and their own ego than helping a stray animal or driving a sick friend to the doctor. I would rather be who I am, with no college degree, and to do what I do every day in my life to give, help, or offer…than to have a college degree, a good paying job, and have little or no regard for animals, nature, and not helping the planet in some small way.

      As far as I am concerned, what you have done with volunteer work, and speaking out about abuse and abortion, is just as important as a college degree.

      “You just can’t handle much stress, can you ?”

      Your mother sounds a lot like mine. That is something my mother might say to me. Well gee mom, ever heard of PTSD? Ever wonder where I got it from??? There is a good reason for someone to not be able to handle stress like people who have not experienced trauma and abuse.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, and than you for sharing this article.
      All my best,

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