Real vs. Imagined Abuse and Mind Games. Can a child’s memory be trusted?
My brother and I experienced every possible form of abuse from our schoolteacher, church-going, pillar of the community salt of the blessed earth parents. I am 38, he is 40, and the pain just really doesn’t ever completely end. We choose to limit contact with them very stringently, and both moved thousands of miles away as soon as possible.
While there were a few memories that I did not label correctly until I left home (I didn’t have the context to do so), I truly forgot very little. There were a few startling memories that were unlocked by a concurrence of circumstances, which my brother and I were able to fact-check with each other — a sort of "here’s how it started — do you remember the rest?" and without exception, we always had the same memory. Details differed, but those were probably due to differences in perspective or just the simple fact that memories simply change as they are accessed.
But it’s not like our childhood was a black hole we entered therapy and suddenly-voila. But, that is how our parents choose to see it. Geez, I remember mentioning something that had happened the day before many, many times and being told point blank that it didn’t happen — when I knew it did.
The miracle is that with those sort of mind games going on that I DID trust my memory and knew what was real and what wasn’t. You have to be aware that parents who abuse their kids tend to concentrate heavily on manipulating their reality. We would be awakened in the middle of the night for family discussions-usually ending in violence-from the time we were very small. Sleep deprivation is a major tool in mind control.
Silence is Golden
Our kitten was killed when I was five to make plain what the consequences would be if we opened our mouths. For years I dreamed of finding human body parts in the garbage can where our father threw the kitten (his name was Rascal).
We were told constantly that we were liars, that everyone knew we were liars…do you see? The cards are stacked against an abused child coming forward and being believed and meaningfully helped. That’s just how it is.
I wrote a letter to a friend when I was sixteen that mentioned the violence — my mother got a hold of the reply and felt secure enough in her basic righteousness that she called their preacher — a mandatory reporter — to talk to me about my lies.
I told him flat-out that I was not lying. He started quoting scripture, I walked out. My brother and I both have scars on our wrists-old ligature scars. Did we dream those up? Did false memory create stigmata?
When you publish articles about false memory and such, you should also include the other side of things. You should detail the active, deliberate and sustained effort on the part of abusive parents to enforce silence. You should consider that even when we remember, we often do not label it abuse-because for us it was normal. You should take care.
The pendulum swings crazily, and I’m sure that there are people who are falsely accused. But by trumpeting these statistically insignificant cases, you give a handy "out" to people like my parents, who now claim that everything I say happened, I got from therapists-even though mother burned my diaries that recorded the abuse when I was ten, long before I ever sought psychiatric care.
Confusion and Accusations
She told me then that only a crazy person, a crazy, evil person, could write or even think such things. Some kids would have decided that that meant it didn’t really happen, that it was all in their minds…except perhaps later, when it was safe to finally believe themselves. You’re assuming these memories are being laid down like any other memory —they aren’t. They’re being created in an atmosphere charged with threat, being attacked by people telling you that everything you remember is an evil lie that you’ve dreamed up in your head.
Under those circumstances, had I not had my brother to turn to when we were alone to validate reality, my reality might have slipped through the cracks too.
Also, please consider: who has more motivation to lie in these cases? The reasons to confabulate these stories are murky and complex-the reasons the parents have to lie clear and very straightforward. Please make an effort to include both sides. I beg of you.
(My brother’s name is Timothy.)