Repressed Memories—How Can They be True?

Mary Armstrong (author of Confessions of a Trauma Therapist), it’s exciting to begin this dialogue with you about our experiences with incest and our paths to healing. We have much in common, along with many differences. We were both successful professionals getting on with our lives (yours as a therapist, mine as a scientist and college teacher) before our memories of incest surfaced.

Let’s start with topic of repressed memories, which is very controversial in some circles. Why were our memories were hidden and forgotten for so long?

This was a very thorny question for me, especially in the first two years of my work on healing. How could I have forgotten something so crucial and painful as my father’s incest on me? How could I believe my own memories if they had been gone so long? Was I making it all up? The doubts left me feeling hypersensitive, crazy, and very young. It took time to learn to trust the fragmentary, unclear images and feelings from my childhood.

It was after I read Jennifer Freyd’s wonderful book Betrayal Trauma: The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse, that I began to have sympathy and understanding for my repression. As Freyd explains it, a child who is growing up in a family has to depend on these adults for her every meal and every support. To stay within the family and get whatever stability is offered, she has to forget the abuse. Freyd even cites statistics that show (from reported cases of abuse) that the closer in relationship the perpetrator is to the abused child, the more likely she will sometime forget what happened.

In my memoir, I best expressed the emotional truth of repression in a poem:

The importance of fog.
Where it is dense, things live
that must not be known
on penalty of losing everything.
Their reality my reality.
If they said forget it
who would be my Oprah
put the microphone in my face?
To keep family, I had to break
my reality
into fragments
hide the pieces
under the closet door
at the end of the hallway.
How could I face them in the mornings
eat my corn flakes and milk
if I recalled the nights?
How could I receive the love
that was given
sure as the whiskers
growing on his face,
the tiredness in her eyes
if I remembered?

Mary, what was it like for you, forgetting and remembering the trauma you’d suffered?

I too struggled to validate what I was starting to remember.  Well-meaning people often caused me to cringe when they said something like, “How can you forget something so awful?” Or: “You couldn’t possible remember being a baby.”

I’ll put on my professional hat to explain their ignorance.

These incredulous bystanders don’t understand the complexity of traumatic memory. They’re thinking of explicit memory, the sort of memory you’ll retain after reading this blog post. Or think of a meeting you attended recently. You’ll recall who was there and what was said. The doubters also know that fear is an aid to memory. We all could learn a lot the night before an exam when we were under pressure. Think of 9/11. You can remember exactly where you were, who you were with, who said what, etc. on that terrible occasion. Up to a point, then, fear improves memory.

 Now we come to traumatic memory. When a situation is a too awful to tolerate and there’s no escape, the normal child’s brain stores the memory differently. This becomes an implicit memory. That is, it is no longer held consciously. It is stored in the body.  Forgetting is a survival strategy.

On a personal level, I look back at myself as a small child trapped in a black tale of Gothic horror. There I was in my huge house with my old grandfather as my babysitter while my distracted mother ran the family business. Who could I turn to for help in those days? Nobody would have believed me. My mother was enraged about my innocent child’s curiosity when I discovered my little friend’s penis. I certainly couldn’t have told her.

I did what many helpless victims do. I idealized my perpetrators. Night after night, once I left home and was living in a university residence, I impressed my roommate with tales of my wonderful parents and family.

I told her about my perfect family: how my mother was beautiful and clever, my father wise and witty. They were the perfect couple. Sue heard all about my aunts, uncles, nephews, and the characters who peopled my hometown. My idealized family was glamorous and gifted.
(Confessions of a Trauma Therapist, Page 34.)           

In therapy, whenever a client tells me how wonderful her parents were, I’m immediately alerted to childhood trauma. No parents are that ideal. Really good parents also have their human shortcomings.

Readers, we’d like to hear from you. What is your experience? Did you forget what happened? Or repress only the feelings? Were there fragments, or nothing at all?



@sheepfoldcarer said...

What an exceptionally excellent post!
The explanation of implicit/explicit memories and the effects of trauma impressive.
I can identify with the writers words. I am on a journey of discovery myself, through writing poetry. Fragments,impressions & feelings re-connect.It seems to be a lifelong process!
To have the journey, which can be bewildering, affirmed is a blessing.
Thank you.

Jane Rowan said...

sheepfold, I'm glad this post was helpful. I know that the struggle to believe myself was a huge part of the process of healing, so I hear what you are saying!

take good care,

SharonO360 said...

I can understand the repressed memories. Although I was not abused as a child I was a battered woman, married at the age of 18, completely dependendent on my husband and afraid to leave him. We had three children together before I left him, after 7 years. there are still gaps in my memory of my years with him.

Jane Rowan said...

Thank you, Sharon. It helps to hear your experience. Even adults repress traumatic memories. That is true.

Krissy said...

I remember. I remember some pieces more than others. I tend to remember things best when I am in a 'triggering' mood. Often I need to be physically debilitated by lack of sleep and/or hunger before I can experience the body memories. There are concrete things from my childhood that would explain this.

I just found your blog. I'm not sure how closely I will follow it because I'm in a hard spot in my own recovery. I think I will order your books though. I hope you are having a good day.


Jane Rowan said...

Thank you, Krissy, for your comments. I appreciate hearing that our experiences resonate.

Also, I'm touched by hearing you are in a hard spot in your recovery--but I know from my experience that being with these difficult feelings is how we heal. So please take care and read things (including, especially, my memoir) only when it doesn't feel overwhelming. That is,
take care,

Kristin Gillespie said...

Thanks for this excellent conversation.

I also suffered from CSA, at the hands of quite a few men. They were almost all buried for much of my life. The two incidents that I've always recognised and remembered were relatively "minor", what are sometimes referred to as "grooming" - but devastating enough anyway.

After experiencing trauma of a different kind (2009 Victorian bushfires) and being heard & ACKNOWLEDGED for the first time when I said I was traumatised opened a window in my mind. On the way home I understood for the first time that I was raped on Xmas Day 1972, but had held the memory in an internal time capsule - always remembered but seen with my uncomprehending child's eyes. Trauma acknowledged showed me the truth instantly with my adult's perception.

Since then I have done an ACT course for survivors of sexual abuse. This brought up lots - including about my step-father who I loved and trusted. Everything so far has been either a "white-out" in the midst of clear memories, or things I've come to understand as my subconscious pointing to because they are "different" from what usually happened. Eg the first night my step-father had his girlfriend stay over I was freezing cold and had to ask for extra blankets (he wasn't in my bed).

It took a long time for me to accept that something beyond suss boundaries was here. I desperately wanted to believe "nothing" happened so I wouldn't even look at the possibility it had. When I finally opened myself to the possibility the grief was like a tsunami.

I'm healing slowly and learning to listen to my own needs and be gentler with myself & others. The greatest gift from all this has been in the transformation which has followed acknowledgement of the truth.

Kind regards,

Jane Rowan said...

Thank you for sharing the ways you repressed your memories. How interesting it is to learn that being heard in a different context can open a door to the old memories. Then you bravely went through that door and did the work to recover the memories and come to a better place.

It's really amazing how hard it is to believe that these things happened to us, and it's also amazing how much life can open up when we do the recovery work thoroughly. You go!