The Power of the Human Denial System

This is a re-post from 2012, but these cases are so interesting, and show the power of the human denial system.

Milton Erickson, who studied both cases, documented each of these cases, proving them through 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 behavior can be found in adults who retract their previous disclosure of child sexual abuse when they find that -by talking about the abuse to other family members- they are subsequently alienated by their family and decide that they prefer the complacency, and obedience, 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 also must 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 of shame.


The second Erickson case offers a clear example of a victim’s fantasy bond with their tormentor. This 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 after her companion had left the area without making any attempt to save her.

The man 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.

The victim was 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 researcher, Milton Erickson, that she truly believed her escort had desperately tried to save her.

The victim 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 her companion was a decent person. She said the incident could not have taken place because it would have been intolerable –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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One Response to The Power of the Human Denial System

  1. susashushan says:

    Another possibility could be Dissociation, Dissociative Amnesia, or switching between alternate internal selves (Dissociative Identity Disorder) which may have conflicting accounts of the abuses. Dissociation can also happen with PTSD, and certainly with C-PTSD.

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