Fear leads to secrecy for many victimized by sexual abuse in the past

Survivors need to release it from their minds in the present to complete the healing process

If you have been following my column (every second Thursday of each month) you will be aware that I often use current situations as my subject.

Often these are controversial topics with heated emotions on both sides of the debate. For example, a few months ago I discussed the hot topic of marijuana soon to be legalized in Canada. I did not take sides but merely stated the facts from a psychological perspective.

Likewise, today I would like to bring up the very current situation of Judge Kavanaugh vs. Dr. Ford in the United States. Again, my interest is not in the he said/she said politics but rather on sexual abuse done to both women and men as children. This is a very emotional topic regardless of what culture, family, country, social status it happens in.

Obviously, child survivors of sexual abuse who are now adults watching this live debate are reliving their own trauma as well as trying to listen objectively to someone else’s account of alleged sexual abuse as a teenager. Evidence of just how listeners at home are being affected by this news broadcast is depicted in the heartbreaking phone call of the 76-year-old woman sharing about her Second Grade sexual abuse experience: “one never never forgets what happened to them even if one forgets some details.”

In research psychology, it proves that a greater pain will block out a lesser pain. For example, if you have a toothache but are suddenly in a car crash with a shattered femur, the femur pain will block out the toothache pain. Dr. Ford is able to recall with 100 per cent certainty it was Judge Kavanaugh who allegedly sexually abused her and assured the senate it was not a lookalike, but she cannot remember how she got home. Does not remembering imply she was drunk at the time? Or is it due to the fact she was so traumatized by the sexual assault that other unrelated details are not remembered?

She stated she kept this a secret from her parents for fear of getting in trouble for being at a party with no parental supervision and with older boys who were drinking alcohol. Research psychology again shows that emotions of fear, shame, and guilt lead to secrecy. Dr. Evan Iber-Black, PhD, was one of the first to write about “Secrets in Families and Family Therapy” (W.W. Norton 1993) and continues to write about “The Secret Lives of Families” in more recent years.

Not only does fear lead to secrecy but it also emotionally paralyzes a person from acting. Hence, many childhood sexual abusive experiences of years past are only now coming to the forefront because the victim’s fear of being shamed by the wider community is lessened and secrecy is no longer the protective shield. The child is now an adult and as such speaks out and confronts his/her abuser.

In cases where one’s abuser is deceased or unable to be confronted personally, then one can achieve this same level of healing by writing a letter to the abuser and either burying or burning the letter. It is the letting go of secrecy that heals. As long as an emotional pain is held secret the healing process cannot be completed.

Completion does not mean forgetting or denying the abuse ever happened. No, like the 76-year-old woman said, “one can never forget what happened even if one forgets some details.” Completion of the healing process gives the survivor of abuse the power to release the event from his/her mind so that he/she is not reliving it in the present.

The past is not past; it is present when the memories of an event in the distant or recent past holds me captive today.

If I can relate to the above diagram which is taken from the book ‘The Tornadoes We Create’ page 82, then I know I have unfinished business in my life. Conversely, if I can relate more to the diagram below then I can be reassured that the healing process for this event is completed within me.

When healing of a trauma is complete the past is past. Then I no longer have a need to keep on telling the same story over and over again. Rather, I acknowledge it as a trauma I once had but that it is no longer part of my present consciousness.

(Kathleen Kelly is a Chemainus resident and author of the book ‘The Tornadoes We Create.’)


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