We are exquisitely sensitive to cheating when we can to avoid the cheater. Being sensitive to betrayal brings pain and the pain can be great. When the betrayer in the case of child abuse is someone on whom we are dependent, the very mechanisms that normally protect use – a sensitivity to cheating and the pain that motivates us to change things so that we will no longer be in danger – become a problem We must block the awareness of the betrayal, forget it, in order to ensure that we behave in ways that maintain the relationship on which we are dependent.
Some traumas, such as natural disasters, car accidents or combat, may cause immediate terror and may lead to conditions such as PTSD, such as increased arousal, generalised numbing and intrusive cognitions. Profound amnesia as opposed to other (PTSD symptoms) is a likely result in cases involving a betrayal of trust that produces conflict between external reality and social dependence. Rape is such an event: the victim’s life may be immediately threatened while she or he is psychologically betrayed.
Childhood sexual abuse is especially likely to be eventually by the victim as a betrayal. Further, evidence shows that the most devastating psychological effects of childhood sexual abuse occur when the victims are abused by a trusted person who was known to them.
If a child experiencing sexual abuse were to process the betrayal in the normal way, he or she would recognise the betrayal and be motivated to stop interacting with the betrayer. Instead, the child must ignore the betrayal. If the betrayer is a primary caregiver, it is essential that the child not stop behaving in a way that inspires attachment. For the child to withdraw from a caregiver he or she is depending could be life-threatening. Thus the trauma of childhood sexual abuse, by its very nature, requires that information about eh abuse be blocked from the mental mechanisms that control attachment and attachment behaviour. The information that gets blocked may be partial (for example emotional responses only), but in many cases, the information that gets blocked leads to more profound amnesia.
In other words, in order to survive in cases of core betrayal (abuse by a trusted caregiver on a dependent victim), some amount of information blockage is likely to be required. The probability of amnesia is a function of the degree of betrayal, although other factors also contribute to the likelihood of amnesia.
Perpetrators can take advantage, and even enhance the likelihood of the natural inclination victims of childhood sexual abuse have to forget the abuse. Eric Lister considers this “forced silence” to be a neglected dimension of the trauma.
Perpetrators do not need to threaten their victims, even implicitly although threats in many cases used to ensure silence. some perpetrators encourage silence by communicating that the event is a shared secret or by inducing a kind of trance in the young victim.
Considering the role of betrayal, and the perpetrator’s reinforcement of a child’s natural response to not knowing about the betrayal of a trusted caregiver, the resulting amnesia makes a great deal of sense. My own betrayal at the hands of my parents from the age of three to eighteen remained repressed for twenty-four years. It was partially recalled: severe punishments, beatings and incarceration in a room for days at a time but sexual abuse repressed, too painful to be recalled to the conscious mind. In order to survive, I had to suppress, to remember all of it was beyond my coping capacity. That is how strong the attachment to a primary caregiver parent is. Coupled with a diagnosis of Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I also have a disorder called Stockholm Syndrome which is very common amongst child abuse survivors.