How sexual assault plays with our minds
The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, The Price of Truth: (release date: Nov 12, by Lioness Books)
Memory is a funny thing.
Why would I, or anyone else, lie about something as painful and shameful as childhood sexual abuse? This is a legitimate question to ask. After all, I have no external validation for my internal truth.
I have to learn a lot about myself, and about memory, before I can make any sense of my life and of my family’s view of me as a liar.
I start art therapy again at the day hospital program, and it is literally saving my life.
When I first began art therapy while in treatment with Dr. Davids*, I could only express the fear, horror, pain and shame in images. I couldn't face the truth behind what was causing me to draw these pictures. My mind was protecting me (and my relationship with my family and my therapist) by blocking the memories. Then after I remembered, sometimes I retained images and other times the images disappeared, leaving just horrible feelings behind. I learned that when I dissociated during the trauma, not only did I split off and dissociate the images, I also dissociated the behaviors, the effect, and the sensations that went along with them from each other. For example, the dissociation allowed me to bite and molest my dolls as a young child, with no memory of abuse, or understanding of my behavior at the time.
Now, each time I remember again, I am in shock. I realize that I had always known, but simply didn't have the language to talk about sexual abuse. I instinctively knew my mother would never believe me if I told her. I was right about that. She doesn’t believe me. According to my mother there are no monsters under the bed, and no one ever molested me.
When I tell my aunt Rivkah that I was molested by her father, my grandfather, she asks, “Where?”
“In his office,” I reply.
“That’s impossible,” she says. “Do you remember what the door looked like?”
“No.” I really don’t.
“The door was transparent glass. Someone could have seen it from the dining room. If you can’t remember the door how can you trust your memory of being abused?”
How can I trust my memories of being abused?
Because the door’s significance paled in comparison to the experience of my trusted grandfather’s fingers in my underwear.
Perhaps the glass door became entirely insignificant when it didn’t protect me.
It was early in the morning, right after the morning prayers, and no one was in the dining room at the time.
I don’t remember the date, or what I was wearing either.
Does that mean it didn’t happen?
Does my aunt think that I want to remember this?
No matter what I say, my aunt and the rest of my family find a way to discount, minimize, rationalize and deny my experience.
That is what they need to do in order to survive.
This is what families of incest do, with barely a single exception.
My family cannot go to a place where they can consider the possibility of their trusted father and grandfather, their rebbe, a talmid chacham, molesting someone they love.
I get it. I understand denial. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I learn a lot of things about the workings of the mind. Long-term memory is composed of experiences that are significant to us. If an experience is not significant it does not get filed in our long-term memory.
Traumatic memory, however, has its own set of rules.
When we experience an event that feels life threatening, all of our senses are activated. Our survival instinct, a fight or flight response, is activated. Traumatic memories are stored in a different part of the brain than regular memory. They are stored in the part of the brain where feelings are stored along with images, and sensations they evoke. Traumatic memories are often dissociated or repressed, especially when there is no way to process them in the present. When traumatic memories cannot be processed – due to lack of validation, support or time – they cannot be filed in a meaningful context along with other long-term memories.
These unprocessed traumatic memories often come up years later as post-traumatic stress symptoms. As in my case, you can feel like the experience of trauma is happening in the moment, even if it took place 30 years earlier.
There are several famous memory studies claiming to prove that false memories can be easily implanted. I have looked at this so-called research and, although interesting, I (as well as trained trauma therapists) assert that the results do not follow through logically when dealing with memories of child sexual abuse.
I begin studying in a community college while I am in the day hospital program. I read with some annoyance about one such study in my university textbook in Psychology 101. The study involves adults who were convinced that they had been lost in a shopping mall as children. Many of them actually believed that they had been lost in a mall when, in fact, according to their parents, they hadn’t been. This study lacks all understanding of what child sexual abuse feels like. Certainly, feeling lost, being lost, is a common childhood experience. But comparing being lost in a mall to being sexually violated as a child, by someone you trust and are dependent on for survival, is like comparing a distant cousin’s death with a parent’s death. Most children have no concept of what it feels like to be sexually violated by a trusted family member or friend. It is not an experience easily contrived or imagined, and there is nothing else quite as shameful, terrifying and mind shattering.
In another study on memory using the example of a car accident, witnesses were shown a clip of a real accident, and then asked to describe what they saw. One witness swore the car was blue, while another said it was red. One said the car slid to the right, while one said to the left. One witness believed blood was pouring from the victim's head. Another said no, it was actually coming from the victim's mouth.
While the researchers set out to prove that traumatic memory can be faulty – and indeed concluded that traumatic memory is not credible – they missed out on a crucial detail of the study. That is, not one of the witnesses claimed that they witnessed an earthquake or an armed robbery, or nothing at all. All agreed that it was a car accident. They all agreed that victims were hurt and there was blood. They accurately remembered the details that were important or shocking to them. It was only the details they considered insignificant that they forgot.
I was very young when I was abused and I will never know if every detail of what I remember is objectively accurate. But I do know that I was molested by my father and grandfather and others. I remember the experiences in the terrible ways that they affected me. Badly. I make no apologies for this, as no one in my family is willing to try to help me sort out my memories. I did the best I could to get as close to the truth as I can in my own.
Genendy has been an early childhood educator for over twenty years in both the U.S. and Israel. She is an advocate for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, an activist for child safety, a writer and blogger.