The Persistence of Memory
Long read on a difficult topic.
There’s an abundance of evidence in the literature that women who have been sexually abused in childhood are twice as likely to experience sexual assaults at some later point in our lives, than are women who have not.
The reasons for this are many: an inability to recognise and avoid predators, high risk behaviour, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use; inability to refuse unwanted sexual contact, inability to behave assertively with a man in a sexual situation, emotional flooding and numbing when in situations of unwanted sexual activity. All these can lead to what is known as “re-victimisation,” and that in turn leads to long-lasting and high levels of psychological distress and compounded trauma, as the re-traumatising impact of the adult abuse adds to and exacerbates that already experienced in childhood.
Somehow, after years of severe CSA I escaped re-victimisation, not by any conscious effort on my part because I was entirely unaware of the perils that can be the consequence of early abuse, but because I didn’t encounter any predators. I had a suite of other significant difficulties to deal with as a result of that childhood, such as trusting people, fear of abandonment, hyper-vigilance, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and the rest, but the re-traumatisation of further sexual assault was not among the obstacles I encountered in my desire to fully live my life, in spite of my childhood.
Until last year, that is, when I became another statistic. Another survivor of CSA who experienced re-victimisation, re-traumatisation, and is now on the long, long road to getting my life back. Again.
I’m reminded here of the Twitter hash tag “ Not all men.” Intended to counter generalisations about men’s behavior, the phrase has been criticized for deflecting conversations from uncomfortable topics, such as sexual assault. Whenever women write and speak about our negative experiences with men, someone inevitably chimes in, “Not all men are like that.” I’ve said it myself, because I’m wary of the stereotyping that is inevitable with gender-based arguments, and I don’t like it when it’s used against women. At the same time, there’s no doubt the phrase is used to derail and distract. Instead of a discussion about sexual assault it becomes a brawl about “not all men do it.” I don’t know how we circumvent this, unless we replace the word “men” with “predators,” when we’re talking about male perpetrated violence against women.
There’s no doubt that not all men are predatory, and the men I encountered for decades posed no threat to me.
Eerily, the circumstances of last year’s sexual assault almost exactly replicated scenes from my childhood. I continue to be tormented by the possibility that the man had sufficient knowledge about my history to make this deliberate, rather than coincidental. I have written about my childhood in some detail on this blog, and in my PhD, which is online and easily accessible. In fact, at our second meeting the man asked me about my childhood abuse, and it was after I’d briefly answered that he made his first sexual overture.
I’ve never found it easy to speak of those childhood events. Writing, though, is another experience altogether. Writing allows me to make some kind of order from the chaos of that time, and bring the fragments of myself back together into something approaching a whole. We are nothing if not story, and the urge to have our story make sense to us is a powerful one. There’s a necessary discipline in autobiographical writing that allows the author to stand back from the immediate rawness of her own narrative. She becomes an observer and recorder, a witness, bearing testament to her own self. These are skills I acquired to help save myself from annihilation by the dark magnitude of sexual abuse. Stepping back, while at the same time never letting go of her, that child who couldn’t say no.
The assault last year took place in a car parked in a secluded area, one of my stepfather’s settings of choice when I was a child. I had gone to considerable lengths to ensure that situation, one that had occurred with this man on two previous occasions, was not repeated. The present-day experiences had left me struggling with a crippling distress I didn’t recognise, couldn’t analyse, and had no desire to repeat. I told the man I had been distressed by the sexual encounters in the car, and I didn’t want to do it again. He responded by assuring me that he never wanted to do anything that distressed me, and that the manner in which we next met was entirely up to me. He agreed when I said our next meeting would be in public, and there would be no intimate contact. I resolved that I would use that meeting to end the relationship.
Unfortunately, the man did not respect our agreement, and without any attempt to renegotiate the terms of engagement, drove me to a secluded place. I think it was when I realised he was unnecessarily driving me somewhere that I first began to feel a vague unease. But I had no reason to distrust him. Rather, I distrusted my own feelings.
Traumatic events can lead to extremes of remembering and forgetting. The events may be remembered with intense vividness, or deeply repressed. Often there’s a combination of both. Traumatic events can remain fixed in the memory just as they occurred, their intensity unassuaged by the passage of time and experience. The extreme emotional arousal experienced in such a situation may account for the unique nature of traumatic memory, as the body’s chemical response to terror interferes with normal memory function.
I had never experienced flashbacks to do with the specific childhood circumstance of my stepfather’s car, though I have over the years struggled with them in other settings. They became increasingly infrequent, until I almost never experienced them at all. The emotional scaffolding of traumatic memory was, I believed, sufficiently disassembled after years of hard work in and out of therapy, and I was free.
I didn’t like how I’d felt about the sexual encounters in the car with the man. They felt demeaning, but I initially attributed those feelings to the adolescent and unsatisfactory nature of such encounters that I wouldn’t expect, as a mature woman with a long and satisfying partnership behind her, to enjoy.
However, I had not in my life thus far experienced anything that might trigger memories of my stepfather’s sexual assaults on me in his car. I remember on one or two occasions in my life being a passenger in a car with leather seats. The smell of those seats nauseated me, and caused me a strange emotional discomfort, but it wasn’t until years later I remembered my stepfather’s car had leather seats, and I was able to make the connection.
What was necessary for the trigger to become fully operational was that the experience be forced upon me. The unease that started up as the man drove away from where we were supposed to be, became the silent terror I endured when my stepfather picked me up from my boarding school and drove me somewhere I did not want to go, to do things I did not want to do. I was unable even to ask the man where he was going. Already I’d lost touch with the present, and the process of being engulfed by the past had, unbeknown to me, begun.
Trigger. There’s a term with its fair share of controversy. Last year, in the US, there were demands across many university campuses for trigger warnings to be attached to all manner of texts, so that students would know in advance that some of them contained material that might cause distress. The term “trigger warning’ first appeared in feminist spaces to alert women that topics such as sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women were discussed in these spaces, at times graphically, to give them the opportunity to choose not to go there. Fair enough. This makes sense. However, things got rather out of hand, for mine, when students demanded The Great Gatsby be marked with a trigger warning, and various other kinds of, for mine, silly demands that, like the “not all men” claim, serves to derail and distract from the very serious matters of discussions of violence against women, and the provision of opportunities for women to speak out, in detail if we wish, about what has been done to our bodies, our minds and our hearts. There is a dark world of difference between feeling uncomfortable or disturbed by confronting scenes in literature, and experiencing a flashback.
What is a trigger, then? It’s smell, sight, sound, taste, touch, a circumstance that particularly evokes the memory of a past traumatic event. It results in a flashback that returns the victim to the original trauma, with all the intensity and immediacy of the initial experience. Obviously, triggers are unique to the individual survivor.
A flashback can be visual, when traumatic events are vividly re-seen by the mind’s eye. It can be experienced entirely in the body, with no visual component. The body has its own memories, stored in all its secret places.
The flashback can consist entirely of feelings, with no images attached to them. For me, it is generally the latter, accompanied by bodily sensations. I rarely visualise. I am flooded with overwhelming and chaotic emotions that make no sense in the present, and that paralyse me. I feel a sensation of extreme cold in my belly, and I tremble at my core. My legs feel unusually weak, and I fear they won’t work. Terror dominates, and keeps me physically locked in place. All this is concealed. There are no overt manifestations. As a child I knew I couldn’t show any fear or resistance. I had to comply, while inside me the terror roared and swirled.
These are the things that happened to me last year with the man in the car. It was as if the two earlier encounters were preparatory rumbles, and this third one, compounded by the shock and disbelief of his profound betrayal, his abduction of me against our agreement and my firmly expressed wishes, unleashed the full force of traumatic memory. I could do and say nothing. I couldn’t refuse, and I couldn’t resist. I complied.
The intensity was such that eventually I became numbed, and dissociated. I watched myself take his penis in my mouth and suck until he came, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I saw the leaves of the trees through the windscreen, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I felt nothing, and I felt, chaotically, everything. He moaned, like my stepfather. He even said, repeatedly, “We’re not really doing this,” a phrase so reminiscent of my stepfather’s order that I forget what had happened and tell no one that to this day, I feel shaken by the coincidence.
I told no one for almost twelve months.
My stepfather, though a violent man in other areas of family life, was never violent with me sexually. Rather he wanted to be a lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. The man was not violent either. He wanted to be my lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. They wanted me to enjoy them, and to enjoy myself. I’ve often thought that this deeply corrupted message of “love” and apparent consideration for my enjoyment in circumstances that make enjoyment inconceivable, has messed with my head to such a degree that I will never entirely clear myself of its corruption. They walked softly, and carried the big stick of love and harm made one. They saw me only as a means to their end.
This is characteristic of predators. They are unable to distinguish between love and great harm, and so they perpetrate the latter, while proclaiming the former. There is no firm ground left for you to stand on, once you’ve encountered ambiguities of that complexity.
As a child I found solace in books, and in music. Later, I found writing. Against all odds I became a reasonably accomplished pianist, I think because when I sat at the piano in some unaccountable way my body became mine again, through the music I made. At every possible opportunity I hid myself away in a practice room, and played. There was an ageing nun at my boarding school who liked to sit beside me, and knit black mittens while she listened. Her presence was comforting, though we rarely spoke more than a few words.
A few weeks ago, struggling with after-effects over which I have little control, I felt a powerful desire to play the piano again, as I haven’t for years. In a fine piece of serendipity a woman round the corner had a piano she didn’t want anymore, and now it’s mine. I have much of my old music, kept since girlhood. When it arrived, I approached the instrument with a great deal of trepidation. What if I couldn’t play anymore?
My fingers are stiff and inflexible, compared to how they used to be. I’m starting with scales and arpeggios. Yet even as I fumble I feel the return of the mysterious force that moves through my fingers and connects my body to the source of sound. I hear the musical possibilities in the mundane and repetitive notes of a scale. I feel the joy of making sound, the satisfaction, humble as the sound I make is. I can’t resist attempting to play a simple piece, though I hear my teacher’s voice telling me I’m not ready yet. A sweet arabesque, and to my delight the fingering comes back to me, it’s still there after all these years, another kind of memory triggered by an altogether different set of circumstances, a welcome memory, a memory that reminds me who I am, and what I can still be.
When you can’t say no, you have no freedom, no agency. You’re anybody’s victim. When you write, when you play music, when you read the text you act with agency, you exercise your freedom. You are a human being, no longer only a means to another’s end.
Next week, we are expecting our newest family member, who we already know is a little girl. Today I bought pink rompers for her, then I said to her mother on the phone, I had to buy just one pink thing, I don’t know why, I don’t believe in all that stupid stuff, I’m not buying one more pink thing, I swear, just this one.
I want to be here to help teach her everything she needs to know.
I want to be here to read to her.
I want to be here to teach her how to play the piano, should she be so inclined.
I want to be here. That is all.