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|The Trauma Myth - Page 2|
At that point in my career, I did not have a lot of experience interviewing sexual abuse victims. I had, however, a lot of experience interviewing victims of other kinds of horrible experiences (motor vehicle accidents, combat, natural disasters, abductions), and I had asked these subjects to rate how traumatic the events were at the time. No one in these studies had ever said this to me before. And as far as I knew at the time, scholars were not talking how perceptions of the traumatic nature of an abuse experience change over time—how an event not initially perceived as horrible could become so. They certainly talked about how symptoms of trauma (depression, anxiety) might not manifest themselves until long after the abuse, but they were not talking about how perceptions of the abuse itself can change.
I knew I had to consider Jen's words seriously. From that point on, I asked my question in two parts: What was the experience like when it happened? And what is the experience like for you today, looking back on it.
By the end of the study, the data was clear. Although sexual abuse was not a particularly awful experience for many victims when it happened, looking back on it, from their perspective as adults, it was awful—ratings of shock, horror, disgust, and even fear were all high. Obviously, perceptions of abuse when it occurs and when victims look back on it years later are entirely different. In addition, sexual abuse is very different from other kinds of terrible life experiences. For example, getting into a car accident is traumatic both at the time it happens and later when it is recalled. Sexual abuse, however, becomes traumatic later on. Why? What happens in the aftermath of sexual abuse?
According to victims, they did not experience the abuse as awful when it happened because most simply did not understand clearly the meaning or significance of the sexual behaviors they were engaging in. That being said, at some point later on in life, they do. Over time, the "cloak of innocence lifted," as one victim described it. Victims reconceptualized the formerly "confusing and weird experiences" and understood them for what they were—sexual in nature and clearly wrong. Only at this point—when the sexual abuse is fully apprehended—does it begin to damage victims.
When Anne, a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two, was eight years old, her mother started working outside the home. Between 3 P.M. when Anne got home from school and 6 P.M. when her mom came home from work, a neighbor and friend of her mother's named Frank would babysit. Frank sexually abused Anne. Sometimes, when Anne was sitting in his lap, he would "put his fingers inside my panties and feel me up . . . and while this was going on he would thrust himself up against my butt and he would be breathing heavy."
When it was happening, Anne said she did not like what he was doing but was "definitely not traumatized." And she was not different from most of the victims who spoke to me. "I knew it was something I shouldn't talk about with my mother, but not really exactly totally sure why." After about eight months of intermittent abuse, Frank left town, and Anne said she "just didn't think much about it again." But then something changed.
Anne reconceptualized her abuse—she figured out the meaning of these previously ambiguous experiences. "I remember this like it was yesterday. . . . I was in eighth grade and my friend Jennie was over and she had seen her brother and his girlfriend making out and she was reenacting them rolling around on the ground and moaning and it was then [that] I remembered what happened; it reminded me of what happened. . . . I realized, totally all of a sudden, that what had happened to me was sexual—that I had basically been having sexual experiences with my babysitter when I was kid." It took Anne six years to cognitively reconceptualize what happened to her and understand that it was wrong.
When they discover that they have been abused, victims most frequently report feelings of betrayal. As Cheryl, a forty-three-year-old high school teacher on maternity leave with triplets, put it, "I realized that I trusted him, what he was doing, and I should not have. He knew he was doing something wrong, and he knew I didn't know. . . . It was all an elaborate game of sexual betrayal." As Neil, an AIDS activist working for a hospital in Boston, said, "I realized that it wasn't just what he did to me physically. At that moment [of discovery] I lost my father. He was no longer someone who loved and took care of me. I was just being used by him for his personal gratification."
For the victims who spoke to me, the degree of the betrayal was a function of two main variables. First, it depended on how close the victim felt to the perpetrator, on how much he or she trusted, cared about, or loved him. The second variable was the degree to which the victim believed he or she had been emotionally manipulated by the perpetrator or "taken in" by the situation. In those cases in which the abuse was traumatic when it happened (it involved force, violence, or pain), victims subsequently felt less betrayal. Since in these cases the children clearly understood the wrongness of the situation, any sense of betrayal arose immediately. And, because the children understood they were being victimized, the abuse was unlikely to happen again (or if it did, the child remained well aware of his or her victimization). Thus, victims did not have to undergo long periods in which they unknowingly fell prey to, as one subject told me, the perpetrator's "elaborate games of sexual betrayal." As Tom, a neurosurgeon, put it, "For two years, while it was happening I felt good about him. I believed him, all his lies and let him do whatever he wanted. It makes me sick to think about how much I trusted him, how much, for how long he took advantage of that." In other words, the degree of betrayal victims felt in the aftermath was an inverse function of how traumatic the abuse was when it happened: the less traumatic it was, the more betrayal victims reported.