Woody Allen’s denial that he sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow at age seven is all over the news. His main defense is that the “memory” of this sexual molestation was implanted by her mother.
This brings up important questions related to memory and sexual abuse, some relevant to the Woody Allen story, some not.
- Can memories be implanted?
- How much power do false memories have?
- What would be the motivation for clinging to an untrue story of sexual abuse?
- Can a recovered memory be trustworthy?
Can False Memories Leave Tracks?
Is it possible to implant memories? Yes. Both experiments and anecdotal evidence have shown that false memories can be implanted in people.
What is less understood is the reach of a memory that is not real. The question is less Can we experience something as a memory that didn’t happen that way? than Can an implanted (false) memory leave tracks?
Can there be a complete absence of sexual abuse but all the footprints of sexual abuse? Can a false memory lead to body reactions to the various cues within an imagined scenario? Can these symptoms of post-traumatic stress continue for decades just from an imagined event? That seems like a far stretch to me.
Therapists do sometimes have people vividly imagine something as a healing resource and there is a technique used in some trauma therapies of imagining a safer ending to a traumatic event, although I haven’t seen such experiences magically over-write everything else in the psyche.
Sexual abuse claims as haven? Really?
Sometimes it is said that a person grabs onto a made-up story of sexual abuse to explain their emotional disturbance. They hold to the tale to let themselves off the hook. Sounds like an idea of someone who has never been there. As I wrote in my guidebook, Healing From Trauma:
The argument in support of the idea of creating false memories is that a person who is suffering wants an explanation, and a story that seems big enough to provide that explanation offers that support. I can see how this theoretically seems so, and yet I would say that at the level this story [of sexual abuse] is reassuring, it’s really only a story and not a felt experience. As a felt experience, it is shattering.
I know of nothing more shattering than this. Your world is turned upside down. This story is preferable to some other possibility? What would that be?
As a psychotherapist, I’ve sat with many clients who suddenly find themselves overcome with a traumatic memory. The experience comes of its own accord, often prompted by a sensation in the body or cue in the environment. The natural response to such a memory (especially involving betrayal) is “No, no, no! It can’t be true!”
Early sexual abuse is not an explanation you run to for convenience, but one you fight against, especially when it involves a family member you love and depend on. Most incest survivors fight their experience for years, a combination of not wanting to believe and afraid of claiming something they have no proof for and that would destroy the family.
A few facts about early sexual abuse:
- There is often a “grooming” of a child victim. What may later end in sexual penetration often starts with something less extreme, but uncomfortable, even if covert. [Think of Jerry Sandusky wrestling with his victims.]
- Child victims are often told to keep this a secret. I work with adults who remember repeating as their mantra “It’s secret” “Don’t tell” but not what it is that is secret.
- Sexual abuse often begins very young. The memories that are formed before we have language are even more confusing and lack a coherent narrative. These memories are hidden in our bodies and their stories are told through our bodies’ reactions.
- Early, ongoing sexual abuse by a caregiver is about as damaging as anything there is in this human world. And because of the untenable position it puts the victim in, it is most likely to be shut out of mind. The psyche will resist having its world torn asunder by such memories.
Are recovered memories reliable?
Is it possible and in fact plausible that traumatic events that occurred at a young age are repressed only to be later recovered and that such memory fragments are trustworthy in some way?
There is indeed evidence that such memories can be accurate. The Recovered Memory Project created by Professor Ross Cheit has documented more than 100 cases of confirmed “recovered memories” for which there was previous amnesia.
The amnesia itself is challenged by some who point to the fact that often traumatic events are all too well remembered. Yes, you may be unable to block out images of the Twin Towers falling, but think about it: How do you go to the breakfast table every morning to meet the perpetrator who violated you the night before? The best solution is to put such events as far out of mind as possible.
Therapists are confronted every day with unwelcome slivers of memory escaping the strongholds of motivated forgetting. Most therapists are cautious about accepting at face value every detail of a memory, since all memories are subject to distorting influences, but it is generally believed that these uprisings from the unconscious are indeed true to something.
From the standpoint of healing, one of the ruptures that needs to be healed in abuse survivors is the rupture with our own experience. We start by turning toward, not away, from those shards of experience that float or explode into our field as if to say, “Listen to me!”
If you have memory fragments that are disturbing, can you listen? Rather than put yourself on the witness stand, demanding facts that are impossible to prove, can you listen for feelings? Can you watch for patterns and clues? Can you learn to recognize signals from your system that something rings true?
This is not a journey to take alone. You’ll need the support of others—whether a therapist or a therapy-related group as well as your partner or friends.
To the millions who have suffered childhood sexual abuse, I end with a note of hope. We can heal these wounds. You can never erase your history, but you don’t have to be in its grasp for the rest of your life. You can heal and have a happy life.
Please share this post. Childhood sexual abuse is rampant. There may be people in your circle who are dealing with memories and suspicions they have not shared.