Archive for February 8th, 2008

Microscopic View (c) Lynda BernhardtI received an e-mail about a woman whose daughter is upset with her because the woman failed to protect her daughter from the grandfather’s abuse. When the mother heard this, it triggered her own flashbacks of being abused by the same man, her father. The daughter, who always remembered her abuses, does not believe that her mother had no memory of being abused.

Back in the 1990’s, repressed memories were all the rage. It seemed like every talk show had someone talking about recovered memories. Then, within a few years, news broke about unscrupulous therapists who “created false memories” in their patients, and the pendulum swung back to not believing that repressed memories exist.

The book The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis has taken a lot of heat for including information about repressed memories. Those authors have stood firmly behind their book, offering hope and encouragement to thousands of woman who have suffered from sexual abuse.

I, personally, repressed the memories of the vast majority of the abuses that I suffered. I had to in order to survive my childhood. There is no way that I could have made it through childhood with so much unhealed severe trauma in my conscious awareness. Even as an adult, it took me years to work through all of the trauma I suffered. Each new piece of the puzzle felt like the one that would break me. It was too much – I could not have functioned in my life with all of that unhealed information in my mind at one time. My sister has confirmed about 90% of my memories because she was there for most of them. The memories are too detailed for the two of us to have randomly made them up. Also, we have never seen the same therapist.

From what I have observed, the age of six seems to be the magic age that determines whether you repress your memories. I know hundreds of abuse survivors, and their stories are always the same: Those whose severe and ongoing abuses began before age six either mostly or fully repressed their memories of the abuse, and those whose severe and ongoing abuses began after age six remembered the trauma but dissociated the emotions. Those who have always held the memories but not healed them often recount the abuse in a detached manner with no emotions attached to the events.

I believe that the ability to repress traumatic memories is a gift from God to help young children survive severe trauma. Without this tool, children would not be able to survive it with their sanity intact. By disbelieving any memory that was not always held in conscious awareness, we sacrifice anyone whose abuse began before age six. Those are the people who need healing the most. They need to be believed.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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