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.