Memory is stored indelibly when an event shakes our world. We can all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when 9/11 occurred. Stress at exam time helps us commit more to memory. Up to a point, then, stress helps store memory.
Knowing this, people who do not understand trauma have difficulty accepting that intolerable stress can wipe out memory, as it often does in childhood abuse. My own book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation tells my story of uncovering memories of child sexual abuse when I was almost 50.
I know it’s amazing. But it’s true. The normal child’s brain does not store what is too terrible to survive. Forgetting allows the child to continue to live within that family or situation when no other life is possible. After all, a child can’t decide to live elsewhere.
I’m always surprised when I meet otherwise intelligent people who cannot fathom that it’s possible to wipe out a childhood history of betrayal by the adults who were supposed to protect you. I forget that many people still are not aware of the prevalence of child abuse.
Recently, I told a neighbour the subject of my recently published book. This well educated, caring man expressed disbelief. It was really a stretch for him to view me as one who had been traumatized by child sexual abuse. I don’t look like Precious (from the movie of the same name), after all, and I didn’t grow up in a slum. That I could have forgotten the abuse in my childhood until I was nearly 50 was mind boggling for the poor man.
It takes some effort to learn about memory storage and to understand how something too terrible to remember, a secret too awful to know, can be pushed into the unconscious to allow the child to survive.
Do you have an experience to share? I’d like to hear from you in the section for comments on this blog.
There’s a new book on trauma called The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and Its Aftermath. I ordered it online from Amazon. The promo interested me. The author, Susan A. Clancy, a researcher at Harvard, claims that the adult survivors of child sex with adults did not find the sexual activity traumatic at the time it occurred.
I was interested. From my clients’ stories and from my own experience with my father and grandfather, I know that physical force and fear are not necessarily involved in child sexual. The perpetrator is most often a trusted, loved adult authority.
The abuse for these children does not meet the criteria for trauma. It wasn’t intolerable and inescapable at the time. The lifelong damage they suffer comes from the guilty secret they must hide, their sense of betrayal when they’re old enough to understand the meaning of sex and their shame about participating in these acts. Clancy is certainly not the first to point out that, for many children, it’s often not the act itself that causes the problems. “They made it clear to me that the abuse was not traumatic for them when it was happening because they had not understood what was going on,”she writes. (p.55)
When the book arrived I was shocked to read the author’s claims that child sexual abuse damages people because “of therapists and others who make a business of treating the supposed victims.”
Whooaa, there! Something was very wrong with this book. What’s more, she said recovered memory was nonsense. (Clearly, Susan Clancy has not read my detailed account in Confessions of a Trauma Therapist of how my memories surfaced in my late 40s?) Anyone who knows about recovered memory realizes 50 is a usual age for memories to surface.
Confused, I went back to Amazon where I’d ordered the book and read the reviews. (I should have done this in the first place before I spent my money on such nonsense) It turns out Susan A. Clancy has no experience as a psychotherapist. She is a researcher and associated with a group of people who deny that children are harmed by sex with adults.
Years ago, Dr. Eugene Gendlin, my psychological mentor, told me that guilt is a useless emotion. “It doesn’t do anybody any good,” he said. “It just makes you feel bad.”
I pondered that for a long time. Wasn’t guilt what normal, decent people experience when they’ve betray their own sense of fair play? When they cheat or lie? Would I be responsible and reliable without my guilty conscience?
Back in those days, I wasn’t aware of feeling shame. Later, I learned that shame is the last emotion we become aware of. In fact, shame is such an uncomfortable feeling that psychology has only recently studied it. Most people squirm at the thought of studying their own shame.
Since shame is the inevitable outcome of child abuse, it seems important to get a handle on it. But what’s the difference between shame and guilt?
Guilt is in response to something we have done. Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are. There is something innately defective or wrong with us.
That means that we can do something about guilt. We can make amends, change our behaviour or apologize.
Maybe that’s what Dr. Gendlin meant – that we don’t have to carry our guilt with us. Maybe the message is this: Do whatever you need to do and drop your guilt.
What do you think? Please let me know by writing a comment in the space provided below.