«Return to LEAR'S FEBRUARY 1992 By Heidi Vanderbilt A Chilling Report Do you want to know what incest is? What it really is? No ...»
Michigan therapist Kathy Evert, author of the autobiographical When You're Ready: A Woman Healing from Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse by Her Mother, recently completed a study of 93 women and 9 men abused by their mothers. She found that almost a fourth of the men and more than 60 percent of the women had eating disorders. "I can't tell you the number of women I've seen who weigh over five hundred pounds," Evert says. One woman told her she ate to get bigger and more powerful than her mother. Another woman in the group weighed more than 600 pounds. "Food was my weapon against her," she said of her mother.
Page 11 of 56 More than 80 percent of the women and all the men in Evert's study had sexual problems as adults that they attributed to the abuse by their mothers. And almost two thirds of the women said they rarely or never went to the doctor or dentist because to be examined was too terrifying for them. Thus they are unable to avail themselves of the diagnostic benefits of modern medicine, such as pelvic exams, PAP smears, breast examinations, and mammography.
Some victims are unable to feel physical pain. Some self-mutilate—they bum or cut themselves. Mariann told me that the impulse to cut herself is almost constant and almost uncontrollable. "You get to feeling like your body is full of something rotten," she says. "If you can make an opening, somehow the pressure will be relieved and everything will come out."
Cynthia Dr. Roland Summit says that a victim of incest "will tend to blame his or her own body for causing the abuse." Some victims may go so far as to seek repeated cosmetic surgeries in an attempt to repair physically the damage that was done to them psychologically, according to a 1990 paper written by Elizabeth Morgan, M.D., a plastic surgeon, and Mary L. Froning, who holds a doctorate in psychology. (Dr. Morgan herself had made headlines in the late '80s, when she sent her daughter into hiding to keep her away from the father that Dr. Morgan alleged had sexually abused the child.) Perpetual plastic surgery, in fact, was to become one of the consequences of incest for Cynthia, who was raped by her father and her brother Eugene but had blocked all memory of the assaults.
Even when her brother sexually abused Cynthia's daughter Kit, Cynthia failed to recall her own assaults. Kit was three and a half when Eugene came to visit and, one afternoon, took her upstairs to the bathroom. When Cynthia discovered them, both were naked. Kit was sitting on the sink and Eugene, standing between her legs, was slowly rocking back and forth. Cynthia threw her brother out of the house. Then she said to the confused child, "This never happened. Understand? Forget it ever happened." By the time Kit was 20, she had only vague memories of childhood trips to the doctor for pelvic examinations and ointments.
Cynthia spent years in psychoanalysis, which didn't seem to help her severe depressions—nor restore her memory of having been sexually assaulted as a child. She kept telling Kit—who didn't understand why she was being told—that incest is so rare that it almost never happens. Kit was in her 30s when she remembered that afternoon in the bathroom with her uncle, and she understood then that he had probably given her a sexually transmitted disease.
Cynthia began to have plastic surgery in her middle 40s. She approached each operation as if it were The Solution, and she was briefly delighted with the results.
Within months of each lift, tuck, or suction, however, she began to prepare for the next one.
Cynthia didn't remember her own abuse until she was in her late 60s and a grandmother. Now in her middle 70s, she is planning on having a breast reduction as soon as she can find the right surgeon.
Page 12 of 56 PTSD Also prevalent among incest victims is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which I discussed at length with Mary W. Armsworth FA D., the author of dozens of articles on incest and its aftermath, as well as a professor of educational psychology at the University of Houston who teaches one of the few courses in this country on trauma. In the early '80s, Armsworth noticed that incest patients, who "live in a bath of anxiety," had the same PTSD symptoms demonstrated by some Vietnam War veterans and most victims of torture. These symptoms include but are not limited to amnesia, nightmares, and flashbacks. People who have PTSD may "leave their bodies" during the abuse, and they may continue to dissociate for decades after the abuse ends.
In 1990, The New York Times reported that Dennis Charney, M.D., a Yale psychiatrist and director of clinical neuroscience at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, had found that even one experience of overwhelming terror permanently alters the chemistry of the brain. The longer the duration and the more severe the trauma, the more likely it is that a victim will develop PTSD.
Most of the dreams told to me by victims of incest involve being chased and stabbed, suffocated, made immobile and voiceless. I myself have a recurring dream of a man who gouges out my eyes and of a woman who rips out my tongue. One woman who has been in long-term therapy owing to years of abuse by her aunt, uncle, and mother told me she dreamed she was at a beautiful, crowded picnic in the woods when she vomited feces. The dream so revolted and shamed her that she had never before told it to anyone, not even her therapist.
Children forced to perform fellatio may grow up to be adults with flashbacks triggered by the smell of Clorox, the feel of melted butter, the sight of toothpaste in their mouth. It is difficult for people who don't have flashbacks to know what one is like. Flashbacks are not memories—memories have distance, are muted and selective. A flashback is a memory without distance. It can bring all the terror of an original event, triggered by something utterly innocuous.
A few months ago I was daydreaming in a friend's kitchen. Her husband, on his way to get the mail, came up quietly behind me, speaking softly to himself. The sensation of being approached (sneaked up on) from the rear by a much larger person who was muttering triggered a flashback—terror so acute that I had to get him away from me with the same urgency I would feel if my shirt were on fire.
Flashbacks can be almost continuous and overwhelming. People who experience them without knowing what causes them can feel crazy. An incest survivor's friend, seeing her run to hide for no apparent reason, might agree that she is. When flashbacks come less frequently, they can be handled almost as fast as they happen. The man who accidentally terrified me never knew it, and I was able to check back in with where I really was and what had really happened almost as quickly as I had checked out.
At the extreme edge of post-traumatic stress disorder lies multiple personality disorder (MPD). It was once thought to be rare and is still disbelieved entirely by some (one of the more noted skeptics is Paul McHugh, M.D., head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). But while MPD has been called the UFO of psychiatric disorders, a growing Page 13 of 56 number of cases are being treated.
Researchers believe that children develop multiple personalities as a way of coping with abuse so violent and sadistic that the mind fractures. Each assault is then handled by one or more personalities —"selves," or "alters." Some personalities hold pain, others grief, others rage. Even happiness may be segregated into a discrete "self." The personalities often have no knowledge of one another, so a person with MPD "loses time" when one personality gives way to another, and can "come to" hours or years later without any way of knowing what had happened in the interim.
Brad, a victim of incest who suffers MPD, has learned to recognize a particular feeling that warns him he is about to switch into one of his alters. It happens under stress, he says. "My eyes all of a sudden blur and everything goes to gauze."
Cult I met another sufferer of multiple personalities—a young woman—the day after she fled a cult. My husband and I were guests of the people she ran to, and I sat up with her until early morning because she was afraid to be alone. She had been sexually tortured by her father, brothers, and other cult members for all of her 28 years. As we talked, she switched personalities.
One of her alters was suicidal. Another wanted to call her family and tell them where she was. One was very young, five or six. One knew the dates of satanic holidays and the rituals she had performed on them. At one point during the night she closed her eyes, then opened them again and looked at me with such an evil stare that the hair on my neck stood up. Later, she asked me to put my arms around her and hold her, and I did.
"I was my mother's gift to my father," says Sylvia, yet another woman who suffers multiple personalities. "My dad's a pedophile. He had sex with me until I was seven. My mom's a sociopath. She tried to suffocate me many, many times. She slept with my brother until he was fourteen. She made him her husband, even though my father lived with us. The last time I saw her was twenty years ago. I came by the house where she was living with my brother. He opened the door with a gun in his hand. She had told him to shoot me."
Sylvia and her family lived in a cult that practiced blood sacrifices. When she was three, she was ritualistically raped and sodomized by the cult leaders. Her life was so torturous that she split into alternate selves who carried on when she couldn't.
What a Child Learns from being sexually abused "The one thing a child learns from sexual abuse," Dr. Summit told me, "is how to be abused." Sexually abused children teach themselves to endure assault. Instead of learning to protect themselves, they learn that they can't protect themselves. As adults they can be blind to dangers others would find obvious. They may freeze or go limp when threatened. Someone who has never been abused can say no, can walk or run away, can scream and fight. The incest victim often doesn't know what to do except to wait for the danger to be over.
Page 14 of 56 Child incest victims often become adult rape victims. Almost one quarter of the incest victims Mary W. Armsworth studied went on to be sexually abused by their therapists.
Many incest victims as adults choose abusive partners.
Judy Judy, who was abused from infancy by her grandmother, grew up with what she describes as free-floating feelings of shame. "I always felt there was something wrong about me," she says, "something loathsome."
She married a violent man. She believed that when he beat her it was her fault and what she deserved. She believed the beatings were a sign of his love. She stayed with him for more than a decade, leaving him only when she became afraid that her suicidal feelings would overwhelm her and that she would die, leaving her child alone and in danger from his father.
Only later did Judy remember the abuse at the hands of her grandmother. "Every night, I lay awake listening for the sound of her feet on the hall carpet," she now recalls. "I taught myself to leave my body when she came into the room, and to forget. I forgot so well that whole years vanished from my life."
When victims do finally remember their abuse, they are often hushed by friends and told to "put it in the past," to "forgive and forget." But that is precisely what they unwittingly had done so very long ago. In Incest and Sexuality: A Guide to Understanding and Healing, psychotherapists Wendy Maltz and Beverly Holman point out that "many women (estimates run as high as 50 percent) do not remember their incestuous experiences until something triggers the memory in adulthood."
Roz "Sometimes my body remembered," says therapist Roz Dutton of Philadelphia, "and sometimes my mind remembered." Roz was an infant when her father began coming into her room at night. He placed one hand on het back and inserted a finger in her anus. He continued doing this until she was two and her baby sister was born. As a teenager and young woman Roz had no conscious memory of these events, though her life had been punctuated with "nudging feelings and disturbing thoughts."
Roz became a therapist with a thriving practice. In working with her clients, she noticed that she had "triggers"—things she heard or saw that sent her into a dissociative state.
These things tended to have to do with certain settings but included once the unexpected sight at a professional meeting of man's hairy hands. Though she questioned herself for years in therapy and in clinical supervision, it wasn't until she was in her early 40s that a chance remark to a colleague about brainwashing—and the colleague's reply that maybe Roz was afraid of brainwashing herself—evoked memories of her father.
Says Roz: "As I talked about myself and my symptoms—eating disorders, depression inability to protect myself from emotion danger, dissociating emotionally—I began to make clear connections between myself and other abuse victims." Roz's memories were of early infancy. She remembered feelings of dread and terror associated with her Page 15 of 56 father coming into her room. Images came to her of his hands reaching over the slats of her crib, and she experienced body memories from infancy of being held facedown and penetrated.
Accuracy of Childhood Memories Just how reliable are memories? Can they be manufactured? How reliable, especially, is the memory of a child? Do leading questions by parents, therapists, or investigators —or the use of anatomically detailed dolls in the questioning of children who may have been abused—create false accusations that lead to false convictions? These were the sort of questions addressed by Gail S. Goodman, a psychologist at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and her colleagues in studies designed to test not only the accuracy of children's recall under stress and over time but also how children respond to leading or strongly suggestive questions devised to bring about false accusations. "If children are indeed as suggestible as some have claimed, then we should be able in our studies to create false reports of abuse," Goodman writes in the chronicle of her studies, published in 1990. Child-abuse charges, after all, have often been dismissed by judges on this ground.