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
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?
(TheRiver of Forgetting, p. 60)
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?