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.
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.
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