Did This Really Happen to Me?
Even people who know that they experienced sexual activity that was wrong, and unwanted, and that hurt them deeply, still sometimes feel confused. They still may feel ashamed, guilty, or dirty. In this case, it is important to know that it was not your fault.
Sibling sexual trauma is so unexpected, so unimaginable, so under-recognized that even people who carry the trauma may question their own reality. They may wonder if it really happened and distrust their own memories. Adding to the confusion, childhood memories of unwanted sexual acts are murky to start with, and they can lie buried for years or even decades. Several factors combine to make memories of sibling sexual trauma fuzzy or confusing.
Age and Time
Few children have clear memories of anything they do not understand well enough to name. Those who experienced sexual activity when they were too young to comprehend it, possibly even too young to know the name of all their body parts, the memories are likely to be as murky as their understanding of what was happening at the time.
People of all ages remember traumatic events in a different way than all other life experiences or learning. Memories of trauma tend to be
Detached - The memory may emerge in ”snapshots” rather than “movies.”
Sensory-based - The sounds, smells, and touch of the experience loom large, as well as bodily sensations such as nausea, sweaty palms, pressure or pain.
Random - Some seemingly irrelevant details may be remembered, even if the person cannot remember more basic information. For example, someone may remember what they had to eat just before an episode of abuse, or thoughts that entered their head as it was happening, but not where they were at the time.
Fragmented - Large parts of the memory may be absent, while other parts are remembered in vivid detail.
Recalled by sensory triggers - Traumatic memories may suddenly emerge in the context of a similar sensory sensation--hearing the sound of a similar door closing, or touch that feels the same.
Sexual trauma is so overwhelming, and children are so powerless to escape physically, that many children survive by escaping mentally. Dissociation is a powerful coping mechanism, but it sometimes leads to dissociative amnesia. It isn’t unusual for memories to be stored only in the subconscious part of the brain for long periods of time. Based on current research, it is estimated that at least 10% of child sexual abuse survivors will experience periods of failing to recall their abuse, followed by delayed recall. However, it is rare that an individual will recall sexual abuse that never happened.
Memories and healing
A large part of several kinds of therapy for survivors is creating a safe space where memories can be recalled, faced, and redefined in ways that allow the survivor to move forward in a mentally healthy way. Therapists’ opinions differ on how much memory is necessary or even advisable in this process. However, there is general agreement that significant progress can be made even if memories remain incomplete and unfocused.
Memories and legal action
Law enforcement, human services and criminal justice systems rely on legal evidence. Legal authorities must treat memories as potential evidence. This may be in direct conflict with the way therapists treat memories to maximize the potential for healing. This is one reason it is helpful to have the support of a therapist or advocate when reporting or dealing with the criminal justice system.
Often there is little evidence available in child sexual abuse cases besides the testimony of the person who has reported the harm. Even if a prosecutor fully believes the survivor’s report and finds it credible, they cannot pursue charges without at least one more piece of corroborating evidence. This feels frustrating and dehumanizing to some survivors who share their story in hopes of a conviction.
I hadn’t remembered for thirty-two years. The memory sat safely locked in the recesses of my subconscious until a dream exposed the truth. I was forty-two years old and saddled with chronic physical pain when I recalled that my brother had molested me when I was ten.
I felt that at some level I’d always known. But how could I have known this all my life? If I knew this had happened, I wouldn’t have behaved as normally as I had over the years. But this memory was so vivid and clear I knew it was true.
Yet I was still having a hard time believing it. I wrote to my brother and asked if he remembered it. He did. He admitted he was responsible. I felt so lucky to have my memory validated. First, because then I knew I wasn’t going crazy. Second, so others couldn’t question it.
Maria tells her story and addresses the question "Can you really forget traumatic sexual experiences?" in this episode of Hush No More with Dr. Vanessa Dunn Guyton. Read more of Maria’s story in IncestAware's blog, What Might Be Behind Your Physical Pains and Repressed Memory, Trauma Minimization, and Finding Self-Worth, or in her book The Invisible Key
An Introduction to Potential Effects of Male Survivors' Experiences (click or scroll to “Dealing With Memories”)
Jane Epstein, a survivor of sibling sexual trauma shares her story, including her journey to remembering years of abuse by her brother in this video interview with The Impactful Parent
Jim Hopper, PhD: Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse comprehensive literature review
Dept of Justice, Canada: How Trauma Affects Memory and Recall in adult sexual assault
Sammy Caiola, NPR: How Rape Affects Memory and the Brain
Centre for Studies on Human Stress, Montreal, Canada: Stress, Emotions, and Memory