trauma memory

Three nights ago I was hounded by bouts of sleeplessness. This happens infrequently now, usually as a precursor to a migraine, and such has been the case alas. I usually listen to the radio when life is like this — podcasts, World Service, etc.

After much depressing news, I caught a podcast hosted by Steven Pinker, called Think with Pinker. This episode, ‘Sentence first, verdict after’, set out to look at cognitive concerns around juries and judges — specifically, language and memory.

Normally, I have a HUGE amount of time for Dr Pinker. He has done some fascinating work around language acquisition, computational intelligence, and has been a respected media intellectual for some years now. However, lying there unable to sleep….I just got madder and madder.

His main guest was Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a renowned cognitive psychologist, best known for her work in the area of memory and recovered memory. Her studies show pretty unequivocally that it is possible to ‘implant’ some kinds of memories in children especially (though they may be other conclusions to be drawn from them of course — perhaps just that adults can get children to believe lies?). While there are many questions about her work and how it may intersect with her own history (here is a fascinating and thorough New Yorker piece on her work and her personal history), there is no doubt that she is an influential expert in the area of ‘false memory’, called upon often by the defence in trials of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

To be fair, I’m guessing that the podcast intended to control the conversation into only speaking about how necessary it is to be careful with language — to watch how questions and cross-questions are framed and asked when it comes to witnesses and victims. This makes sense: it’s good to be alert to influencing anyone on the stand.

But the programme was too dismissive for my liking. Too categorical. Loftus and Pinker laughed about how one of her studies convinced subjects that they’d been to Disneyland, when they hadn’t. One even reported having seen Bugs Bunny — impossible, because Bugs Bunny is not part of the Disney world.

Neither of them mentioned the very specific — and totally UNfunny situation of trials involving sexual abuse and sexual assault. Neither of them mentioned the fact that Dr Loftus is the queen of taking the stand for the defence in these cases — and testifying that memories can be implanted. And that therefore the victim’s recall of events and accusations may well be so unreliable as to be ‘untrue’.

Neither of them took any account of the questions surrounding Loftus’ work and traumatic experiences (see The New Yorker article above). Or mentioned that implanting traumatic memories has never been successful. And that is because it is impossible to recreate a sufficiently traumatic environment, context or individual situation. Trauma has its own rules.

We now know that not only are memories themselves different from each other (self evidently), but the creation and storage of these trauma memories are also different. There are many studies and articles available on the formation and characteristics (the neuroscience) of trauma memory; here is a snippet of a particularly well researched piece:

“Much of what is remembered of a traumatic or threatening event functions as if existing in separate islands of memory.

Information encoding and storage are impaired for aspects of the experiences that are not considered essential for survival or are of little emotional importance. This includes the sequence of events as well as peripheral details. This often results in a disorganized and incomplete narrative memory.

This is immensely important for how victims of trauma are interviewed. The primary emphasis of the sexual assault police interview should therefore be on the sensory, emotional memories that the victim has encoded and remembered rather than expecting the victim to give a narrative with a chronology.”

Trauma memory is different. It cannot be accessed like other types of memory, nor can memories be truly ‘planted’. The area of the brain into which the implanting would have to happen is too primal, and not open to suggestion.

The notion of memory — in all of its layers and mutability — is not solid at the best of times. But we must not confuse ‘normal’ memory with trauma memory. We have to establish respectful ways of questioning victims and witnesses who have been traumatised (or allegedly so) without risking re-traumatisation or further silencing. Sexual abuse and domestic abuse are SO common that we simply must find ways of doing this right. Discrediting memories, and/or eliding testimony into False Memory, fatally disadvantage actual victims and survivors — who are disproportionately penalised for having memories that behave differently, and which do so completely out of their control.

My memoir Learning to Survive reflects trauma memory at work in its structure, its gaps, and its fragmentation. I recognise and acknowledge these irregularities as the book progresses, but they are my reality, my memory, and ultimately they shape my life. This excerpt details what I can remember, and what I can’t, around an early traumatic sexual assault.

*

L is for Laundry Room

Close to the pool at one of the apartment blocks, there is a laundry room. I’ve been in it plenty of times. It’s a long thin room with washers and dryers along both sides: you open up the top, load in the clothes and close it, then line up the quarters in the sliding tray, push it in with a satisfying clunk. Many, many times I have helped my mother load up and push in the metal tray. You have to get it just right, but when it goes in, the water comes on immediately, a great rush into the drum of the machine.

            My friend Deidre and I are hanging around, as usual. It is summer. We wander past the laundry room, on our way somewhere else. There’s a man in there, and he steps out, calls after us, ‘Hey, can you help me?’

            We turn around. Deidre is wary, but I am not. Together we go back to him. He’s a big man, older, dressed in overalls like Granddaddy wears when he’s gardening or working on the pick-up truck. But he’s not as old as him, he’s more like an old father. He says, ‘Thanks. It’s just that I can’t get this to work, I don’t know how it works. Do you need quarters?’

            We are standing at the door, in shorts, barefoot and barelegged as usual, five years old. It’s darker in the room. We don’t say anything.

            ‘How many quarters do you need?’ he goes on. Finally I answer. ‘Two,’ I say.

            ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘I’ve got two quarters. Could you show me how to work it?’

            Somehow I am moving into the room, and he lifts me up to put the quarters in. I push the slide in, and the wash starts. He puts me down. The moment of fear, the stepping forward, has passed, and I turn to leave.

            ‘Thank you,’ he says, then, as if it’s an afterthought, ‘oh hey, do you like Coke?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say.

            ‘Do you want one?’ he says.

            I do. He hasn’t given me anything for helping him, and I wonder if he’s going to give me a Coke for it. I nod.

            From now on, I don’t know what happens to Deidre, I only know what happens to me. I step forward again, and the man shuts the door. He says he’s going to put something over my eyes, then he’s going to give me a Coke. I am blindfolded. Fear begins to press at me, panic fluttering, but I don’t move. I don’t want him to see I am afraid. I tell myself that whatever is happening will be over, sometime it will be over.

            Something goes into my mouth. It doesn’t taste like coke. It tastes and feels terrible, but it is over quickly. I spit it out. I remember the sound of a zipper. I remember not looking at him when the blindfold comes off, and walking calmly out of the door, still not wanting to be afraid, the glass bottle of Coke in my hand.

            I sense that Deidre is with me, but I could be wrong. Perhaps she runs away, to find someone, to tell them, before the door is closed. Or perhaps she is blindfolded too.

            Some conversation comes up later, with older children or even with mothers, not my own. Someone asks me if I’ve seen anything, if anything has happened. ‘No,’ I say. I lie. I know I have something to hide. I’ve been greedy.

the body

[image: Ana Manso, Eye Massage]

As seems to happen frequently, a Twitter conversation brings me here. I have recently had some reflexology, and had the extraordinary experience of right at the end — feeling an inexplicable but distinct ‘lightening’, like something leaving me. It was remarkable.

It occurs to me that many who read this blog may not be acquainted with how a Child Sexual Abuse survivor feels about their body. We are by no means the same, or feel the same things, but to a person I reckon we all have issues around our bodies, one way or another.

I have posted before about how dance kept me in my body, shifted trauma for me, something I was not aware of until recently. Alongside this though, I have had to re-learn (learn for the first time?) about physical boundaries, and about my body belonging to me and no one else.

Boundaries are extremely complicated (there’s that word again) in CSA. As a victim, I ‘knew’ what was happening wasn’t right. If so, you may wonder — why didn’t I tell someone? Why didn’t I stop my abuser and say No? Because: the abuser always has authority. The victim may ‘feel wrong’ — but the abuser is always ‘right’. The abuser has the power. Always. The power of the victim to exact the physical boundary, to draw the line, doesn’t exist.

Right through through my 20’s and 30’s I made sure never to wear anything which could be interpreted as ‘revealing’. Or which showed ‘curves’, or ‘skin’. Which could ever, by anyone, be interpreted as ‘inviting’. Given that I was married, had children, and was by all measures of such things really pretty happy — it’s striking that my relationship with my skin ‘in the world’ was completely missing.

I think this is a common experience among trauma survivors of any sort. Specifically and of course, bodies of CSA survivors often don’t belong to them in some fundamental way. Our bodies are not ‘ours’. In fact, we would rather not have bodies, because keeping our bodies’ memories — and ourselves, our inner selves — away from each other is exhausting. If we are lucky we find ways to enjoy intimacy and sex, we make a space to be touched. If we are not, none of this comes to us. Because our bodies are not ours.

Which is why massage can be so fraught, and/or such a release. Survivors usually feel that being touched is either dangerous or meaningless. ‘Getting in touch with’ being touched is huge. Accepting touch which isn’t freighted with expectation or fear is quite a thing. But when it happens, when it does so without feeling unsafe — it can be so healing.

I want to reiterate the Contents Warning for this next excerpt from my memoir Learning to Survive. It plainly shows the coercion with which physical boundaries are transgressed, and how children are helpless to protest. I am 10 or 11 years old when this scene happens.

*

Conversion

[My stepmother] is out. He has been helping me with my homework. He invites me to the sofa.

            Have you started your period yet?

            I am mortified. I shake my head.

            I want you to be able to tell me anything.

            He reaches over, starts to unbutton my shirt. Checks with me, ok? I do not know if I respond.

            He unbuttons my shirt, reaches inside my trainer bra, and rubs my barely-there breasts. It hurts.

            After a minute he stops, and allows me to button up my shirt again. Thank you, he says, and laughs a little.

Not long after, [my stepmother] tells me that I will no longer be sharing a room with [my siblings]. She is excited about the basement conversion; she will get a sewing room again, and everyone will have their own bedrooms. My father adds that as the eldest, I will get the new bedroom, alone downstairs in the basement.

yes things fall apart

Disclosing Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) is complicated, no matter how or to whom you do it. This is because, at root, the worst fears of the child — or you as a child — to some extent must come true: as a result of your disclosure, your living environment is fragmented, broken. The illusion of your life before disclosure is gone. Even if whom you disclosed to reacts ‘well’ — with compassion, with kindness, with a promise to help — your life, as victim, is upended. There will be physical, emotional, and painful changes. Indeed part of NOT disclosing, of keeping the secret at all, is based on the fear of feeling even worse. And of all eyes looking at you: you did this.

For me, not disclosing during or soon after the abuse was also about the feeling that I can carry this. I can bear it. I didn’t want anyone else to be upset. I desperately wanted life to be ‘normal’. I don’t remember caring what happened to my father, the abuser. I had lost respect for him years before. But I did care about my siblings, about how their lives would be shaken forever. I figured I would be okay — eventually — but I didn’t want them to go through anything like what I had and would. I could bear it. They, I thought, could not.

Feeling responsible for others when that responsibility is not yours to carry is a typical CSA pattern. A typical perpetrator pours attention onto the victim. The victim is unwillingly pinned into the ‘centre’ of the perpetrator’s emotions, actions, reactions. Sometimes the perpetrator makes clear that the victim is the most important person in his* life, and that everything depends on this ‘love’. The perpetrator creates a world which has only two occupants: the victim, and the abuser. It sits like a bubble around the victim at all times, even when the perpetrator is not there. It feels impossible to break through, like the world will break and turn to rubble if you do. And then you would really be alone.

So you learn to live — sort of — trapped in this bubble. You are separate, divided from the rest of life. But it becomes good enough and as much as you can expect. And the whole world, as far as you can see, depends on you staying there. On your silence, on your compliance.

Disclosure is complicated. And because continuing abuse relies on the status quo, disclosure always means some things fall apart. What we need to work harder at in our world is supporting survivors, at whichever stage they disclose. We need to believe them. We need to accept responsibility and be accountable for the inevitable mess. We need to come to their rescue, however horrified and distressed we may feel. It is not up to survivors to clean up the mess or make any of this palatable. It is not their mess. And none of it is palatable or ever will be.

[*my abuser was male]

These two short excerpts from Learning to Survive are about what happened when I disclosed to my aunt. So much fell apart, but unbeknownst to me, so much had been falling apart for years….

*

no quieting

Once I separate in earnest from my father and — necessarily – everyone else in Blacksburg and even Roanoke, I take every opportunity to visit instead Ommie and Granddaddy. Over my Oberlin years I see them as much as possible, always on my own, and always with intense relief: home.

            I am with Ommie and Granddaddy the Christmas after Roderick and I get together. He and I are writing letters, and sending gifts – I had forgotten my copy of Eliot’s Selected, so he sends me his, complete with annotations. He is going back to the UK and then onto Vienna for January; we do not see each other for six weeks, which remains to this day the longest we have ever been apart.

            My father’s sister, my Aunt Lois, is doing volunteer work then, and has some free hours; she and I spend a lot of time together that Christmas break. We have always been more like sisters.

            One day we are at the mall having some lunch. It’s a Dairy Queen, with disposable cutlery, paper, and cups. She asks me how I am. How things are going?

            I find that for some reason these days I am incapable of lying. My brave face has disappeared. I answer her: not very well really. I’m in therapy. And it’s true, aspects of therapy have been more gruelling than I could ever have imagined.

            ‘Oh.’ Lois is wise. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. What’s up?’

            ‘Family stuff,’ I say, and in the distance, I can feel something coming like a train.

            ‘To do with your mom?’

            I shake my head.

            ‘Your father?’

            I nod. And she immediately – immediately – says, ‘I think I might know what it is.’

            How has she guessed? Why now?

            And then she says, ‘Because he did it to me too.’

            I pick up my drink and throw it across the room. It hits the wall, and coke runs all the way down to the floor.

Lois and I talk and talk. She becomes the third person – after Diana, and after Roderick – to whom I tell as much as I am able. She is utterly, completely devastated that something has happened to me. She wonders about [my sister] – is she okay? But I can’t be sure. Lois berates herself: she should have tried harder to stop him, to make herself believed when it happened to her. She – like me – was ten or eleven. She, like me, cannot sleep in the dark. And unlike me, she manages sooner to lock her bedroom door, even putting a chair up against it. At the time the incidents happen, my father is 16 or 17.

            Lois tells me that later she reveals everything to her mother – Ommie – who doesn’t disbelieve her exactly, but who does not do anything. Whose attitude is ‘it happens to everyone’ – because it happened to her too, from her uncle, as it turns out. Ommie stresses that Lois mustn’t tell Granddaddy. So Lois keeps it to herself. And finds, like me, that her life begins to suffer. She avoids my father and his family, keeps her kids away from him, and thinks that everything – why he does it, when he does it – is all her fault. Is all to do with her, because of who she is. Just like me.

            Both of us, in that single conversation, and almost at the exact same time, realise that none of this – none of this — is our fault. We are simultaneously released and horrified: it’s not us, after all. It’s him. It’s all him.

*

remember this

Secrets beget secrets beget secrets, and once they start coming out there is no telling where they will lead. That visit, Lois and I decide not to tell Ommie and Granddaddy, not yet. They are in their mid-70’s. I am not certain it will ever be okay to tell them, but Lois now has a fire about her. She is incandescent with fury, and especially so because my father, in spite of hardly ever visiting and rarely phoning, is still looked upon as ‘the golden boy’, with his professorship and PhD. She is determined to tell them, but willing to bide her time. She does not want me caught up in it all, to have more to deal with. And in truth I welcome this; I am relieved that it’s no longer all up to me. The one thing I know – and Lois is sure of this too – is that I have Ommie and Granddaddy’s unconditional love. I cannot predict what telling them will do to their relationship with their son, but I know that they will not reject me. They will not scapegoat me. And I am so tired now of trying to keep everything together, trying to smooth things over. The fatigue overwhelms me. I leave it all, gladly, up to her.

            It would be naïve of me to say that this is the end of the destruction my father causes in Beaumont. Lois herself of course is deeply distressed by what has happened to me, and seeks out therapy again; it takes her a long time to somewhat come to terms with it. When she is ready, after I’ve moved to the UK, and when my grandparents are in their 80’s, Lois tells both of them. We never discuss it directly, but I know from her that they never again have more than a monosyllabic conversation with my father. And ten years later, after they die and are buried, after the funerals, Lois tells the entire extended family, who all rally to her side. After that, my father can never go back. The ruse is over; he is exposed.

the girl by the pool

I’ve been thinking a lot about hypervigilance, and the part it plays in my life. And many if not most survivors’ lives, actually. Right now for me, it’s brought on by one of my children needing surgery.

Hypervigilance is one of a long list of PTSD symptoms, and one I cannot remember being without. I’ve had it all my life it seems — before my father’s abuse, for sure.

I can trace this particular ‘high alert’ habit/necessity right back to living with my mother, which I did (part time, as it turns out) until I was six years old. My mother was ‘unwell’ — a lot. When I was older she used to reminisce that when I was three years old I would bring her my teddy bear and some orange juice when she was incapacitated on the sofa. I didn’t realise how inverted those actions were until I told a therapist at some point. And she was like ‘so you were the parent?’. Um, yes.

My mother had mental health issues on and off for most of her life, and I believe I witnessed some bad times, particularly before I was six. I have no visual memory of these times, but I do have the sense of vigilance, of being aware, of needing to be so — otherwise I’d be in danger.

And of course this vigilance had no reason to fade when I went to my father’s house at age six. Here I had to be ‘good’, and eventually, I had to try to protect myself as much as possible by ‘reading the room’. The danger was real. What I didn’t know is that I couldn’t really protect myself. That’s the catch about hypervigilance: quite often, it doesn’t serve us. What’s going to happen, will happen — no matter how aware we are, and how hard we try to cut it off at the pass.

I posted on Twitter recently about the extreme ‘alertness’ I often feel in my life now. I have been haunted by ‘what if’ scenarios, and images of disaster and catastrophe, and the ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ feeling of I must be prepared my whole life. I now more or less recognise it, though this doesn’t mean I can prevent it. Most of the time I see it when I am in it. I never see it coming.

The physiological effects of hypervigilance are worth noting here: constant spikes of adrenalin, and rushes of cortisol to deal with stress. The long-term impacts of years of this are both known and unknown, depending on how individuals are put together. But it’s a fact that survivors have higher incidences of chronic conditions, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, and some cancers (from The Body Keeps the Score). There is the health of complex organisms — us, all of us — at stake here. These distorted reactions to — life — of course also impact our families, especially our children. These are tough roads to walk. But with honesty and communication, we can walk them, and we can halt the cycles of dysfunction.

Vigilance is not always a bad thing of course. Being alert and aware and sensitive to each other are all good ways to live. We want this in our lives. And in fact, sometimes even hypervigilance — that weird constant state of high alert — can serve us. For instance, I have known within half a day in every instance when our children’s colds or sore throats became infections. Every time. I also knew that ‘something was wrong’ with our elder child when he started wetting the bed and was very thirsty. I googled. And insisted he go to the doctor. He did — and was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes — a life threatening condition — that day. Because of my (hyper) vigilance, he was never very ill at diagnosis, which is fairly unusual. We caught his diabetes very early.

Recently I told my therapist about an event in my childhood, as a way of talking about my mother’s neglect really. But my therapist ended up saying ‘well, here your hypervigilance paid off’. Yes. I’d never thought of that.

I’ve written about it in Learning to Survive. There are two passages below about the event. A few months before she died, I asked my mother if she had any regrets. She said she did — and the very first one she mentioned was that she wished she’d jumped into the pool.

*

Q is for Quick

I am playing outside with a friend, or an acquaintance, another little girl. I am not sure where we are – not at the apartments where I learned to swim though. It is a perfectly still day, the sky grey and flat. I know this because when I look down at the water, I can’t see my own reflection, I can only see down into the dark blue depths.

            I know we are not supposed to be down this end, somehow. The colour of the water frightens me, a deep blue-grey, verging on black. I know what it’s like to be in deep water, your chin barely out, and I don’t want to be there again. The edge is white, shaped and curved rough concrete, the kind that grazes your knee each time you get out.

            It is entirely silent. I do not even think we are speaking to each other, my friend and me, we are just walking. I don’t even know if we are really friends.

            The noise is barely noticeable. I turn just in time toward it, in time to see the top of her head going under, and something white – her hand, her face – near the surface.

            I do not want to leave her there, without anyone. But I turn and run toward the building, toward my mother and Bill who are all the way inside, up some stairs, sitting on the sofa. It seems to take so long, and it feels so heavy, like a storm approaching. I don’t know what I say, but the grown-ups come out in a great rush, Bill’s watch and shoes flying.

            I remember him diving in. Cleanly, clearly, with next to no sound, just the slip of someone going under. I remember my mother teetering on the edge, staring down. And I remember later, someone telling me I did the right thing.

            This girl must not die. I think I would know if she did. She must survive, dragged or lifted out, choking. After all, Bill is a doctor. Or perhaps she isn’t choking; perhaps she is silent, like all of that day seems to be. Perhaps she looks perfectly normal, as if none of it has happened, she is just holding her breath.

            You would think that I remember the moment of re-emergence, when everything is alright. You would think that her survival shapes the whole incident, is the one good thing. But it isn’t, that isn’t what I remember at all. What I remember is the feeling of helplessness staring down at her, my arms by my sides, and the feeling that I too might fall in. I remember the vision of the looming building, so far away, up the steps. That I cannot run fast enough, my own legs in water, that they are not going to understand me, sitting together on the sofa. That I am not going to be able to say, a girl is drowning and I know what she looks like.

And Questions

What my mother is thinking – much less Bill – allowing us out by an empty, unguarded pool, I am not able to fathom. I am also not able to say to her: and where were you? She will say she could hear or see us, she will say the distance between the pool and the apartment building wasn’t far. She will say that no one died. But I know differently and have always known differently: I ran up the stairs and turned left into the apartment, a long way away. I could have died that day, not to speak of the girl who almost did. Looking back, I don’t know why I too don’t fall in. On the edge of a pool, it is always on the verge of happening.

            I don’t know exactly how old I am when all of this happens, but I know I am younger than six. I am six and a half when I go to live with my father, and my memories have as their central axis pre-Virginia (with my mother) and Virginia (with my father).

            Why don’t I fall in? Why do I know what to do? As is the case for so many stories from my childhood, I am feted as sensible, knowing. But perhaps that’s not why, why I rarely if ever put a foot wrong. Perhaps instead I know, even then, that there might not be anyone around to save me.

we’re here, folks, in droves

It’s been a week. My head has been down, to the grindstone. I’ve watched the Maxwell trial spin by. Relief has been followed by distress, and the too-familiar feeling of loss of control: a juror was abused. He helped others to understand the elements of abuse. Along the way another juror realised they’d most likely suffered child sexual abuse as well. All is up in the air.

What does this tell us? For those of us in the Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) world, it reinforces a few hard facts, all of which we know, all too intimately:

  1. CSA is very common. In the UK, the NSPCC can be sure that 1 in 20 children is sexually abused. In the US, the CDC splits this figure by gender: 1 in 4 girls, 1 in 13 boys. These are the surveyed and reported stats.
  2. There is also the hard fact that a third of those abused NEVER disclose or report it. So we can be sure that the figure is higher than either the NSPCC or CDC can report in good faith.
  3. No one likes to think that the person next to them has been a victim of child abuse. See number 1. No choice, folks.
  4. No one likes to think that there’s a chance that the crimes being tried were experienced on some level by a member of the jury. See number 1. No choice, folks.
  5. Nor that anyone in any context knows or has contact with anyone who was sexually abused as a child. See number 1. You, and everyone, are bound to know numerous people who have been abused. No choice, folks.

Here is the thing. As late as 1974, Child Sexual Abuse was considered extremely rare. 1 in 1 million people. My lord. Society and culture could then (incorrectly) be supported by medics’ and lawyers’ claims that CSA is virtually unknown. From there, silences, denials, dismissiveness, deflections…all of that seemed fair enough. Nothing to do with Us. What happens to those children, and those people, is not Us. What happens is strange. Perverted. Deviant. Not Us.

Yes. I’m not going to argue anything other than CSA is awful. Wrong. Deviant.

But it IS Us. It is an everyday occurrence. It deserves to be part of the conversation, even in trials around…CSA. Because who would think of having no differently abled people on a jury in a trial about discrimination against disabled folks? Who would think about requiring there be no people of colour on a jury in a trial which involved a person of colour?

CSA — for this era, and regrettably — is part of the conversation. Part of our lives. Part of your life. We have a voice. We have logic and reason. We can make a judgement. We can hear things out, and weigh things up. But we won’t disregard our abuse.

Juries represent and reflect the Human Experience. Of course the process and the questionnaire all need examining. But let’s not jump to conclusions and state that people who have been abused cannot be part of a jury which must come to a decision about abuse. It’s not gonna happen. And it’s not right if it does.

We all long for CSA never to happen again. But we are nowhere near that yet. As the Maxwell trial, and so much else, amply prove.

[photo: me at age 15, taken by school friend David Larsen. My father was still abusing me.]

*

from my memoir Learning to Survive, about how very badly we can be betrayed by those who in theory are supposed to protect us, and by an unenforceable law:

Therapy

The spring of my junior year at Blacksburg High School is a particularly gruelling time.

            The nerves I see in my father’s eyes become something else, and he appears to take action. He tells me that [my stepmother] ‘knows about us’ and ‘about Suzanne’, giving the impression that he has had to tell her, for my own good. He locates a therapy practice about 15 miles away in Radford which he deems suitable. We are at first booked into a group session; then I start my own sessions, and [my stepmother] and my father start marriage counselling.

            This all seems to happen within a couple of weeks. [My stepmother] does not speak to me about what she knows. I do not remember her asking any questions, or expressing any concern. We go back and forth to therapy together, and do not discuss anything said within those walls. From journals of the time, I know that I am deeply, deeply confused and unhappy. About everything. I love Suzanne, but I also like boys. I hate men. I want my father out of my life. And I am utterly miserable.

            Things that emerge from therapy:

            Every Rorschach ink blot terrifies me. Every single one looks sexual. Looks creepy. Looks scary. Has monsters. I feel I am losing some battle if I admit how terrified they make me feel. I am 17. I lie about all of them, although there is only my therapist and me in the room.      

My father requests that I no longer call him ‘Daddy’. You need to grow up, he says, and I need to move on.

            Suzanne is a bad influence. I am no longer allowed to see her, at least for a little while.

            None of this can be mentioned to [my siblings].

Things that do not happen from therapy:

My father is not reported.

My father is not reported.

My father is not reported.

It takes me a long time to accept – years, and many therapists later – that in this, my first encounter with therapy, I am fundamentally betrayed: my father does not take responsibility for his actions, and, as it turns out, never does, as if that one chance missed lets him off scot-free. As a consequence I am not protected, and nor, for that matter, is [my sister], who is 13 at the time. As a consequence I am completely flattened. If [my stepmother] in theory ‘knows’ now, if the therapists ‘know’, why does everything not fall apart? Is the abuse, after all, okay?

            My own unproven and unsubstantiated theory is that my father probably locates this practice precisely because he feels he can influence its members. After all, he has been able to manage every aspect of the story so far. He prevents any explosion, or any impact on any other part of our lives. We carry on. I speak of the abuse – lightly – in therapy, almost paralysed with dread. But it is not discussed much. Of more importance it seems is my relationship with Suzanne: is it real, am I really gay? The therapist seems fixated upon how I become involved with Suzanne, and I do not recall a single direct conversation about the abuse. I wonder if, after all that, she ever really believes me.

            I know now that my father almost certainly mis-directed and orchestrated the whole thing, such that [my stepmother] and I never have an honest conversation, and most vitally, [my siblings] are told nothing. I know now too that the therapists at the practice actually break the law: in 1981 in Virginia, therapists are legally obliged to report sexual abuse to the Child Protective Services — which these don’t, because I am never interviewed, and anyway, nothing changes. I know now that this requirement to report to services is in place precisely because perpetrators are generally expert manipulators, and otherwise control the dynamics. Which is precisely what my father does.

even the ‘good’ goes away

For many years I tried to ‘reconcile’ the parts of my father who was my abuser with the parts that weren’t. I tried to hold onto the ‘good’ parts. I tried to look past the ‘bad’. Because without doubt, he had much to offer to the world.

Like probably all survivors of sexual abuse, I am hugely relieved to hear of Ghislaine Maxwell’s conviction for sex trafficking girls. Regardless of her no doubt manifold ‘good’ qualities, her ‘bad’ qualities, her crimes, have taken priority. She has been held accountable.

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) can ruin victims’ lives. Sexual abuse is an extraordinarily damaging crime. Its effects bleed into everything. There is no way to look past it, either in your life or in the life of someone you love. The blame lies squarely with the perpetrator, and absolutely nowhere else. Sexual abuse is so heinous that it negates whatever else a perpetrator might have done in their lives. This may feel ‘unfair’ or ‘out of proportion’ to those who love or respect the perpetrators. But dealing with being a victim of sexual abuse is a lifelong sentence. Being sexually abused doesn’t ‘clear up’. It is never ‘out of sight’. There are ways to tackle its effects which are helpful, and which develop good tools for living. But trauma changes the wiring in the body; it changes us physiologically. As survivors, we are forever altered.

Perpetrators’ lives — no matter how much ‘good’ they do in the world — deserve likewise to be forever changed. The decisions they made, and the damage from them, are irreparable.

From Learning to Survive, writing about the loss of anything good to do with my father.

***

Good Things

After the age of about 11, I cannot remember a single decent time with him. That is, one that isn’t inflected with fear, or repulsion, wondering what his next move will be. Wondering how he will use any moment to bring me closer to him, to be with him, later. As I look back, I think I may experience some moments of joy, in theory – like listening to music with him, peering through a telescope, arriving at the correct answer to a maths problem together – but none of them exist separately for long. I cannot tease them apart from everything else; I cannot make them stand up strong. They are never far from everything else I want to forget. They become meaningless.

            So I forget them all. I forget any possibility of good in him, and it never comes back. That room, like so many, is entirely empty.

[photo Martin Muir]

not saying it

Sexual abuse exists in a place without words for most survivors, at first. I have never met a survivor who thinks — when they are three, or five, or eight, or eleven years old — ‘I am being sexually abused.’ Or ‘this is sexual abuse’.

There are no words in the young place where abuse happens. There is only profound confusion. Pain. Shock. The sense that something is wrong. That you are alone. That you are different. And — reinforced by your abuser — that this must be a secret. That’s the only word you know for it, secret.

Between us. Something special.

A child doesn’t know where to put the confusion. A child carries it around, trying to ignore it, putting it out of mind. A child goes out of their body whenever possible. Because there are no words. And without words for this, no way to talk.

There can be no disclosure without words. ‘Why didn’t you tell someone?’ is a refrain that survivors hear again and again, mostly from adults who failed to look after them. ‘If only you’d told me…’. But you can’t speak without words for what is happening. You don’t have the words; you only have the feelings. And the feelings are terrible: guilt, shame, disgust. Why even try to express anything so … dirty? Especially when you didn’t stop them/must have made them do it?

For me, eventually, words saved me: poetry, fiction, memoir. Words made a place that could not be ruined by him. They have always been my powerful place.

I have been lucky enough to live in that place my whole life. But it took me 40 years to put the abuse itself into words, and to accept that writing them doesn’t diminish me.

From my memoir Learning to Survive:

***

Words

I wish I had the words I have now, then.

            Because I did not have the right words. No way to say this. No hope of being believed. No language at all. No speech.

            Those years exist in the dark. The wind whistles through them. My father’s insistence that this is love suffocates me. I know he is not right, and has never been right, from the start. But my own words are like feathers. They cannot hold. They float away, while the rest sit at the bottom of the pool, the grey heavy silt, the sludge that cannot be dredged.

            This then is an act of translation, pulling through time, attempting to capture, working in the idiom of today, out of necessity. I find words, because I now must name this. I must say something. I must say what this is, in stark two dimensions. Because this happened. This happened to me, and is still happening, everywhere, to others. Without words said out loud, no one knows. No one hears. Or sees. Or dares speak again. And nor do we: without words, we carry all this in our bodies, in blind silence. Without words, shame and confusion stitch our mouths shut.

            So now I say this:

            I was abused. Sexually abused. Psychologically abused.

                        There is no other context.

            I am a victim.

                        There is no other context.

            He is a perpetrator.

                        There is no other context.

            And I am a survivor.

                        Of it all.

[photo credit: Cristian Palmer/Unsplash]

shifting trauma

This is a photo of me at about 16. I have no memory of it being taken, and no idea for what it was taken. One of my children found it in my high school yearbook. It was taken, it seems, to highlight my dance. There’s an article that goes with it. My memory loss from abuse is indiscriminate: I have forgotten a number of ‘good’ things as well as a number of ‘bad’ things. I have holes in my memory all over the place. In my memoir I call them ’empty rooms’. So I have an empty room around this photo.

I am, though, a die-hard dancer, and an accomplished one, it seems. I danced from age seven or eight until my late 40’s, with never more than a few months’ break. I pitched up at dance schools in London and Norwich UK, danced all the way through university in the US, through having children, and working. Indeed, I often performed yearly, with other adult dancers. And WHAT a blast we had!

I have always known that dance was somehow vital for me. I knew I was happy doing it. I knew that its lyricism and rhythm informed my writing over decades.

What I didn’t know — until literally October 2021, practically yesterday — was that dance shifts my trauma, and always has done.

I am now 57 years old. I haven’t been able to dance in nearly a decade. There are physical reasons for this: namely, dodgy joints from hypermobility, and early onset arthritis. I have, however, remained fit. And for the last 10 years, I pretty much thought it was FITNESS that dance provided for me. Fitness and moving to music. I really never thought much beyond that.

Fast forward to summer ’21. Like a lot of people, I’ve had a tough, tough 18 months. Two close bereavements, a second hip replacement, one of my children having a serious accident and then a major operation. My writing stalled. And three lockdowns. I remained fit by walking (after recovery from my op), but I felt trapped. I was static in some fundamental way. And I spiralled down, really for the first time in my life. I landed in a mild — but frightening — depression. The more paralysed I felt, the more debilitated I became.

I am fortunate to have a brilliant therapist ‘on tap’. I have turned to her numerous times over the last few years, and so this time, at my husband’s insistent urging (I was all ‘no one can do anything; I’m going to feel like this forever’) — I contacted her again.

One of her first questions was ‘what has made you the happiest in the last two weeks?’. I had one answer, that I was rather embarrassed about: watching Strictly Come Dancing.

The unsettling thing is — she didn’t even know I had been such a dancer. She didn’t know that I danced all the way through the abuse. That I never felt threatened while dancing, I never felt watched. I always but always felt inside my body. It was my space. It was my thing. Time and again, I found myself gushing to her, dance has been transcendent for me. It takes me entirely into my body, and entirely elsewhere, at once. But I had never articulated this to her; indeed, I didn’t really know it myself.

It turns out that dance, over and over, has re-centred me, locating my ‘core self’ again and again. Because one thing I do know: I have preserved my core self. In that I have been extremely, extremely lucky. I just didn’t know that dance harboured and protected it.

First, I agreed with my therapist to watch as much dance as I wanted, to let that happen and indulge in that, instead of — as I was feeling — thinking of it as kind of a fun waste of time. I needed to let my body experience it.

Second, my best bae Nancy suggested we go line dancing (this video is a dance I actually do in class). We went to the first one together. And, as those of you who follow me on FB know: I WAS INSTANTLY HOOKED. Line dancing is not high impact, doesn’t involve grasping a barre (thumb arthritis, ugh), or going up on half point much (toe arthritis, double ugh!). What it does involve is my brain and focus (32 or 64 steps in sequence, repeated to each side of the room in various combinations, for five minutes at a time) and my intense, now realised, love of being inside my body and moving through music.

Along with talking therapy, line dancing has proved transformative — and yes transcendent — these last two months. I now do it twice a week, and my biggest fear over this new Covid wave is that line dancing will stop. I feel almost like I could give up everything but that. Here’s hoping.

I’m writing about this now for several reasons. First: it’s the holiday season, and we all need to pay attention, if we can, to what supports us rather than depletes us. Holidays are not fun for everyone.

Second, I saw a genius video about how The Body Keeps the Score when it comes to trauma. Yes, there is a brilliant book about this. And here’s the video that brought it home to me: The Body Keeps the Score by Knowledge is Power

Illustrated like this, I now see so clearly that dance shifts trauma for me. It moves it to a place where it doesn’t haunt me or stay in the present. It shifts the trauma. The last two years in particular have seen my body in an unfamiliar and unhealthy stasis. And the old and new trauma stacked up. It had nowhere to go, and I didn’t even know how to begin to shift it.

Third, I read this brilliant blog yesterday on the Epione page, Co-Regulation in Times of Covid by Felicity Douglas (twitter @felicitydougie). About how trauma sticks around, and about the kind of unabashed deep care you need to do to shift it around to something you can live with. How it may circle back, the same or differently, and how we as survivors can’t really be ‘fixed’. How the nervous system — the body — is something we can’t always know or take account of. It does what it does. Indeed, my therapist really feels that everything unravelled for me this last summer as much due to past stresses as to more present ones. I had been living with high cortisol and adrenaline levels for years. YEARS. Like the author of this blog: my nervous system just gave up the ghost.

So. As we go into this time of year — so difficult and strange for so many — I just want to say: your body keeps the score. Find, if you can, what nourishes you. What brings you pure joy, however fleeting. And do more of it. Do it mindfully. Make space for it. Cherish it. And your ever-shifting body will return the favour.

***

This is the first mention of dance in my memoir, Learning to Survive: an ABC of Abuse:

Ballet

Soon after arriving in Virginia [aged six], I begin to dance. Has someone mentioned my adventures with the Pink Panther theme dance class back when I was living with my mother? Does my father recall that my mother loves to dance?

            I do not know when or how I realise I am good at it. And I never realise, while living in my father’s house anyway, the purpose it comes to serve. It provides rhythm, shape to my days. I do it away from the family. It is mine. It is my body.

            I inhabit that room. I make another house. And I live there, in one form or another, for as long as I dance, for 40 years.

it only takes one

My first therapist Diana Kahn has been in my thoughts every day for many years. I loved her so much. The mother/protector I never had. The outraged one, the loving one, the fierce and driven one. The one who knew well before I did how my abuse would stretch outward and through my life forever.

She was the third person I disclosed to, aged 21, the second being my beloved creative writing professor and her friend, Diane Vreuls. Today I heard that Diana Kahn had died recently. The person who wrote to tell me this was Diane Vreuls. I feel as if the wind has been knocked out of me.

The ties with these two compassionate women stretch out over 35 years, and run deep. These women, between them, saved my life. Probably literally.

Diana Kahn prepared me for living, for life. She helped me be able to love, which I have gladly and wholly done for many years now. She led me toward my best self, the one that had been overshadowed by abuse, by shame, by fear. She kept me safe. My ability to be happy, to find joy, to believe in the future — all of this, I owe to her care, her insights, her encouragement, and her love. Rest in peace, you beautiful person.

It only takes one person to act, to know and understand. To help us heal. Here’s how I write about that time, in 1985, in my memoir, Learning to Survive:

***

it only takes one

Everything cascades into new places like dominos in my final year at Oberlin College [university], albeit in a slow and observable chain. After the summer, as if nothing has happened, I return to writing classes, this time to prose, with Diane Vreuls.  

            I begin to work on a story around a young woman called Roberta, and a young man called Alex. And the parallel narrative of her past, which involves something sinister. In the copy I have, I can see that I have made copious notes for Diane – ideas for development, acknowledgments of failings. I also state that there is a ‘father story’ here, though so far it’s not reflected in the text. The notes are chirpy, well organised. 

            But I can’t finish the story. I am due to go in and see Diane, but I can’t finish the story. I change tack: a different girl, older this time, in a relationship, a different man, the ‘father story’ further in the past. And I cannot finish this one either. I have no idea where it’s going, and don’t know what I want to say. But I know I want to say something.

            Diane calls me in for a tutorial on the initial four pages. I still have the copy she hands back to me then, and at the bottom, in small red writing, are the words ‘not enough for 2 weeks’ work’. It’s clearly a mess. She looks at my pages, all of them sketchy and faint. I can see I have disappointed her. She asks me to tell her about the story. I try to talk about the girl in it, and the love that must happen between her and Alex, somehow. About the other, different story I’ve started. Diane then asks me about the ‘father story’ line. She wonders what it is doing here, really, and how it connects to the floating interludes with some ‘she’ character, and some older ‘he’ character? There is too much, way too much, she says, unsaid.

            Of course, I have no words. I don’t even know how to talk about this. I have no idea what I’m doing. Then she turns her chair, directly facing me, and says, her voice a little shaky, ‘You are trying to write the same story over and over, do you see that? And it’s not happening.’ I must nod. Then she says, ‘Is there something you need to tell me?’.

            And I tell her. I am trembling all over. As much as I can tell anyone at that stage, I tell her. I tell her what my father did. I cannot yet cry about it, but she does. She asks about therapy, and I tell her about my last experience in that grand room. She is furious, and I later find out she makes an official complaint. But for now, and immediately, she phones her friend, a therapist called Diana Kahn – right there, while I’m in the office. She asks my permission to tell Diana a little bit, and I give it. I trust her completely; I give everything over. I tell her that I have no money at all to pay for anything. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Diane says not to worry. Not to worry any more about such things, because this is far, far more important.

I see the therapist Diana the next week, and twice a week at least for the following year, reducing to once a week for another year. She is fierce, and knowing, and protective. She releases me. She saves me. She begins the deep healing. And she pursues my father for every cent of her time, finally threatening him with a lawsuit. After which, he – surprise surprise – pays up.

I have never been able properly to express my gratitude to Diane Vreuls. For her compassion, her alertness, and for the friendship and love she shows me for years after. For the phone call she makes right there and then. But I hope that at times I’ve been able to embody her and make a difference. I promised myself I would, as soon as I started teaching 30 years ago. I promised myself that I would never turn away from a student in crisis, and I believe I never have. I know from experience that some changes in life can turn on a dime. Instead, I have numerous times picked up the phone, right there and then. I have made counselling appointments, I have walked students to the doctor’s office. I have had to tell students’ parents that I think their baby is in trouble. And I tell such students – often – of my own struggles. And of how my life is now. That there’s hope. Lots of it.

saying it

Telling people you’ve been sexually abused is almost always difficult — sometimes for you, sometimes for them. Sometimes for both.

In the last three days I’ve found myself disclosing to two people. In both cases there was a context of sorts; we were having ‘normal’ conversations about families, and, rather than brush over, or tell white lies, I told it like it is: my father sexually abused me for about four years, and my mother (not living with us) had several mental illnesses. My stepmother, for her own reasons no doubt, seemed unable to act. So my ‘Christmas plans’ have not included any of my parents for decades.

Why say it like it is? Isn’t it easier to brush over? Short answer: yes, it is. It is easier not to be damaged or complicated — but for most people, whatever has happened in their lives, that’s a lie. My damage and complexity just happen to spring from several places which make most people uncomfortable, or even reel back in some horror: this is too dreadful to be true they seem to say, the expression on their faces passing through pity, disgust, grief, and settling to neutral.

Again, why do this? Because, and it’s quite simple when I think about it: it is not up to me to apologise or ‘be over it’. It is not up to me to hide facts which were completely and utterly out of my control. It is not up to me to protect others’ sensibilities. We don’t protect each other from the bad news of cancer, or bereavement — we say it all, and hope the listener figures out how or if to respond.

In recent years when I finally could bring myself to disclose the sexual abuse, I would rush to — as in the next sentence — say ‘but I’m okay, I really am. I’ve had lots of therapy and I’m really well.’ Some of you reading this blog will recognise this from our long friendships. I did this to save my listener from pain, disgust, pity — and helplessness in the face of this horrible thing. The desire to protect the world from the dirty secret — to carry it, to carry the shame indeed, the unresolved triggers, the mess of it all — always took precedent.

But it’s good for ME to finally say it like it is. In public, without feeling sick or wanting to run away. To stand by my experiences. I was not able to say more than a vague ‘my father…. mumble mumble’ for decades, just hoping someone, even therapists, would understand without me having to actually SAY it. My silence — repeat after me folks — is one of the many silences which enable perpetrators to carry on abusing. It’s that simple. My pushing it away keeps abuse hidden. That simple.

However, what I do know is that not everyone can speak. For numerous reasons. Where we are in our journeys, who we have around us, how involved we want to be in taking a stand.

Which is why I am and so many others are now here, speaking out. Raising awareness, educating, and trying to redress the imbalance. Taking the power away from the abusers, where it has rested for centuries.

So. If you can’t say it — yet, or ever — let us say it for you. Let us share the burden. We will all get there in the end.

***

From my memoir, Learning to Survive. This is the first time I tried to tell someone what was happening. [NB: I have permission to use she/her pronouns; in time they moved into he/him, and into a much happier place. I have asked and have generously received permission to start here. Thank you, Joshua.]

Suzanne

When I am 16 years old, I fall in love with a close friend, and she with me. Although I do go on to have lesbian relationships (sort of) in university, out of love and respect for this person I need to say that in a few years this close friend will be a man. However, at the point in which we are in a relationship, he presents as female, a fact which for me, given what I have been through, I recognise even then as crucial.

            I speak to no one about my relationship with Suzanne, and have no memory of writing anything, at least in the early days, either. As far as my father is concerned, she is a friend, and we are able to spend many happy hours together, many months in each other’s company, before he seems to have an inkling of what is going on. If I could remember, I might place his knowing concurrent with my beginning to write about her in my journal, but of course – this is another empty room, another empty space where memory should be.

            Early on, Suzanne senses my intense fear around my father, about doing anything ‘wrong’ or attracting ‘suspicion’ – and she sees through it. One night on campus as we sit in a classroom working out trigonometry on the blackboard (her father also teaches at the university), she stops. What she says seems to come from nowhere, like she hardly knows she’s saying it: ‘It’s almost like he loves you like more than a daughter.’ She turns to me. ‘Does he? Does he love you like that?’

            I cannot bring myself to say yes or no. But somehow Suzanne knows from my face. Her anger and horror are instant – she makes thick white chalk lines over and over on the blackboard no no no no no. And more than once in the months that follow, I hear her car outside my house, driving around the block and up and down the hills, over and over, the horn blaring.

            We never speak about the abuse, and my father’s possessiveness, more than that. I start shaking too quickly, and it’s all so ugly, and all we want is to be together. I believe that she is saving me, and I think she believes this too, and to an extent, she is.