Betrayal Trauma
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Betrayal Trauma

The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse

Jennifer J. Freyd

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eBook - ePub

Betrayal Trauma

The Logic of Forgetting Childhood Abuse

Jennifer J. Freyd

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About This Book

This book lays bare the logic of forgotten abuse. Psychologist Jennifer Freyd's breakthrough theory explaining this phenomenon shows how psychogenic amnesia not only happens but, if the abuse occurred at the hands of a parent or caregiver, is often necessary for survival. Freyd's book will give embattled professionals, beleaguered abuse survivors, and the confused public a new, clear understanding of the lifelong effects and treatment of child abuse.

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Our jet from St. Louis was landing at the Denver airport, heading west. The morning was sparkling clear. The air, dead still.
I sat in a window seat on the right side, near the front of the plane. With my forehead pressed against the cool plastic window, I admired the snowcapped Rockies glistening ahead and contemplated the houses and buildings down below, growing ever larger as we made our descent. I half-listened to the flight attendant on the intercom announcing connecting gate information.
The houses below me looked fresh and appealing in the November sunlight, still small enough to appear like toys, yet large enough to look worth exploring, a bright playroom of doll-houses. And then, fascinated, I found myself looking down on another jet.
That plane was a bit lower than ours, and I gazed upon its fat back for a moment or two before being hit with a horrifying jolt of awareness: There was not room for two planes! We were both headed for the same spot in midair! Yet the attendant was still on the intercom, talking on about connecting flights. I wondered, Should I scream? Does the pilot realize this? What do I do? Don’t they realize the danger we are in?
I’ve wondered since then: For how long were these panicked questions bouncing about my mind? I doubt it was more than a fraction of a second, because suddenly our plane made an abrupt change in direction. Instead of continuing down, we headed up. And the flight attendant stopped talking.
As I looked out the window the houses and the other jet shrank as we made our escape. I looked around at the other passengers, wondering, Was anyone afraid? Were they relieved to be spared a midair collision? Had they even noticed our missed approach? I couldn’t tell. At least the flight attendant must have noticed, I thought, for she did stop talking.
After perhaps a minute we leveled off. I watched eagerly as we circled the Denver airport and began our descent once again, this time heading due south, landing on a runway that I had been on many times—but only for takeoffs. I looked around for other planes but could find none. No planes were in the air near the airport. Nor were planes on the runways. Where, I wondered, had they gone?
To my amazement, the flight attendant resumed her announcement of connecting gates. She simply picked up where she had left off, as if nothing had happened.
Wait a minute! I silently protested. Haven’t we just barely missed a midair or runway collision? Won’t they say something about what just happened? Explain? Reassure us?
The plane parked at the gate. The attendant stopped talking. As I gathered my coat and carry-on bag, the man sitting in the seat two rows ahead of me caught my eye. We had been at the same conference in St. Louis and we recognized each other. He looked concerned and confused. He hesitated a bit before blurting out to me, “Did you notice anything strange? Weren’t we heading down, about to land, when suddenly we went back up for awhile?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That did happen!” I looked around to see if others would chime in, but no one seemed to be paying us any attention. As I exited the plane a few moments later, I passed the flight attendant, who was standing in front of the cockpit, chanting, “Good-bye! good-bye!” in the standard cheery way. But instead of the door being open, as is usual after landing, this time the door was closed.
And that was that. Thanks to the crew’s silence, most passengers on that flight disembarked blissfully blind to both the betrayal of safety and the betrayal of truth they had just suffered.
Today I wonder: What if my acquaintance had not asked if I noticed something strange? Would I now believe that I had seen us get so close to another plane? I might well say to myself, “Surely a near collision on a clear day, at a big American airport, seems a bit far-fetched. If it had really happened they would have explained it, acknowledge it at least, right? Maybe this was all a fantasy of mine—a false memory.”
These doubts are tempting. The old Denver airport is no longer, but I have no choice: I must continue to use that airline and the new Denver airport—unless I give up flying to conferences or vacations, which would mean giving up large portions of my professional and family life. If the near disaster were simply a false memory, then I would not have to believe that I had been put into that kind of danger by people, technology, and a system that I need to trust.
It is not difficult to imagine what lay behind the pilot and crew’s decision to remain silent about the event. By not acknowledging the missed approach perhaps the passengers would remain unaware, or at least unsure, of the danger that had been present. And if the event were not acknowledged, if no one made a “big deal” about it, maybe those passengers who did notice it would forget.
That missed approach into the Denver airport hardly ranks as a trauma next to other horrifying events: war, disasters, violence. Although I need to trust airlines and airports, the trust required of me is limited in time and scope and does not begin to compare with the trust that a young child needs to have for his or her caregivers. Nonetheless the same rule applies: See no betrayal. Hear no betrayal. Speak no betrayal.

The Core Betrayal Trauma: Childhood Sexual Abuse

Consider the pressure on a child who is sexually abused by a parent or other adult who has power and authority over that child. The child needs to trust his or her parents and caregivers. Childhood sexual abuse, whether molestation or even penetration, usually leaves no lasting physical evidence. It is neither explained nor understandable to the child. It is often not even acknowledged by the perpetrator, except to say it didn’t happen or wasn’t what it seemed to be.
Sexual abuse perpetrated on a child by a trusted caregiver is a perfect opportunity for the victim to create information blockage. To know is to put oneself in danger. Not to know is to align oneself with the caregiver and ensure survival.
This book is about information blockage as a natural and inevitable reaction to childhood sexual abuse. It is about the logic of amnesia for abuse. Memory repression will be shown to arise not because it reduces suffering, but because not knowing about abuse by a caregiver is often necessary for survival.
This book is also about the ubiquity of the human response of not knowing, of not remembering, betrayals. Everyday betrayals—a boss who speaks in a patronizing voice, a spouse who flirts with a friend, an airline that flies its plane dangerously close to another—also often leave little mark on conscious awareness.
Although I propose that not knowing is ubiquitous, I also propose that knowledge is multi-stranded, and that we can at the same time not know and know about a betrayal. Indeed, it is the human condition simultaneously to know and not to know about a given betrayal. The knowing is often the kind of knowledge or memory that cognitive psychologists call “implicit knowledge” or “implicit memory.”
If I had “forgotten” that flight from St. Louis to Denver, the forgetting would have left me with little conscious knowledge of what happened. But it would likely have left me with other signs of learning and traces of the event. I might have found landing at Denver next time more frightening than I ever had before. Or I might have found myself “irrationally” trying to avoid the Denver airport.
The survivor of childhood abuse who “forgets” and does “not know” about the abuse similarly has memory and knowledge of the events that surface in other ways: specific phobias, learned behaviors, a self-perception of being a “bad girl” or “bad boy.”

Recovering from Betrayal Blindness: The Memory Debate

Some people come to realize that they have been betrayed a long time after the event. Sometimes this recovery from betrayal blindness happens when the person forms a new understanding of a remembered event. Other times it occurs in conjunction with recovering the memory of the events of the betrayal.
In a 1992 article in the New York Times, Daniel Goleman described one person’s realization that he had been betrayed:
Frank Fitzpatrick, a thirty-eight-year-old insurance adjuster in Cranston, R.I., began remembering having been sexually molested by a parish priest at age twelve.
Mr. Fitzpatrick’s retrieval of the repressed memories began, he said, when “I was feeling a great mental pain, even though my marriage and everything else in my life was going well.” Puzzled, Mr. Fitzpatrick lay down on his bed, “trying to let myself feel what was going on.”
Mr. Fitzpatrick . . . slowly realized that the mental pain was due to a “betrayal of some kind,” and remembered the sound of heavy breathing. “Then I realized I had been sexually abused by someone I loved,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick. But it was not until two weeks later that he suddenly remembered the priest, the Rev. James R. Porter . . .
To forget and to remember are everyday aspects of human experience. Sometimes people gain awareness of events that they had previously not remembered. But sometimes the forgetting and remembering are dramatic enough to become the focus of inquiry and even controversy.
As I write this book, a war is being fought over the veracity of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Although I comment on this controversy, this book is largely tangential to the Great Recovered Memory Debate. Although it addresses whether, why, and how recovered memories of real abuse occur, it is largely silent on whether, why, and how false memories may occur. Similarly, this book is also largely silent on the question so central to this debate: Are most contested memories based on real abuse? Instead of dwelling on contested memories, I focus on the response of unawareness and amnesia to abuse and betrayal trauma. Although betrayal trauma theory and the false memory movement have origins in my own life experience (see the Afterword), I first presented my theory of betrayal trauma before the world or I had heard the term “false memory syndrome.”

Ross Cheit’s Recovery from Betrayal Blindness

“Long-lost memories of sexual abuse can resurface. I know, because it happened to me. But I also know that I might not have believed that this was possible if [it] hadn’t occurred to me. And that’s what makes me nervous.” Ross Cheit, Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University, spoke these words in 1994, in his first public speech about these matters, at age thirty-eight, two years after recovering memories of being sexually abused in the late 1960s by William Farmer. Farmer had been the administrator of the San Francisco Boys Chorus summer camp, which Cheit had attended between the ages of ten and thirteen.
Professor Cheit then explained how surprising this realization was to him:
Two years ago, the topic of sexual abuse was something that I certainly knew nothing about. There had been one highly publicized case in California, this McMartin preschool case. I had heard of it. I didn’t read the stories, and I certainly in no way associated myself with the topic. I was thirty-six years old . . . and I was busy working away as an assistant professor, teaching courses in sort of esoteric things that have nothing to do with human services, and really nothing to do with emotions. I was teaching courses on things like insurance and auto safety. And in early May 1992 . . . my local newspaper published its first stories about allegations of child molestation against former Catholic priest James Porter in Fall River, Massachusetts. I remember those front page stories well, because I had a sort of visceral reaction to them. I remember asking myself, why are these people bringing this up now?
And part of the question was, why are “they” bringing this up? . . . And certainly, why are they doing it now? This is thirty years ago. Why are they doing this? In no way did I associate myself with these stories. And frankly, I thought the topic was somewhat disgusting. (1994a)
Despite Cheit’s feeling in May 1992 that this distasteful topic of childhood sexual abuse was irrelevant to him, he experienced an astounding change in awareness of his own life just a few months later, in the middle of August, while on vacation with his wife:
We drove north through Maine to the Canadian province of New Brunswick. We were celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. The day after our anniversary, we were at a little village on the coast of the Bay of Fundy . . . It was the last day that I would live without any awareness or remembrance of a nightly routine of sexual abuse committed upon me twenty-four years earlier by the camp administrator of a summer camp I attended . . . I woke up the morning of August 24th, 1992, with something akin to a bad taste in my mouth. It was like the residue of a dream, but it was stronger than that. I can’t remember if I actually dreamed about this man, but I woke up thinking about him. I woke up thinking about a man I hadn’t thought of in twenty-four years. He was a man I admired. He was a man who was more than twice my age at the time, and he was also at the time a student minister at the Methodist church. It was like he was in the room with me. I could picture him. I could hear his voice. I could remember him quite well. And it was very compelling. And I thought about him on and off for the next few days, and the days stretched into weeks before it really sank in.
But the earth did not shake that day. This was not some earth-shattering revelation. There was no epiphany. It was much more mundane than that. I was remembering somebody I hadn’t thought of in a long time, and there was a combination of real affection and fondness for this man, and something very unsettling. What I remember, I would describe as “those things he used to do to me.” But it was in no terms any clearer than that, and I didn’t dwell on “those things he used to do to me.” They were a bad memory. They were like remembering the time I stole something from the variety store and got caught. It was an embarrassing memory. It was certainly not the kind of thing I wanted to tell anybody about, not even my wife at first. And I was vaguely ashamed, although I’m sure that I didn’t even use that word or those labels at the time. But I remember thinking, I let him do those things. And I was definitely silent about it. (1994a)
Ross Cheit ultimately prevailed in two lawsuits, one against William Farmer and one against the San Francisco Boys Chorus, for the abuse he suffered (Stanton 1995). With the help of a private investigator, Cheit located five additional victims of William Farmer and tape-recorded a confession by Farmer himself. Cheit’s case of suddenly remembered sexual abuse is one of the most well documented cases currently available for public scrutiny.
Ross Cheit does not know exactly why his memories returned when they did. He identified several factors, however, that converged at this point in his life:
First, it was a particularly conducive stage in my life, I think . . . I was nearing middle age.
Second, it was the right time of year. It was not only the same month that I had always gone to camp. It was, as I would determine much later, within a few days of the exact anniversary of the last time I saw this man.
Third, my guard was down. I was on vacation. I’ve led a life of constant work since high school, getting all the degrees . . . and moving into the life of an assistant professor. And it was truly the first vacation I had taken with my wife in seven years. So the bustle of daily life had subsided. No newspapers, no telephone calls, no distractions.
Finally, and I think most compellingly, . . . I had recently learned that . . . a ten-year-old boy who is near and dear to me had joined a similar organization and was going to go to camp that summer. I didn’t place particular importance on that when I heard it, but I knew that there was something about it I didn’t like. And in fact, we were supposed to go to California for a vacation, and I would then have been able to see him at camp. And instead we ended up going to Canada.
Anyway, this bad taste persisted, and I kept thinking about that man and the things he did to me. (1994a)
As a boy in the San Francisco Chorus, why didn’t Ross Cheit acknowledge that William Farmer was betraying him? Why didn’t Cheit know that he had been abused? And why did he fail to consciously remember the abuse for a quarter-century?
Ross Cheit and I have discussed many aspects of his experiences. But before we ever spoke to each other we had independently identified betrayal as a key concept in forgetting sexual abuse. Cheit had not yet ...

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