Like every other house on the street, the brown house is just your typical, modern home, with your all-American family. It has the well-groomed flowerbed, the basketball goal over the garage door and the swing set in the backyard. Just your normal family living life to the fullest — but what is really happening behind those closed doors? Abuse, specifically sexual abuse, is happening. In 2013 alone, 294,781 children were reported as abused to the National Children’s Advocacy Center (“National Statics on Child Abuse”). That’s approximately 295,000 loving children stripped of their innocence by someone they love and depend on. This number doesn’t even start to take into account the number of cases of abuse that have gone unreported due to the victim’s being afraid or not even remembering that he or she was abused. Is it truly possible for someone not to remember parts of his or her past, and is it possible for someone to “magically” start remembering parts of his or her past that he or she had previously been forgetting? By looking into the movie Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story and the book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, I will discuss the answer to this question and determine if it is possible for memories of a wonderful childhood to become “shattered” when memories of abuse come flooding back.
Through the last few years, sexual abuse of children has finally started to get the recognition it deserves as a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Many people are not educated on what is truly classified as a form of sexual abuse and believe that for it to be considered sexual abuse, actual intercourse with a child has to occur. Karakurt and Silver explain, “Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) is any sexual contact with a child through the use of force, threat, or deceit to secure the child’s participation, or any sexual contact with a child who is incapable of consenting by virtue of age (particularly pre-pubescent children), disability, or power differential” (42). This definition is broken down more specifically on the American Humane Association’s web page where it is divided into three categories: Touching Sexual Offenses, Non-Touching Sexual Offenses and Sexual Exploitation. Touching sexual offenses are classified as any abuse that includes fondling of the victim, having the victim touch any part of the abuser’s body, or actual penetration of the victim by the abuser with any part of the abuser’s body or with any object that is not used for a medical purpose. Non-touching offenses include any time the abuser subjects the victim to any form of indecent exposure or exhibitionism, making the victim watch or look at any form of pornographic material, exposing a victim to others having sexual intercourse, or for the abuser to masturbate in front of the victim. Sexual exploitation is when the abuser either solicits the victim for the purpose of prostitution or uses the victim to film, photograph or model pornography (“Child Sexual Abuse”). As previously stated, in 2013 alone, there were 294,781 cases that fall into these categories that were reported, with 38% of those victims being under the age of 6 and 36% being under the age of 12 (“National Statics on Child Abuse”).
Now that we understand what childhood sexual abuse is classified as, we can start looking at what has occurred within the last decade that has increased the public’s belief that someone they know has been the victim of sexual abuse, such as someone within one’s family or even oneself. One of the top movies that pertain to this topic is Shattered Trust: The Shari Karney Story, which is based on a true story of a Los Angeles lawyer. The movie shows Karney as a successful lawyer, who at the age of 29 discovers after taking on a sexual abuse case that she herself was abused as a child and had forgotten about the abuse until looking into the details of the case caused her to start having feelings and memories that she couldn’t explain. After working with her therapist doing writing exercises, she determined that she herself was a victim and had buried the abuse so deeply within her mind that as she aged, she didn’t remember it consciously anymore. After coming forward about the abuse, she was disowned by her family and became determined to change the law so that a victim of abuse could sue the abuser even if the victim doesn’t remember the abuse and/or doesn’t come forward until he or she is an adult. After 6 long years and being fired from the law firm she had been working at, Karney was successful in helping to get the law changed. In 1991, California passed the law that a victim has till the age of 26 to file suit against his or her abuser; if the victim is over the age of 26, he or she has 3 years from the date of remembering the abuse to file a suit (“Shari Karney”).
Along with the previously mentioned movie and others along the same lines that hit the market, there were books that were getting a lot of recognition. One of the most talked about books was written by co-authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis and is titled The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. According to many reviews of the book,it has been described as the bible for female adult victims due to its being geared towards helping these women understand that they are victims and should no longer feel like it was their fault that they were abused; it also helps women to understand how to cope with the effects of the abuse as adults and how not to let the abuse define them.
After these movies and books hit the market, there was a large movement that has been dubbed the “Recovered Memory” Movement, where many people came forward saying that they were abused as children and/or were being abused currently. Due to this movement, there have been several studies and articles debating the possibility that someone could forget that he or she was abused as a child and then start remembering the abuse after he or she has become an adult once something triggers the memories to surface. There are several studies supporting either side of whether it is possible that a victim can forget having been abused. I will look first at the studies that regard these memories as false memories and argue that it is not possible to forget something as severe as childhood sexual abuse. In research conducted by Kathy Pezdek and Iris Baldon-Gilton, it was determined that there was a low probability for the studied individuals to have been abused as children and that the possible context leading to women and men coming forward with memories of childhood sexual abuse could be provided by friends, by books described as self-help, or by an “over-zealous” psychotherapist (162). An article written by Mario Mendez and I.A Fras, gives the reasons for why a person would create false memories as self-relevancy, imagination, wish fulfillment, and emotions causing him or her to become overwhelmed with a feeling of uncertainty leading to an incorrect memory to be formed (494, 496). Some have classified the memory of abuse as a lie due to the fact that the person has waited so long to come forward with the abuse.
Wanting to dispute this belief, there are several articles, studies and books that are proving that it is plausible for someone to forget memories and later start remembering events from his or her past. Bass and Davis show this by stating, “To comprehend how someone can ‘not remember’ traumatic events, it’s useful to understand the process of dissociation. In situations of overwhelming pain, terror, and violence, when our minds cannot bear what we are forced to endure, we separate ourselves – or a part of ourselves – from the experience. We dissociate. Our consciousness splits, separating from what was unbearable” (74). They further discuss the documented cases of individuals who are victims of traumatic events and have formed cases of amnesia, such as war veterans or current soldiers, women that are victims of battery cases, prisoners of war, or victims of natural disasters or other severe ongoing trauma. The American Humane Association has also noted that in most instances of childhood sexual abuse, the survivor never told anyone and that many do not remember the abuse until many years later while some are never truly able to clearly recall the abuse. The victim has to learn as an adult to deal with the effects of the abuse that he or she is just now experiencing (“Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse”). The argument that it is possible to remember childhood sexual abuse only as an adult is also seen in the publication of the American Humane Association which states that victims of abuse are so traumatized that it can take many years for them to even process and understand the abuse and become able to talk to others about the abuse. Sometimes the victim can in his or her 40s or 50s before being ready to remember or talk about the abuse (“Child Sexual Abuse”).
Remembering the abuse varies greatly depending on the person and the events that have triggered the memory. Some victims might have always remembered the abuse but minimized its importance and deny that it had any impact at all on who they are today or that it effects their feelings; these victims have “blocked” out segments of the memory so that they don’t think about it to the point that they “forget” the abuse (Bass and Davis 70). Memories can be little flashbacks that start flittering into the victim’s mind pieces at a time that have been triggered by a sound or smell or come pouring in with no warning. Some of the memories can become so vivid that the victim that is remembering feels like he or she is back in the moment when the abuse was happening and don’t realize that it is a memory (Bass and Davis 73). For victims that have remembered the abuse and have come forward and confronted the abuser, who has admitted the abuse and relates his or her versions of the abuse, it has been found that the memories are so accurate that it seems hard to believe that some people are still claiming that it isn’t possible for the victim to have forgotten memories (Bass and Davis 84). Once a victim has experienced the memory stage, he or she has to decide if he or she wants to come forward with the abuse, whether it is publicly or privately to just a few people. When considering coming forward, the survivor weighs in the possibility that his or her experience will be denied by others or that he or she will be embraced by the people he or she cares about. The fear of the reaction of family and friends is what keeps many survivors, as children and as adults, from coming forward and telling people about the abuse. The abuser knows this and uses it to his or her advantage as well as using fear or threatening the victim, or guilt and shame saying the abuse is his or her fault, making the victim feel that he or she can never come forward and be believed. Also, there have been several cases where people have come forward stating that they had been abused, and it was later determined that these accusations were false, so people that are actual victims of sexual abuse and have come forward have been looked at as if they were the bad person rather than a victim of the abuse. This is one of the reasons why some people refuse to come forward with the abuse that they have endured because they don’t want to be looked down upon by family and peers. Everyone deserves the right to tell the truth about his or her own life, and hopefully one day all victims can find the voice to speak the truth of their abuse.
All sexual abuse is damaging, and unfortunately the trauma does not end when the abuse stops. There are long-term effects on the victim that friends, family and the victim do not realize until he or she finally starts remembering or talking about the abuse. Statistics show that in 2013 only 10% of the sexual offenders had been unknown to the victim before the abuse started (“National Statics on Child Abuse”). This means that 90% of the abusers are parents, relatives, or family friends that the victim knows. The abuser being someone that the victim knows causes a form of betrayal of ties within the relationship and family that damages the victim’s level of trust and being comfortable around others (Karakurt and Silver 79). The many effects that victims of abuse experience include but are not limited to low self-esteem, depression, guilt, sleep disorders, lack of trust, participation in other forms of abusive relationships as adults, and sexuality issues (“Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse”). Karakurt and Silver also note that an emotional or behavioral problem that includes low self-esteem and poor school performance can be the effect of the abuse that the child is enduring or has endured (80). Just like all forms of trauma, abuse of the child never truly ends. Even if the physical abuse has stopped, the mental abuse will always be there. In an interview with Peter Menken, Karney states, “As a victim of incest, I understand the long term effect sexual abuse causes on the victim. Even if you take another form of devastation such as the holocaust or genocide, the enemy is known and there is a declared war. This is war against an individual, helpless, isolated child” (Menken). Most of the child victims feel like they are fighting this war on their own and have no one to turn to for help, so their only survival mechanism is to push the abuse back into the back of their mind till they get to the point when they no longer remember the abuse, the war.
Lastly, what can we as family and friends do to help victims that are currently being abused or have been abused as children, and what steps can we take to help prevent the abuse from happening to a child we know and love? Due to the fact that most of the abusers are not strangers, we cannot use the expression “don’t talk to strangers” as a deterrent to prevent a child from being abused. Ensure that the child knows that he or she can come to you about anything and that you will always listen to whatever he or she has to say. Also, parents should never instruct or force a child to hug or kiss relatives or friends but instead let the child express his or her emotions on his or her own terms. Parents should have a basic sexual education talk with the child and ensure that the child understands that at no time should someone be touching his or her “private” parts. Lastly, parents need to make ever effort to know the child’s friends and their families (“Understanding Child Sexual Abuse: Education, Prevention & Recovery”). If you have a family member or friend that comes to you and tells you that he or she is or was being abused, ensure the victim that he or she did the right thing by speaking up about the abuse and give him or her all the support that he or she needs to start the journey of his or her life of learning to cope with the abuse. When Karney was questioned in the interview about believing the child in the cases she has taken, she stated:
we [and that means pretty well all of us] say we love and cherish and … give our lives to children, but in reality children have no rights. Children are perceived as second class citizens. Children in the law are considered unreliable; they are untrustworthy, not believable, are going to make stories up, and can be coached to tell a certain story. But the truth is, I find children believable, trustworthy, unlikely to make a lie up that is so embarrassing. The lie that children tell is that everything is okay. The truth is children [especially those who are being sexually assaulted and molested] don’t lie about being sexually assaulted. They don’t have the information to provide the details of this kind of sexual assault. (Menken)
If more adults would learn to take this stand and encourage a child victim to speak out about the abuse, the number of cases of sexual abuse may decrease not because less victims are coming forward but because the amount of cases have decreased, because the abuser might not abuse the child knowing that the truth would come out.
In conclusion, remember that sexual abuse is out there and hopefully with the assistance of media the focus on the abuse keeps getting larger. Sexual abuse is currently happening all around us. Just because a family seems normal on the outside doesn’t mean it is on the inside. Do everything within your power to ensure that people you love and know are educated on sexual abuse and that they can come to you to talk. Also remember that just because a memory was suppressed by the victim does not mean it is a false memory. As a child victim, you learn to suppress the abuse that you are enduring so that you can continue living not only with your abuser but also with yourself. Whether the victim is dealing with the abuse as a child or as an adult, it is a traumatic event and deserves the recognition of being such and not being classified as a lie.
“Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse.” RAINN: Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. n.p, 2014. Web. 4 May 2014.
Bass, Ellen and Davis, Laura. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. Print
“Child Sexual Abuse.” American Humane Association. n.p, n.d. Web. 4 May 2014.
Karakurt, Gunnur and Silver, Kristin E. “Therapy for Childhood Sexual Abuse Survivors Using Attachment and Family Systems Theory Orientations.” The American Journal of Family Therapy (2014): 42:79-91. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 March 2014.
Mendez, M.R and Fras, I.A. “The False Memory Syndrome: Experimental Studies and Comparison to Confabulations.” Med Hypotheses (2011): 492-496. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 March 2014.
Menken, Peter. “Interview: Commentary on Child Molesting by Los Angeles Attorney Shari Karney.” News Examiner (2012): Web. 15 March 2014.
“National Statics on Child Abuse.” National Children’s Alliance. n.p, 2013. Web. 15 March
Pezdek, Kathy and Baldon-Gilton, Iris. “Planting False Memories for Childhood Sexual Abuse Only Happens to Emotionally Disturbed People…Not Me or My Friends.” Applied Cognitive Psychology (2009): 162-169. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 March 2014.
“Shari Karney.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 4 May 2014.
“Understanding Child Sexual Abuse: Education, Prevention & Recovery.” American Psychological Association. n.p, n.d. Web. 15 March 2014.
Written for Dr. Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo’s ENG 200: Composition II