An important number of people sincerely believe that they were victims of sexual abuse when they were children, that they forgot it, and that they recovered memories of the abuse when they were adults.
Are they right? Can you really forget and then remember such abuse? Or are the seeming memories in some ways created later, perhaps by post-hypnotic suggestion.
My understanding is that a lot of recent research has changed a great deal in what we know about memory. We are not passive recorders of our experience; everything that happens to us is not retained somewhere in the brain, and memories can easily change over time. At the same time, very serious issues have been raised about whether we do forget horrible abuse. If it does seem, as many claim, that it is unlikely that we forget severe abuse, a lot of people’s claims about past severe abuse are de-legitimized. We have the sort of case where, many others worry, the abuser wins twice.
But what if an experience, perhaps a very bad one, is not experienced as abuse at the time? Seen from the present, it may seem much more abusive than it did in the past. But if it was not experience at the time as dreadful abuse, perhaps it won’t initially be retained as one of our obvious memoies. If this is correct, then people might come to remember sexual abuse after having forgotten about it.
A new book, The Trauma Myth: The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children–and its Aftermath, based on about 200 interviews with survivors of abuse, opts for the latter account. When the research was first initiated it was highly controversial and the author was warned by her advisers that it could finish off the possibility of an academic career for her. As recounted in the sympathetic NY Times review:
[At the start of her research] Dr. [Susan] Clancy figured she knew what she would find: “Everything I knew dictated that the abuse should be a horrible experience, that the child should be traumatized at the time it was happening — overwhelmed with fear, shock, horror.”
But many carefully documented interviews revealed nothing of the sort. Commonly, the abuse had been confusing for the child but not traumatic in the usual sense of the word. Only when the child grew old enough to understand exactly what had happened — sometimes many years later — did the fear, shock and horror begin. And only at that point did the experience become traumatic and begin its well-known destructive process.
Dr. Clancy questioned her findings, reconfirmed them and was convinced. Her audience, when she made the data public, was outraged.
First, her data flew in the face of several decades of politically correct trauma theory, feminist theory and sexual politics.
Second, Dr. Clancy found that the world had little appetite for scientific subtlety: “Unfortunately, when people heard ‘not traumatic when it happens,’ they translated my words to mean, ‘It doesn’t harm victims later on.’ Even worse, some assumed I was blaming victims for their abuse.”
Dr. Clancy reports that she became a pariah in lay and academic circles. She was “crucified” in the press as a “friend of pedophiles,” colleagues boycotted her talks, advisers suggested that continuing on her trajectory would rule out an academic career.
Some of the comments on it at Amazon.com are deeply unsettling. I certainly can’t simply dismiss them, but there is quite a bit of recent work that might at least mitigate their force.
It seems we can find a psychological syndrome can be largely constructed by therapeutic and medical authorities. One person who has done a lot of early work on this is Ian Hacking. See his Mad Travelers, The Re-Writing of the Self and The Social Construction of What for his very interesting thought.
Another recent book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, examines in some detail the issue of how much cultural beliefs affect the manifestation of mental problems. There’s now an extended community that sees a mental syndrome as due to far more than facts about individuals and their experience. The symptoms we see are in part the result of self-interpretation in the light of permissible ways of thinking in the culture. Among other things.