Discussions With Martha Beck



 

Setting the Record Straight:

 

Physical Evidence & Memories From My Childhood

 


A few newspapers have printed erroneous information about the charges of sexual abuse I make in Leaving the Saints. As sometimes happens, other reporters have referred to these stories and unintentionally replicated the erroneous reporting. I’ve seen these same errors repeated in chat rooms, on various web sites, and reflected in the huge volume of e-mail I’ve received.

For the record, I'd like to restate here exactly what I recount in the book and provide more of a context for the media reporting that has been done thus far. It has been reported that I claim the memories of the abuse were recovered in therapy sessions. This is categorically untrue. My experience is a vivid and unshakable combination of physical evidence, memories from my childhood that never left me, new trauma memories, corroborating statements from my mother, and my looking into the work my father was undertaking at the time of the abuse that made sense of my experience.

When I began having new memories of traumatic events in my childhood, I was not in therapy of any kind, nor was I employing any sort of "memory recovery technique" such as hypnosis. I was, however, back in the hometown of my childhood, and my oldest daughter had reached the age I was when the trauma originally took place. As is true of other trauma survivors in well-documented cases (such as military cases of repressed and recovered memories verified by many observers), I experienced these memories as extremely vivid, intrusive flashbacks that occurred when something triggered an association with my childhood.

Moreover, these new memories helped me make sense of old memories that I had never, ever forgotten, memories that had always been with me—including, among other things, my vivid recollections of vaginal pain and bleeding when I was five. These flashbacks helped explain why a university health services intern, after performing a pelvic exam on me, wanted to prescribe birth control pills for me and laughed when I said I was a virgin. They helped explain the vaginal scar tissue an obstetrician assumed had come from a difficult, unassisted childbirth, telling me I had extensive ragged tearing, although I had never torn in childbirth. As reported in the New York Times, a family member who knew me throughout my childhood and with whom I confided and who has spoken to both my parents many times over the years, corroborated that I have been dealing with these traumas for years, and I know that I've always lived with the physical signs of the aftermath of the trauma.

I sought therapy only after talking to several family members about these intrusive memories. In fact, as I describe in my book, my mother asked me directly if my father had sexually abused me when I was a small child. When I answered in the affirmative, and said I was amazed that she would bring the subject up and so quickly believe me, she responded, "Why shouldn’t I believe you? I know him better than you do.” However, she was very much opposed to my seeking therapy. My mother and my siblings are very well aware that I was struggling to cope with the emotional effects of the memories for weeks before I sought any kind of therapy.

As a social scientist, I felt I had to understand what had happened to me as clearly as I could. I am aware that some recovered memories are labeled as false and that my detractors have claimed that my memories are “false memories generated under hypnosis.” Such memories do not fit my case at all. After I experienced the trauma memories, I studied a range of research materials about how the brain records and remembers images. I learned that lost memory is very common after traumas such as car accidents, wartime violence, criminal assault, or sexual abuse. Scientists report that young children are especially likely to repress memories of such incidents. I've come to understand that the mind can protect you until you're ready to cope with the fallout of remembering.

My memories, which were accompanied by intensely disturbing physical sensations, had all the signs of classic trauma memories. No one was more concerned than I with accurately determining whether the experiences to which my memories testified had, in fact, occurred. After the new memories returned to link with the memories that had never changed, I tried to figure out what had happened, and it was only after I began looking into the work my father was doing on an obscure aspect of Mormon doctrine at the time I was abused that the strange images and behaviors I had recalled began to make some sort of sense.

The first therapist I saw after recovering these trauma memories was the only non-Mormon counselor in Utah I knew at the time, and I attended several sessions with this therapist only because of a promise I'd made to my mother: that I would try to find a non-Mormon therapist who would not have heard of my father so that the secret could be contained and no Mormons would know about what I was experiencing. As I recount in detail in the book, this first therapist seemed to me to be overly directive, gullible, and unprofessional. I had spent my whole adult life at Harvard, training as a social scientist, and this therapist's methods did not satisfy me. When she proposed a hypnosis session, I refused, for the very reason that I didn't want my experiences tainted by any suggestive or leading methods. I talked about this with several members of my immediate family at the time and they fully understood that what I've experienced involves the combination of physical scarring, memories I've always had, and the new trauma memories which came before I sought therapy.

I soon found another therapist, a well-trained Ph.D. whose research methods I respected, and who was far more skeptical and evidence-based in approach than the first counselor. This was very comforting to me, since I wanted to bring exactly that approach to analyzing my experience. Based on her consideration of the totality and variety of the evidence, she accepted my experience as genuine. My therapy with her was not a process of recovering memories, but of dealing with the aftermath of trauma caused by sexual abuse that was manifest by scars, memories that had always been with me, and traumatic memories triggered by coming into close contact with numerous reminders of the abuse.

As a mother of three children, I have a healthy sense of what parenting a completely trusting, enormously loving little five-year-old is like. And in stepping forward to tell the story of what happened to me when I was five, I feel I'm speaking up for that little girl and for others who have experienced violation. I'm expressing outrage that parents who should protect their children instead inflict harm or are complicit in the abuse by lack of their defense. I'm condemning the acts of abuse I and others have suffered as forcefully as possible, because these acts cannot be tolerated. But I'm also very clear that experiencing this sort of trauma does not mean that anyone must suffer additional injury by leading a life that is less joyful, being less able to grow, or being less capable of giving or receiving love because of these events. Forgiveness is possible and compassion for everyone involved is essential if we are to take the steps necessary to transform pain into larger, more joy-filled lives.

Martha Beck

 

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