Posted by: Marie | November 12, 2009

(183) Forgetful children

Post #183
[Book study – Tuesday, July 14, 2009]

The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
(Third Edition, 1994)
by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis

Part Two: The Healing Process
A Stage of Healing: Remembering

[Table of Contents]


Green text: Quotes/Summaries from the book
Gray text: My words

This transformative work (the entire series of blog posts relating to this book) constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of the US Copyright law.


Why Children Forget

In “normal” crises and trauma such as earthquakes, whatever happens is talked about in great detail after the event, and is often discussed in preventative or preparatory terms beforehand. People are given language for the components of the event. The healing of wounds and losses are given great attention.

Photo by Martin Chen

Photo by Martin Chen

However, in sexual abuse, it is unusual for this event to be explained to the child. Most children who are sexually abused do not have a name for their experience. Also, shame or stigma is attached to being a survivor of sexual abuse, which is not the case for survivors of experiences like an earthquake.

There may be blame, or threats of further violence if the survivor discloses the experience. Survivors often are isolated – and left alone with the perpetrator – with no way out except to forget.

Writing Exercise: What Happened To You

Write about your experience of being sexually abused as a child.

Many women have found it very difficult to tell people that they were sexually abused. When the do tell, it is often in very generalized terms: “I was raped when I was ten.” Rarely do you share the details, partly because it’s hard to tell even the general facts and partly because you want to spare the listeners. You don’t want to impose.

But the tight statement, “My stepfather abused me” is not the way you experience flashbacks. That’s not indicative of the creepy feelings you get when something triggers your memory. What you remember is the way the light fell on the stairway, the pajamas you were wearing, the smell of liquor on his breath . . . When you write, include as many of these sensory details as you can.

If you don’t remember what happened to you, write about what you do remember. Re-create the context in which the abuse happened, even if you don’t remember the specifics of the abuse yet. Describe where you lived as a child. What was going on in your family, in your neighborhood, in your life?

Often when women think they don’t remember, they actually remember quite a lot. But since the picture isn’t in sequence and isn’t totally filled in, they don’t feel they have permission to call what they know “remembering”. Start with what you have. When you utilize that fully, you usually get more.

If you come to things that feel too difficult to say, too painful or humiliating, try to write them anyway. You don’t have to share them with anyone if you don’t want to, but in order to heal you must be honest with yourself. If there’s something you feel you absolutely can’t write then at least write that there’s something you can’t or won’t write. That way you leave a marker for yourself, you acknowledge that there’s a difficult place.

There is no right way to do this exercise. Your writing may be linear, telling your story in chronological order. It may be a wash of feelings and sensations. Or it may be vague, weaving together scattered bits and pieces. Try not to judge or censor. This is an opportunity to uncover and heal, not to perform or to meet anyone’s expectations – not even your own.

Quotes 094


  1. Hi Marie, Writing about the experience and perhaps talking to others about it can be very healing.

    However, I think it is important to choose carefully who you talk to (If you want to).

    I think it is a good idea to have good support if you can while you are remembering stuff. This has been the experience of those who have gone into this process of healing, in my experience.

    • Hi, Evan –

      Ooooo . . . very good point . . . the importance of carefully choosing to whom you talk. Support is a key part of that — qualified support.

      I think writing is such a key part of it . . . it allows you time to stop and cry and hide and be angry in between writing the sentences.

      Good points, Evan! Thank you!

      – Marie

  2. Hi, Marie!

    I actually wrote a book doing this. I started with “I was raped when I was 10.” When I began elaborating on that sentence it turned into 70,000 words. You are right, there is so much more to those few short words, so very much more…

    • Hi, Ivory –

      I think going into the detail is so important — it gives us a way to sort out what happened . . . and to begin to understand it as much as possible. It is the first steps towards coming to terms with it.

      Thanks for your input!

      – Marie

  3. I am debating with myself as to whether it is “necessary” to remember the details. I could elaborate on the few memories I do have – like the type of T shirt, smells, etc – but I’m not sure I want to have more memories. Perhaps when (or IF) I recover more, then I would need to do this sort of insightful writing.

    Just thinking out loud.


    • Hi, OLJ –

      I think it is wise of you to pay attention to the debate that is occuring inside of you. Only you can know if it is helpful or not to remember the details. No one else can know that. And, it may very well be that it is better for you to not remember. Remembering the details is not always the best way to move forward and heal.

      My thoughts are with you as you find your way.

      – Marie

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