The Personal Denial System of Sex Abuse Victims

For my new readers, this is a re-post from 2012, with one small addition at the end:

“It is understandable that some would choose to deny their memories, preferring to endure the anguish of symptoms rather than the anguish of the remembering process”~Anne Hart

Stacey Lannert’s father sexually abused her for years, and her mother ignored it. Stacey ended up protecting herself by killing her father. After she was incarcerated, (Stacey has since been released from prison) Stacey spoke of needing to remember the good side of her father.


Stacey said, instead of remembering that her father had raped her, she remembers when he would, “just be my daddy and he’d hold me, talk to me, or just call me his tiger in a loving voice.”

Truddi Chase suffered sadistic abuse and rapes by her father. Her mother also physically abused and threatened her.

In her book, When Rabbit Howls, Truddi wrote these words about her mother, “It’s hard to think mean thoughts about a mother who trimmed the crusts off the bread for your school sandwiches”

Truddi Chase on Oprah

Truddi Chase on Oprah

As adults, Stacey and Truddi express the human denial system in its purest form –with the simplicity of a child.

A Holocaust survivor, who lived in the Auschwitz concentration camp for one year, also offers an example of how sincere the human denial system is. She was asked by her therapist about her memories of being imprisoned. Her first response was “I remember it had beautiful flowers.” She then sat silently for five full minutes before finally beginning to cry.

The woman’s conscious denial of the prison camp, allowed her to operate in the present. However, the woman’s method for repressing her experience had failed, because she continued to suffer in her daily life.

This is what happens when adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and incest, function with the same denial system that helped them survive the horrors of abuse.

This unconscious ritual ends up failing after a number of years because it no longer works when the soul cries out to be relieved of the pain. The previously useful arrangement between the conscious and unconscious mind, helped the person maintain a somewhat functional life, but eventually it becomes a prison and the memories beg to come through to consciousness.

It’s not surprising, or uncommon, that victims of sexual abuse would deny their history of abuse. Even perpetrators deny having been sexually assaulted as children.

FBI agent Roy Hazelwood did a survey on forty-one rapists, who combined had perpetrated at least 837 rapes. The perpetrators were asked about any personal experiences with having been sexually abused as a child. Only one man stated that he had been abused. This surprised Hazelwood, so he asked the rapists about their earliest sexual experience. It was clear that most of the men had been victims of child sexual assault. Thirty-one of the rapists (seventy-six percent) did not realize that their first experience with sex had been abusive –even though one man had been raped by his father until he was eleven years old.

An excellent example of how victims begin to deny the trauma and pain shortly after the traumatic experiences take place, is the case of a five year old girl who saw her father fatally shoot her mother and then commit suicide.

Five weeks later, she was asked by a mental health professional, what the worst thing was that had ever happened to her.

In that moment the child “had a marked alteration in her facial expression, stopped playing, moved her face and head away from the interviewer and stared into space.” After a long moment, she stated, “I wanted to stay up late last weekend and have pizza, but I had to go to bed.”

After that, the interview consisted of the girl giving only single word responses.

Obviously the question evoked the trauma within her, but she dissociated from it by thinking instead about the pizza weekend.


Source Notes:
Hearing the Survivor’s Voice: Sundering the Wall of Denial, Sandra Bloom, Journal of Psychohistory, Vol 21, Number 4, spring 1994, page 462
Stacey Lannert, Free Stacey Lannert Website, Stacey’s Writings
When Rabbit Howls, Truddi Chase, Introduction and Epilogue by Robert A. Philips Jr., Ph.D, 1987
Holocaust Survivor’s Mental Health, T.L. Brink Ph.D. Editor, pages 22-23 (Also published as Clinical Gerontologist, Volume 14, Number 3 1994), 1994 Haworth Press, Inc. Birmingham NY Holocaust Survivor’s Mental Health, T.L. Brink Ph.D. Editor, page 23 (Also published as Clinical Gerontologist, Volume 14, Number 3 1994), 1994 Haworth Press, Inc. Birmingham NY
The Evil That Men Do: FBI Profiler Roy Hazelwood’s Journey into the Minds of Sexual Predators, Stephen G. Michaud with Roy Hazelwood, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1998, page 123.
Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. The Child Trauma Academy, Academy version of a chapter originally appearing in “Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma” (Edited by J. Goodwin and R. Attias) Basic Books (1999)



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7 Responses to The Personal Denial System of Sex Abuse Victims

  1. Reblogged this on Elizabeth Hein and commented:
    When I read this heartfelt blog post on Evil Sits at the Dinner Table, I immediately thought of Lara, the main character in How To Climb The Eiffel Tower. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism. So many survivors of abuse deny their memories in order to continue living their lives. I wish I could write a happy ending for every little girl or boy that has been abused.

  2. Mary says:

    As always, your posts are disturbing, but in a way that we need to be disturbed. Thank you for the work you do. As a survivor who isn’t sure what she survived, I appreciate discussion about denial systems and the very reasonable reliance on denial in survivors.

    • Alethea says:

      Thank you Mary. The denial system is so powerful, it can make humans blind, deaf and dumb.

      Denial stops being useful at some point in a person’s life, and the can then soul hammer on us to face things.

  3. KevinF says:

    Excellent article, Alethea. In my experience there’s another aspect to this too. As children 40-50 years ago, there was no language or vocabulary to express these things in. There was no such expression as child abuse ( in fact the Church and priests told us all the time that ‘if you spare the rod, you spoil the child’) and children were to be seen and not heard. And if a child still tried to say something, adults and authority figures wouldn’t listen and didn’t want to know.
    So along with the reaction of denial and dissociation that everyone uses to deal with this kind of trauma, no child could speak of this (except to other children with the same experience). Children then were effectively gagged and isolated and most lived out their lives like this.
    What’s different today is that there is the language publicly available to express/report this and authority figures have to listen. And children see on TV all the time adults being arrested and imprisoned for assaulting children – that never happened in the past.
    So of course the past is full of repression and denial. One good thing about today is that there are now words/language and processes for children to tell and report these things and actually be listened to.

    • Alethea says:

      To some extent Kevin, to some extent.

      I was in the grocery store the other day and a child, about age five, was crossing her legs. She told her mother, “Mommy, I have to pee.” Her mother said, “you can wait. You can hold it.” The bathrooms were right there too!

      The child again expressed herself, “mommy, I really need to go.” And with an irritated look on her face, the mother finally gave in.

      The adult world is still very selfish and doesn’t want to hear the ‘irritations’ of raising a child.

  4. melissa lee says:

    I know very well the courage it takes to be able to retrieve memories and work to transform the pain in and around them. My abuse started as an infant and went into teenage years, but at some point I was active about seeking out attention in sexual ways and there were many including teachers that would act on my advance or would sense my neediness and take advantage.

    Melissa Lee

    • Alethea says:

      I acted out that way too Melissa. It was all I knew. My self-worth depended on sexual attention. I received no other self-worth messages as a child, except the sexual body.

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