Memory Wars

Potter, Frank Huddlestone, 1845-1887; Little Dormouse
Little Dormouse by Frank Huddlestone Potter

In the 1990’s there was a lot of press about recovered memories of child sexual abuse (CSA), most suggesting that they were false memories implanted by therapists. I’ve been researching this area for my thesis and was surprised by what I found. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded by Peter and Pamela Freyd after their daughter, who is also an academic, accused her father of CSA. The most significant proponent of this theory is Elizabeth Loftus who argued that recovered memories were not reliable or necessarily true. Her research has been used in many criminal cases, including the Cosby trial, to ‘disprove’ claims. This isn’t the first time that memories of abuse have been questioned. Sigmund Freud first concluded that such memories were real before changing his mind and deciding that they were fantasies. You can read all about that here.

In contrast, there is clear evidence that repressed memories are possible. For example, Linda Meyer Williams interviewed 129 women with previous documented experience of CSA and found 38% did not remember. She found it was most common where the child had been very young at the time of the abuse and/or abused by someone they knew. Indeed, in a recent Australian case a perpetrator, convicted of assaulting multiple victims, confessed to abusing a boy and the victim, now older, did not remember although he does have PTSD. Repressed memories have also been demonstrated to be just as accurate as other trauma memories.

It is important to consider why people are making such arguments – in this case a man who was himself accused of abuse. All academics have reasons why we research particular things. I think that we should be open about what they are particularly when our research affects real people especially children.

The idea of false memories are still under debate within the academic and medical community as well as wider society. In general the pendulum has swung from disbelief of memories in the 1990’s to more acceptance now. However, it continues to affect people’s reactions  and should be challenged by highlighting its origins.

References

Loftus, E. (1993) ‘The Reality of Repressed Memories.’, Am Psychol, 48(5), pp. 518–537. doi: 10.1300/J229v03n01_03.

Masson, J. M. (1984) ‘Freud and the Seduction Theory: A challenge to the foundations of psychoanalysis’, The Atlantic, February. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1984/02/freud-and-the-seduction-theory/376313/

Rydberg, J. A. (2017) ‘Research and clinical issues in trauma and dissociation: Ethical and logical fallacies, myths, misreports, and misrepresentations’, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. Elsevier Masson SAS, 1(2), pp. 89–99. doi: 10.1016/j.ejtd.2017.03.011

Scheflin, A. W. and Brown, D. (1996) ‘Repressed Memory or Dissociative Amnesia: What the Science Says’, Psychiatry & Law, 24, pp. 143–188.

Williams, L. M. (1994) ‘Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, pp. 1167–1176. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.62.6.1167.

All Party Parliamentary Group Report

I believe research should aim to change things for the better so I feed my results in wherever I can. One submission I made was to the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA). They have published the first in a series of reports and included the evidence I submitted, alongside evidence from organisations and individuals. You can read the report here.

The recommendations they make in this report are:

  1. Research the economic and social costs of CSA.
  2. Fund core support services.
  3. Collect data on the demand for support and ring-fence money to meet that demand.
  4. Inform professionals how to respond in a trauma informed way.
  5. Have a government public health campaign to destroy CSA myths and stereotypes

I’m happy with these recommendations. It is clear in my research how underfunded mental health services are and how poorly professionals can react to CSA disclosure as well as how badly this impacts individuals who have experienced CSA. The fifth recommendation is key – stigma and stereotyping makes recovering so much harder.

I hope that the government takes this report on board – it makes financial and moral sense to do so. I’ll look forward to reading the other reports when they are released. Many thanks to everyone who contributed to my research.

 

CSA, Memory and Dissociation

Ibbotson, Karen; Memory I
‘Memory I’ by Karen Ibbotson, Gallery Oldham

During my research it has become clear that people who have experienced CSA do not know about advances in CSA research. This is no fault of theirs but instead reflects how taboo the subject is. Nobody talks about it but lots of people experience it. I want to share up to date information about CSA research and the first topic is memories.

Dissociation

Traumatic experiences are difficult for the person to experience. Animals sometimes freeze when they cannot escape a situation. Humans are no different. It is common for the individual to dissociate and attempt to mentally leave the situation. Dissociation is defined by MIND as ‘an experience where you feel disconnected in some way from the world around you or from yourself.’ During the traumatic incident the person might enter an altered sense of reality, detached from the self and time. Children are more likely to dissociate so people who have experience childhood sexual abuse frequently experience this. What does this mean for them as an adult?

Memory Gaps

Amnesia is common following dissociation, as this state might affect how memory is stored. The person may struggle to recall facts about the incident(s) or even that it took place at all. It does seem however that emotions and sensations around the event(s) are retained, which means that someone can feel fear, for example, without remembering why. Many people find memories returning later, often in adulthood.

PTSD and other Conditions

Dissociation raises the risk of long term conditions such as Complex-PTSD. With C-PTSD things that remind the person of the traumatic experience (triggers) lead to a re-experiencing of that event. This does not necessarily mean a complete flashback but can mean the re-experiencing of emotions as described above. There is further information about C-PTSD here on the NHS site.

There are other dissociative conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, see the MIND link here, that are again tied to early trauma.

To sum up memory gaps and even total amnesia is common in people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It is a consequence of the body trying to deal with an traumatic experience. C-PTSD is also common and may be, in part, a consequence of that dissociation.

References:

Scaer, R.C., 2001. The Neurophysiology of Dissociation & Chronic Disease. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 26(1), pp.73–91.

Van der Kolk, B., 2014. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Viking.

Evil

Blake, William, 1757-1827; Satan Calling up His Legions
Blake, William; Satan Calling up His Legions; National Trust, Petworth House; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/satan-calling-up-his-legions-219773

It’s been a while since I blogged. I’ve been typing up interview transcripts – a long and complex job and investigating future possibilities – more of those in later blogs. Now the University teaching year has started I’ve been teaching seminars and covering my supervisor’s lectures about the sociology of evil. It’s really interesting stuff so I thought it’d be a good subject to blog about.

Different disciplines approach evil in differing ways. Theology views it as the great battle between good and evil. Psychologists and psychiatrists look for its origins in people’s childhood experiences and neuro-biologists scan brains for damaged or missing areas.

Sociologists ask a different question. What is evil for? Why do we use the term? Why do we describe some people or acts as evil and not others? Alexander (2001) argues that evil is used to highlight good – we talk about things being evil to make it clear what we, as a society, want people to do instead.

As an example, child sexual abuse is generally seen as an evil act. This highlights our horror at people hurting children because, as a society, we want children to be cared for. This is good – the abuse of children is extremely wrong and could definitely be described as evil. Society wants to underline that abuse is wrong.

There are, however, a few unintended problems with this. Firstly when we think of ‘evil’ people we imagine monstrous, almost bestial, people. The vast majority of abuse is carried out by family members or acquaintances, not demonic strangers, so most abusers appear completely normal. If we are looking for ‘evil’ are we ignoring what is happening in our community, street or even home? Does this mean we are more likely to dismiss or ignore accusations?

Secondly ‘evil’ is seen as something catching. So there is the idea that people who have been abused go on to be abusers – something that there isn’t very much evidence for.  This means that people who have been abused are scared from talking about it – so perpetrators get away with more crimes. It also means that families encourage children (and adults) to stay silent, to avoid the shame – but why would there be any shame unless there was this idea that people who have been abused are ‘tainted’ in some way?

So what do we do? I absolutely think that as a society we need to define what is acceptable and what is not. Abusing a child is not acceptable. It is utterly selfish to take what you want regardless of the harm done to another – particularly a child. But society needs to talk about it and learn about it. The label of evil, whilst an understandable way of expressing our horror at abuse, means that we don’t talk about it and we silence those who do want to talk about it. Openness is the key here. Silence allows abusers to get away with their crimes and prevents recovery for people who have experienced it.

Reference

Alexander, Jeffrey C. (2001) ‘Towards a Sociology of Evil’, in Maria Pia Lara (ed.)
Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives, pp. 153–72. Berkeley: University of
California Press.

 

 

Music to Process Trauma by…

One of the things I was interested in whilst doing my research was whether anyone else found music as important as I did in recovering. Quite a few people mentioned music but I thought I’d share the songs that meant a lot to me. It’s all about the lyrics.

Sometimes it’s about being angry….

Or, incidentally, when you need music to clean your house to. Metallica is good for both: cleaning and rage.

Sometimes you need reminding that you are strong.

Back in the day, before digital downloads a friend searched secondhand record shops to find me that single. That meant so much. I wasn’t alone. Which brings me to…

Something I’ve always aspired to be. Lately my favourite has been this one

Ultimately though every day is a new day and a new start. No one singer is more important to me than Nina.

And rinse and repeat. As I was frequently reminded throughout my research recovery is actually recovering – an ongoing, never ending process but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have moments, days or months or years of happiness. Do you have any music that speaks to you? Please share in the comments or on Twitter.

May 2018 Research Update

Time to Listen Wilhemena Barns Graham
‘A Time to Listen’ by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 

I’ve reached an important point in my research – the data gathering bit is finished and next I will analyse it all. There are 141 survey responses and 21 interviews. I will transcribe every interview (those that were recorded) which is taking me 5 hours/ish for each hour recorded. I’m aiming to get that done by the end of June. Thank you so much to everyone who took part.

It has struck me, whilst doing these interviews, what fascinating, wise and intelligent people my research participants are. There is a phenomenon called ‘post traumatic growth’ – which is not to suggest that trauma is a good thing because it’s not – but that trauma can lead to wisdom and a different perspective on life. I’m not ignoring the negative effects of course and that will all be part of the thesis, as well as the need for properly funded mental health services – but it is really clear to me the difference between the traditional idea of what an abuse ‘victim/survivor’ looks and acts like, and the people I have been talking to. That’s the difference between a stereotype and reality.

I have also been working on, with my supervisor, an academic article which is due for submission at the start of next month, based on people’s comments about #metoo and the perpetrators of abuse. Whilst writing the article I came across the quote above from Maya Angelou and it really sums up the point of the article as well as what people have been telling me over the last 5 months. I found the painting on Art.uk and it is entitled ‘A Time to Listen’ – let’s hope it is!