Archive for Dissociation

Children Who Remember Sexual Abuse


Many children who have been sexually abused don’t remember the events that traumatized them. Their brains have the capacity to “forget” trauma. (Trauma describes events that are both inescapable and intolerable.) As a race, we humans survived famines, wars and other terrible events, thanks to the brain’s ability to “forget.” Without this adaptation, maybe we’d have died out as a species.

The brains of modern babies, like of the brains of the caveman’s babies, are shaped by the circumstances into which they’re born. A baby who is welcomed by love, soft sounds and warm, caring arms develops a brain that knows when to trust. This baby will likely be open to life’s relationships and adventures. On the other hand the brain of the infant experiencing neglect or a lack of safety and love, will be toughened to be suspicious of humans, won’t expect good things from life and will be subject to all our society’s common illnesses and psychiatric diagnoses (Refer to the ACE Studies) Above all, this brain will protect its owner from remembering what is intolerable and inescapable. It’s common for children to simply forget that the adults on whom they depended traumatized them.

In my own history, I didn’t remember being sexually abused by family members until I was in my late 40’s. That turns out to be a common age. It’s as if our pain and shame remain hidden until we’re mature enough to deal with it. Many of us who had delayed memories managed to live relatively normal lives, before being shaken by the surfacing of traumatic memories. We probably knew something was wrong, but we were spared from dealing with it until we were older. The worst was finally realizing the terrible toll child sexual abuse had taken on our lives.

As a child who believed she came from a perfect family, this is how I describe myself in my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation.

“Looking at me during my childhood years you would have seem a spoiled rich kid always smiling and never causing any trouble. On the inside, life was different. Under the placid exterior I existed in a wet, grey fog, never quite sure of what was happening around me.” (p. 3.)

Sweet, fat and smiling: this is a common appearance of children who are being sexually abused, but can never clear their brains enough to know what is happening to them.

I’m grateful I was able to dissociate. As an adult I managed to get an education in spite of my daydreaming and spacing-out. I married, had my son, and immersed myself in yoga, social work and 30 years of fulfilling work as a trauma therapist. If I’d realized what was going on in my home, how would I have found the energy or the will to live my life?

Nancy Brown, author of Facing Life: A Memoir of Addiction never forgot. Her child’s brain didn’t dissociate the knowledge that the neighbor across the street held her and his little daughter, Ruthie, hostage as sexual rewards for his card-playing buddies. The pain was intolerable and she believed her situation was inescapable. She believed there was something about her that caused Ruthie’s father and later other men prey on her. Her perpetrator assured her silence by threatening Rusty, her beloved dog, and Peter her little brother, that they’d wish they’d never been born if she didn’t shut up and stop wriggling.

“Once I made a noise when it hurt and he said he’d skin Rusty alive if I didn’t stop (p. 16.)”

To dull the intolerable pain, she soon started stealing candy from little corner stores in her neighbourhood. She made sure never to be without her secret hordes of sweets. Even when she went to camp at age eight, she worried she wouldn’t be able to sneak enough candy to last two weeks. She filled the stomach of her stuffed toy with candy and chose a top bunk where she could eat her candy out of sight.

Once in high school, she discovered alcohol. It worked even better than sweets. She figured out how to get a steady supply of booze from the local bootlegger. Prescription pain killers helped dull her terrible pain. Eventually her life was one of isolation, bad hygiene and a routine of swallowing enough pills and alcohol in the morning to face the day.

She never told her worried parents. Why? This is the subject for my next post Why Children Don’t Tell.


The ACE Studies, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is one of the largest investigations ever to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being.

Silken Laumann: Olympic Gold Medalist. Survivor of Childhood Trauma.

When I think of Silken Laumann, I picture a stunningly powerful woman who rowed her way to an Olympic gold medal. In her autobiography Unsinkable, Silken tells why she was able to ignore pain and push past obstacles that would have stopped another athlete. What was behind her fierce competitive edge?  Surprisingly, she credits the pain and shame of childhood trauma with giving her the ability to ignore pain and push past any obstacles coming between her and winning.

Laumann was born to postwar German immigrant parents. Her mother’s destructive, critical nature and narcissistic coldness traumatized Silken. Attempting to survive her mother’s shaming and negativity, she learned to dissociate. By age 16, cutting herself with a razor provided an outlet for her unbearable pain. In an attempt to control her environment, she became anorexic. She obsessed over her athletic body.

Does all of this sound familiar? It’s the pattern of normal human development to abnormal circumstances. As so many of us who are survivors of childhood trauma, she was pressured to view her family as ideal. The need to comply with the family myth was as damaging as the actual abuse. Having her reality negated made her crazy all over again, she says.

Reading her story and appreciating her intelligence and honesty, I felt very warm toward her. I’m so glad her story has a happy ending. She got the good professional help she needed in order to come to terms with her overwhelming childhood. She makes it clear that knowing the truth about her childhood provided the road to sanity and to the healthy life she now shares with her husband, Patch, as together, they parent his children and hers.

Silken Laumann with Sylvia Fraser, Unsinkable: My Untold Story, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd., 2014.

The Importance of Research – Here’s How You Can Help

All the institutions that are in a position to provide the necessary funding and help to survivors of child sexual abuse need evidence-based facts to warrant their support. Governments, social service agencies, all those with the power to make a real difference rely on good studies when they make the decision to help.

The saying goes that a million anecdotes do not make for scientific truth. Studies in which many people provide information are taken seriously. One such study is being conducted by the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

This is your opportunity to help. Just go to the website listed below in Molly’s letter to me. Here’s that letter:

Dear Mary,

Thank you for agreeing to put a link to my study on your blog.

An Online Study for Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

You are invited to participate in a clinical research project that examines your experiences of child sexual abuse and related issues concerning that abuse. Your participation is completely voluntary, and this study will take about 30 – 40 minutes to complete. Most of the questions will be about your experiences of child sexual abuse, your memory of the events, and related issues. The results of this study should help to further our understanding of the effects of child sexual abuse on memory. This understanding will help researchers and therapists to develop more effective intervention programs to assist survivors of child sexual abuse. The link to the study is now closed.

Thank you for your time.


Molly Wolf, LMSW

Doctoral Candidate

UB School of Social Work

Childhood Trauma: Your Body Can Bear the Burden

The Body Bears the Burden is the title of neurologist Dr. Robert C. Scaer’s book about trauma and chronic pain. For 20 years Dr. Scaer was the director of a multi-disciplinary programme for treating chronic pain. Physicians referred patients they were unable to help to his service. Many who were on huge doses of narcotics were still in pain despite the medication.

A number of factors caused Dr. Scaer to be curious. Read more

How Writing a Book Helped Sarah Recover From Dissociative Identity Disorder

I asked Sarah Olson to be my guest blogger. Sarah, like me, has chosen to write a book in order to share with others her story of childhood trauma.

Sarah’s form of dissociation was particularly severe.

A child’s brain does whatever is necessary to survive trauma. First lines of defense are daydreaming, numbing, forgetting, going dead inside or floating out of body while looking down at “another child” being abused. When all these strategies are insufficient, the child’s brain creates “other children” to suffer the abuse. The “self” remains unaffected. All the bad stuff happens to others, known as “alters.” As new, intolerable abuses occur, more parts split off to form more alters.

Here then, is Sarah Olson’s message: Read more