Why are memories of abuse so often hidden?
This is a really hard question for people in recovery from abuse, for therapists, and for researchers. In my case, I didn’t recognize one of my early childhood memories as a memory of abuse until I was in my fifties. Then physical memories started to come back to me, memories that led me to know my father had sexually abused me. How could such a big betrayal remain hidden in the back corners of a psyche for years and years? Can we really believe memories that have been hidden so long?
It’s very common for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to suppress the memories. (Studies say from 30% to 60% of survivors experience loss of memories of abuse.) When the memories come back up, they are often in fragmentary form—a touch, a feeling of nausea, a smell, a fraction of a scene. This fragmentation has a physiological cause. The stress hormones released during frightening events suppress the hippocampus, a part of the brain vital for integrating memories. And of course, we don’t get social reinforcement for recalling such things—in fact, we are forbidden to speak of them and to make them real through sharing.
The book that helped me the most with the question of recovered memories was Betrayal Trauma , by Jennifer Freyd. Freyd explains that forgetting is functional for the child because it enables her to remain in contact with the family that is essential for her survival. The closer the relationship with the abuser, the more important it is to forget the abuse in order to keep that relationship working, problematic though it is. Freyd found clear scientific data showing that kids whose abuse was reported to authorities often forgot it for years. The closer the relationship to the abuser (father vs. cousin, for example), the more likely the forgetting.
Isn’t that stunning? Yet it makes total sense. I had to keep eating cornflakes every morning opposite my father and relying on him for food, learning—and yes, love. I could not allow myself to remember the abuse in the night.
Over time, I’ve come to believe the memories brought to me by my inner child more and more firmly. They are not as clear as “Kodak moments,” but they are true.
This piece is by Jane Rowan, a writer. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse who healed through intense therapy, she is passionate about sharing her hard-won insights with others. Jane is the author of Caring for the Child Within—A Manual for Grownups and The River of Forgetting – A Memoir of Healing from Sexual Abuse.