Friday, April 8, 2011

Why Don't They Tell?

One of the things that child abuse deniers like the False Memory Syndrome Foundation focus on, besides Elizabeth Loftus's irrelevant arguments about the unreliability of memory, is the fact that many adults who claim to have been victims of incest as children did not tell any other adults about it at the time the alleged incidents took place. 

John and Mackenzie Phillips

Some children do tell.  So why wouldn't the others?

A whole bunch of logical explanations have been advanced to explain why not. In an article in the December 2010 issue of Psychiatric Times, Richard Kluft lists several of them:  incomprehension, shame, fear of retaliation, and the misperception that the child is to blame.  He also mentions loyalty conflicts, but more on that in a little bit.

The statistics listed in this article, as unreliable as they may be, say that only 30% of incest victims reveal their situations, and most of the revealers are the older children and adolescents.  In almost half of these, the revelation is accidental.  Some who do reveal suffer negative consequences, such as being blamed for "seducing" the perpetrator or being accused of lying. One study showed that 52% of those who reported mistreatment to a parent were still being abused a year after the disclosure.

Many perpetrators do threaten the victim that if he or she tells, they might kill someone in the family.  Sometimes they say that the authorities will come in and break up the family - not an unlikely scenario if the child is believed and the parent who is told actually reports the perpetrator.  Other victims are told that no one will believe them.

All good explanations for why the children remain silent.  However, I think that the reason that is talked about the least may be the most important of all:  family loyalty.  Family loyalty as a major determinant of human behavior was focussed on in psychotherapy most notably by family systems pioneer Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.  It is also highly consistent with the biological evolutionary concept of kin selection.

Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy

The strength of family loyalty was illustrated by a patient I saw who had been raised by a female relative rather than by her mother because the mother was a deadbeat parent.  In an initial interview, the patient impulsively blurted out, for the very first time in her life, that the husband of this female relative had continuously molested her.  She immediately burst into tears and could not stop crying for many minutes.

One might assume that memories of the abuse had come flooding back to her and that this was the reason for the emotional breakdown, but as it turned out, that was not it at all.  The woman kept repeating, "I can't believe I told someone!  I can't believe I told someone!"  

After I calmed her down by swearing by all that was dear to me that the session was confidential and no one outside the room would ever have to know what she had revealed, she admitted that her biggest fear was that the woman who raised her would be irreparably hurt by the revelation that her husband had done what he had done.  The patient could not bare the thought that this was what might happen.  She owed the woman just too much.

As Boszormenyi-Nagy stated in his 1986 book, Between Give and Take: A Clinical Guide to Contextual Therapy, "Even very small children are sensitive barometers; they know when their parents are overburdened with anxiety, guilt and mistrust.  Moreover, they want to do something about it." (p.35).  If important relatives are dependent in some way on the perpetrator, children are naturally reluctant to create problems for those relationships.

Many victims of incest dissociate, or zone out, when memories of the abuse surface.  Most therapists assume that this takes place because the incest survivor is trying to avoid the pain associated with the memory.  Undoubtedly this has something to do with it.  However, I find that a much more important consideration with my patients is that they are following a family rule, and do not want to break it out of family loyalty.

When the abuse happened, they were told by the perpetrator in so many words, "This never happened."  When the survivor starts to think about the fact that the incest did indeed happen, they dissociate so that the memories begin to either take on an unreal quality or seem to disappear altogether.   Dissociating may be a way of preventing the sort of accidental revelation to others that took place as described with my patient above.


  1. "besides Elizabeth Loftus's irrelevant arguments about the unreliability of memory"

    "pushing things out of one’s consciousness’’
    is... the true definition of repression"

    True, when I recovered repressed anger I merely contacted things I had not been in contact with. It had not been as if I was on a wide open plateau with things hidden from myself, I had simply not integrated things I had avoided lifelong.
    My later understanding idea of what happened in this growth process is now slightly different. The anger later in life was not "recovered, repressed" it was "new and first" to old unfinished events and as such converted fear to the outward energy of new anger - a new enjoyable experience of being - not an old track but a new forged one. It's a different idea.

    It was not and is not even necessary to know why. That is the absurdity of the "false memory accusations/road blockers (though there probably are some real manifestations of this).

    It simply can work by using non-verbal bioenergetic exercises. Anger will come out, false anger, real anger - what the hey - what ever is there will come out and it doesn't matter if it is something you can remember or something you can't - whatever is important the person will direct for their future aware concerns and automatically claim whatever memory arises from their own private experience for their own private uses.
    Interpretation is so extremely unnecessary in psychotherapy.

    A expresses anger at B (who is not there).
    You suspect something and ask if B reminds A of anybody - you let them find their own connections.

    Interpretations are always culturally impositional and only possibly true.

    Indeed , once the process of release started in my cure, I could finish off many experiences by myself, by I didn't even need specific new bioenergetic release, I would concentrate on a life segment, sit in a chair and remember past events, experience first time emotional reactions and complete past business all based upon having a new working fluid emotionality which wasn't in place previously.

    That was a fun part - but for this is required the enjoyment of both positive and negative emotions - something it seems for which not everyone has the same enthusiasm and understanding.

    Beyond therapy, certain energetic types of sports exercise are extremely useful to keep oneself emotionally clear and bring emotions and emotional energy to the forefront.

    Natural bioenergetic therapy effects of certain sports.

  2. But in all this, these discussions of memory annoy me in their shallowness.

    If people are defined by false memories and shallow unreliable , insignificant memories . how can they have any real selves?

    We are human and have human relationships because of memory. Where else can joy and wonderful deep sadness, music and art such as Fur Elsie or any emotion come from but embedded memory provoked by deep and significant experience?
    And such memory is not an emotion or a single sense but a totality of all senses and awarenesses.

    Such memory is holographic in nature of all senses and permanent by itself and in itself in that the same memory can produce different emotions and the same memory can be walked around in, seeing and hearing different things in it each time.

    This is memory - a state of being.
    If we want to be anything or change our state of being we can concentrate on a defining experience and become more of that, as in NLP or meditation.

    Family, especially the idea of North American Families, is an ethnocentric idea. The more general principle is "relationship loyalty" not "family loyalty" especially for those from outcomes of severe mental illnesses.
    The process of madness creates a Tabla Rosa and whitewashes and redefines relationships to their actualities and often to non-existence (something very difficult for the ethnocentric to understand). Human Behaviour is fundamentally directed by power not by pre-established "family relationships". I suggest that a study of actual behaviour of historical rulers such as those of Rome or of China can give a proper understanding of what humans are. There what they do, not what someone expects or interprets them to do. Someone who slaughters their children to protect their rulership is not doing "bad parenting" .. and there is the exact equivalent process in ordinary domestic affairs.

    Your attempt to interpret all humans into an ethnocentric family model will and does fray at the edges.

    In regular life later, I have experienced that "relationship loyalty" unaware of the process until later reflection - yuck, regretfully, did that cost me!

    1. You make some interesting points (especially in terms of relationship loyalty versus family loyalty) but if anything the idea of family is much weaker in North America than anywhere else (unless you're talking about the difference between nuclear and extended families).

      P.S. You mean Tabula rasa.

  3. I think this is a very good post, the reason family loyalty is such a blind spot among Americans is cultural in my opinion: 1) individualism (so undervaluing groups) and 2) Puritanism (always assuming that people's motives are selfish [i.e. bad]).

    P.S. "bear" not "bare" :-)