A Journey to Recovery from Sexual Abuse
by Renee Fredrickson, Ph.D.
As with anything psychological, or medical, or indeed anything in the world, "the more you know about what to look for... the more you find." Fredrickson's first client came to her to deal with fourteen years of rape by her father. Her 1970s education as a psychotherapist had not made a single reference to sexual abuse, and she set out to learn more. Eventually, she says, "the appalling lack of available resources for treating sexual abuse influenced me to specialize in this area."
She found that what she learned working with "very young children applied to adult survivors as well." As the years wore on, she established clinics in St. Paul, Minnesota and Dallas, Texas, and became a consultant on child abuse to the U.S. Army. This book is one result of her eighteen years of experience in working with sexual abuse survivors around the United States.
Repressed Memories is a tremendous gift. Renee Fredrickson takes on an issue which often seems incredibly obscure, unclear, and mired in political claims, and explains it clearly and directly. This book is an oasis in a desert of wild claims and accusations.
She begins by explaining the phenomenon of repressed memories in a non-sensationalistic way, answering many of the assumptions and questions that people have about repressed memories. I'll present a few of her ideas here, in question and answer format.
Why would people repress memories of abuse? It seems like that's too big a deal to not remember it.
Perhaps the most important fact she offers in this area is that "the traumatic and the trivial are the two kinds of information your mind represses."
You almost certainly don't remember every spelling quiz you took in elementary school or every dinner you ate last year. Your mind experienced those things with you, and you probably have some immediately accessible information about them like that pop quizzes freaked you out or that you ate a lot of pasta. But having all of those details to hand at all times is more than our minds can handle.
That's the trivial side of things. The traumatic is repressed for a different reason. As other memory researchers (like Jennifer Freyd) have explained, we repress traumatic memories most often when we have no support around them, like when they involve betrayal and silencing from our families.
Fredrickson observes that "If you have repressed memories of childhood trauma, the memories are undoubtedly about abuse. Your family will tell you about your two-year-old temper tantrums or the terrible fall you had off your bike, but no one will mention that Grandpa seemed to maneuver to spend a lot of time alone with you when you were a little girl. Abuse is all too often a family secret, with the perpetrator and the family honor protected by a strict no-talk rule."
She also discusses the pattern of abuse in families, observing that people perpetrating sexual abuse in a family usually abuse more than one person over the course of their lives, and that the abuse always affects the entire family. People who have been abused themselves, and have not dealt with it, often have a great deal invested in not acknowledging others' abuse. It simply becomes too traumatic to face... which perpetuates the rule of silence and the cycle of repressed memories as well as the cycle of abuse.
Well, if these memories are repressed, how can people remember them?
In my experience, people remember abuse on some level all the time. For example, I didn't know consciously that I was sexually abused until I was 24. But when I began to read about body memories, and experience very detailed and forceful body memories, I realized that I had had body memories of sexual abuse my whole life - I had just refused to think about or acknowledge them as a problem.
Abuse of any kind has wide-reaching effects. Sexual abuse doesn't just mess up our sex lives: it can also make us hypervigilant, affect our sleep schedules, create anxiety, depression, problems with food, fears of people, an inability to show up to our commitments, and on and on. All of those effects are perfectly rational if you know enough about the psychological effects of abuse, but to a random survivor on the street they can seem totally unrelated and confusing - or even normal. But all of those are a form of remembering the abuse. They're the visible effects of abuse which continue on in our everyday lives.
Conscious memory is another matter, and it happens differently for different people. It can be a result of finally feeling safer in our lives, getting away from our abusers, having a child who reaches the age we were when we were abused, starting to deal with the effects of the abuse, visiting the "scene of the crime," or encountering some very strong trigger that relates to the abuse.
I think that the more people know about the effects of abuse, the sooner they consciously remember it. At one point, Renee Fredrickson comments that repressed memories are "held in storage not only for your readiness but also for society's readiness to deal with them."
It is only in the past twenty-five years or so that people have begun to talk openly about sexual abuse and to educate one another on what different kinds of abuse look like. The more someone is abused, the more likely they are to minimize their abuse, as in "battered spouse syndrome." It is not only easy, but wildly tempting, to say "Oh, he didn't mean it - she was just angry - it was my fault - she's getting better - he promised not to do it again - it's not abuse! Everything's fine!" But the more people learn about what "counts" as abuse, the more they become able to break that cycle and acknowledge that what has happened to them is not okay and that they want to recover from it. And this applies to sexual abuse and to repressed memories: the more we know about what abuse looks like, and what effects it has, the more we can acknowledge abuse that has happened to us or to our loved ones, and the sooner we have an environment in which we are free to remember and deal with abuse.
Wait. People don't always remember the abuse, right? But they keep on living their lives and everything. So why should people ever go through the pain of remembering it?
It is often a painful process, not only in remembering or even reliving the abuse but also in struggling with whether to believe our memories and even dealing with denial and hostile attacks from family members. Fredrickson has worked with many people who go through this process, and this is how she addresses a particular woman's experience:
"The relief she felt in (understanding and dealing with her memories) was enormous. 'I've got my history back,' she said. 'I know who I really am now.'... In reality, your life is harder than it need be (if) you were abused. Dealing with that abuse will enable you to achieve more serenity in your life. My associates and I have a maxim that says the amount of fear you feel about confronting your abuse is directly proportional to the impact it is having on your life right now. The greater your fear, the more the abuse is marring your current life."
My own experience has been that the seemingly subtle and destructive effects of abuse are the reason to remember. That is... it's like ripping off a band-aid. You don't have to do it. You can leave that nasty band-aid on there forever, getting less and less useful and more and more dirty, and never deal with it. Or you can rip it off, let the wound get some air, and let your body finish healing.
More importantly, my experience and the experience of many other survivors in recovery is that I get to understand my life - everything in it can make sense - and I get to fix everything that's fucked-up about it - and that the joys involved in that ultimately way outweigh the pain of abuse.
All of the stuff you've mentioned about the effects of abuse and repressed memories sounds really general. I mean, lots of people are depressed and stuff. How do people know if they have repressed memories?
Well, a lot of people are sexually abused, too... not to mention abused physically and emotionally... which can all cause depression "and stuff." But she does offer a particularly definitive statement about memory loss:
"Sometimes there are clear time losses or memory blanks that indicate the possiblity of sexual abuse. If you remember almost nothing or very little of your childhood, or if you cannot remember a period of time such as between the ages of ten and fourteen, you have repressed memories. People do not block out years of their lives for some small trauma, or because of a sense of general unhappiness. Time is lost only for very painful reasons.
"Another form of memory loss is blocking a significant person out of your life. Molly, for example, has no memories of her grandfather, who lived next door to her family until his death when she was five. She does remember her grandmother, though, as well as many significant and insignificant incidents from her preschool years. This information indicates the need to explore the role her grandfather played in her life."
She talked about different kinds of memory loss, and you said something about body memory and stuff - are there different kinds of memory, too?
What a coincidence that you should ask that! Yes, there are!
Different people sometimes name them a little differently, but this is what Fredrickson describes as the five kinds of memory.
- Recall Memory: These are "normal memories." Your memory of what you did yesterday - assuming that you remember what you did yesterday - is a recall memory. They are memories that you feel like you experienced directly, vividly, which come with images and feelings and thoughts about the experience. This is the only kind of memory "that requires maturation to be of use" - that is, it's the kind that people are talking about when they say we can't remember things that happened before we turn two or three. The other kinds are, actually, accessible to infants.
- Imagistic Memory: These are memories that come in the form of images. They can come as visual flashbacks, slide shows, or flickers of images. The U.S. Army has actually done studies of Army personnel with PTSD who experienced intrusive flashes related to traumatic events, which found that the things they were seeing were always directly related to what they had been doing in the disaster that caused their post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Feeling Memory: These might better be called emotional memories, because that's the kind of "feeling" involved - as opposed to a physical sensation. Depression and anxiety disorders are often "feeling memories;" it is rare for people to have emotions that are truly coming out of nowhere. Feeling memories also often take the form of a wave of seemingly unrelated emotion, like feeling rage way out of proportion to what is going on around you, or fear at the sight of something seemingly mundane.
- Body Memory: Everyone's favorite! Body memory comes in the form of physical sensations. They are often confusing, because we may have no way of knowing whether something is a physical illness or injury or whether it is a memory. I have a friend, in fact, who had what appeared to be seizures and was diagnosed epileptic despite not having medical indicators besides seizures. He was put on anti-seizure medication and banned from driving for many years before his seizures slowly disappeared. Later he discovered that what he had been experiencing were body memories from violent electric shocks in his childhood.
Fredrickson also notes that "Even when there is little physical pain or intrusion, body memories can occur. Nausea is a frequent physical reaction to sexual abuse. Infants will sometimes spontaneously vomit on their perpetrator, even though they are not being physically hurt by the abuse."
- Acting-Out Memory: As the author explains it, "Acting-out memory is a form of unconscious memory in which the forgotten incident is spontaneously acted out through some physical action." She gives the example of a two-year-old who had been physically abused and then adopted into another family, who would hit herself on the left ear whenever she got angry. One of the few things they knew for sure about her abuse was that that ear had been burned with a cigarette when she was only two months old. Acting-out memory can also take the form of survivors blurting out or suddenly writing things about which they had no conscious memory so far - just like any other flashback, except with an eerie "automatic writing" aspect to it.
The Next Step
This kind of information comprises only the first third of the book; the rest, bless her, is dedicated to what people can do to deal with repressed memories.
She offers and describes many different ways that people can address their memories, including imagistic work, dream work, journal writing, body work, feelings work, hypnosis, feelings work, and art therapy.
A lot of ink has been spilled over "repressed memory therapy," especially hypnosis; it seems sometimes that almost everything written about sexual abuse is some sort of polemic about how no one is ever abused and everyone who is abused was just told to think so by some unscrupulous therapist.
In the light of this, I think it is extremely important to note that Fredrickson specifically says that no one should ever suggest experiences of abuse, that your therapist can only serve as a guide to support you in your own path, and that you can't make your memories surface or force yourself to remember things. She says, in fact, that we will learn to know what memories are real; if you have a memory that feels wrong to you, you can trust that. If it feels wrong out of your own fears and insecurity but really happened, that will eventually become clear.
Her basic message is that we can learn to trust our guts and that we can look for corroborating evidence. Since she wrote this book, of course, there has been a lot of research done into the subject of recovered memories, and the Recovered Memory Project at Brown University (for one) has accumulated a database of 96 cases of recovered memory with outside corroboration. Fredrickson's bottom line, though, is that survivors (or potential survivors) can give themselves a year to suspend judgment and deal with repressed memories, and that "if you feel healthier after that period of time, you are on the right track."
In other words, if it works for you, if you become healthier by dealing with what seem to be repressed memories, then by all means do it. If not, then let it go. (The difficult part of this is that as survivors beginning to deal with abuse, our lives often seem to become more difficult before the dawn, and people often give up and run from it, "recanting" to escape the pain. But everyone has their own path, and as society learns more about how to deal with abuse, it will become easier for everyone.)
In short, Recovered Memories is a clear and helpful gem of a book which everyone should read, even if they think they can't have been abused in any way or know anyone who was - if only for the greater understanding they will gain of abuse, memory, and humanity.
One good place to go if were, or you think you might have been, sexually abused:
Survivors of Incest Anonymous
Info for online meeting: http://leaves.wineberry.net/sia/online
World Service Office
P.O. Box 190
Benson, MD 21018-9998