All my life, these flashes have played in my mind like a choppy, hand-cranked silent film. I was in high school when the snippets suddenly began to make sense. I was no more than 3 or 4 years old. There was the crowded street in China — so blurry in my mind it could have been rendered in watercolor. There was the lucid flash of a stranger's hand grabbing mine and then the unmistakable image of my tiny hand being placed around his penis. But perhaps the most distinct image in this foggy vignette is the white substance that followed me home and somehow ended up on my mother's black dress.
The question remains: were these "flashes" memories of an incident that actually took place, or did my unreliable young brain create them? Was I sexually assaulted?
Sexual abuse survivors often have flashbacks of their assaults, triggered by the elements of daily life, that force them to relive the horrifying experience all over again. Experts recommend recognizing your triggers and avoiding them to the best of your ability, so as to prevent future flashbacks. But what if you're not sure that your assault even happened, so all you do is relive the maybe-incident in your mind repeatedly, voluntarily? What exactly does that do to a person?
The uncertainty of whether or not I was sexually abused has gnawed at me my whole life, along with a dizzying swirl of contingent questions that rotate in my head, like "Why didn't my mom stop the assault? How could she be so oblivious? Did anyone else on the street see this happening?" But the most significant portion of this mystery that I am aching to solve is how it has affected me as a person throughout my life and into adulthood.
To help me put together the pieces of this puzzle, I enlisted the help of three experts who work with sexual assault survivors every day, including those who have trouble remembering their incidents. I would like to contribute to the important conversation by allowing others in a similar situation to feel less alone and to provide them with some answers.
Can Sexual Assault Be Forgotten?
According to Josie Torielli, assistant director of intervention programs at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, these "forgotten" incidents happen "quite often." Though there aren't exact statistics for how many people have repressed memories of their sexual abuse, most sexual assault counselors and therapists have worked on such cases. "Forgetting" your sexual abuse is especially likely for young children "due to the developmental processes of the mind," Torielli says.
The uncertainty of whether or not I was sexually abused has gnawed at me my whole life.
This is true for all memories formed before a certain age — apparently, I refused to eat when I was a toddler, which I find inconceivable given my current appetite, but my mom swears it's true — but when there's trauma involved, your brain works overtime to "protect" you from these harmful memories and reliving the experience.
"In simple terms, our brains only allow us to experience what we are able to withstand," says Lindsey Pratt, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in sexual trauma and abuse. "This is one of the reasons why repression of traumatic childhood memories is so common, as children are not as well equipped to cope or make sense of fear, panic, anger, shame, or sadness as adults may be."
When trauma occurs, the brain goes into survival mode and activates a chemical called catecholamine, which is used to engage your fight-or-flight response. "Catecholamine also interferes with and impedes the encoding of memory," Torielli says. As a result, your brain locks these traumatic memories away in a special place, the limbic system, and pretty much throws away the key.
Pratt explains: "Theories on memory repression posit that trauma memories, including those which have been repressed, get 'stuck' in the limbic brain. They are then unable to integrate into the more logical, developed portion of the brain responsible for functional working memory, the prefrontal cortex, which is where our more 'normal' memories are stored."
In other words, memories of the pony at your fourth birthday party live in the prefrontal cortex, which you can access at any time, while memories of any kind of trauma live in the limbic system, which can be buried so deep you'll need a psychological excavation team to help you unearth anything.
The Problem With Repressed Memories
"Unfortunately, there's no external, objective database to check our memories against."
Even though some experts have offered a scientific explanation for how and why your brain redacts certain incidents from your life transcript, others are not so quick to fully accept these explanations. Vanessa Marin, sex therapist and creator of A Survivor's Guide to Reclaiming Your Sex Life After Abuse, pointed out that this is a controversial topic within the psychotherapy community.
There have been a slew of cases over the last few decades that revealed that "repressed memory" therapy, which bubbled in popularity in the '90s, led to false memories and accusations. The issue was brought to the forefront when repressed memories were used to convict accused sexual abusers in court, only to have the alleged victim later recant their accusations. Some experts assert that, at the end of the day, there just isn't enough empirical evidence supporting the theory of repressed memories, even if it sounds completely plausible.
After all, memory in general can be a fickle and elusive beast.
"What we know about memory is that it is extremely malleable," Marin explains. "Each time we retrieve a memory, we have the capacity to alter or reframe it in some way."
Great. As if my brain weren't unreliable enough with regular memories from adulthood (I once blew the easiest job interview question ever when I was asked what my favorite bands were and my mind blanked), it seems all but impossible to know whether or not I should trust the fragments that flash in my mind of a supposed trauma that potentially occurred decades ago.
"Unfortunately," says Marin, "there's no external, objective database to check our memories against."
The Effects or Lack Thereof
Not knowing whether the sexual assault took place is agonizing on its own, but the real crux of my conundrum is the effects. If I was indeed sexually assaulted, how has it shaped me as a person and how has it influenced the course of my life? And can studying the effects help me figure out what happened?
According to my panel of experts, the effects come in all shapes and sizes.
"Trauma survivors usually experience symptoms of dissociation (numbing) or activation (hyperawareness)," Torielli says. "But sexual assault survivors can experience any kind of response. We often indicate that any response to sexual assault is normal."
And often, these effects can be similar to those felt by survivors who do not remember their abuse.
"Since repressed memories are still a part of a person's memory store, they may be triggered without a visible cause," Pratt explains. Triggers can include "certain sounds, smells, or locations," and their corresponding psychological responses can include "sweating, racing heart, or panic attacks with no logical precursor."
I have never experienced any of these visceral fear responses, but what about long-term effects?
Pratt adds: "[The survivor] may also have difficulty regulating emotions, such as anger or sadness, and the long-term impact can sometimes result in either hypersensitivity to emotions or the opposite effect, a flattening of emotions, as a subconscious means to cope with triggering situations."
My Evidence Is Inconclusive
It's been almost 30 years since the assault occurred, if it did indeed occur. What transpired in that period of time amounts to a normal life, by all outward appearances. I'm a writer. I have a healthy number of friends, close ones. I've had normal relationships with a motley bunch — no identifiable patterns, no underlying threads connecting these men, nothing sinister beneath the surface. They've ranged from cocky creative types to reliable computer nerds. I've never been abused by any of them, and I've never felt unsafe with any of them — or any man, for that matter. None of them have ever called my emotional behavior into question. In fact, I would dare say that my emotions are pretty even-keeled, save for the occasional bout of PMS. Plus, I seem to have an objectively normal relationship with sex.
Sex has never been a "thing" for me. It's not something I take very seriously or very lightly; it's just something people do. It's pleasurable, but also awkward, messy, and sometimes it's the root of all your problems. Sex sits on a sliding scale of importance, shrinking and expanding, appreciating and depreciating, depending on where I am in my ongoing adventures in existence. Sex is putty in my hands. It doesn't define me. I define it.
So . . . mystery solved?
When trauma occurs, the brain goes into survival mode.
Then again, I do possess some traits that could potentially stem from my repressed abuse. For example, right after moving to the States at age 5, I struggled with an extreme reluctance to inform adults of any sort of discomfort. I remember falling down and scraping up my face in first grade and being in extreme pain, but when my teacher asked me if I needed to go to the nurse's office, I hesitated and said no. This seems like a pretty plausible case of minimizing or disassociation, or it could be explained by my shaky English at the time.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of sexual assault in my past is my tendency to feel irrationally guilty in any given situation. I feel intense guilt over everything, from not saying hi to a co-worker in the hallway to under-tipping by one percent to breaking up with people, even when they really deserve it. In fact, I'd much rather be dumped than have to do the dumping because the guilt stays with me for months.
In fact, one more fragment that I "remember" is feeling guilty after the supposed incident. I remember feeling guilty for ruining my mom's lovely dress with the mysterious white substance. So maybe there's something to mine there. But then again, my guilt could be a product of being raised by very traditional, strict Asian parents, for whom nothing is ever good enough.
Moving On and Feeling Safe
I may not be any closer to knowing what my flashes amount to, whether a strange man on the busy streets of China actually put my hand on his penis and ejaculated onto me, but I have learned something absolute and far more important: sexual assault does not have to define me. The one thing that each and every expert I spoke to agreed on is that help is available and there's a multitude of options for every type of survivor.
"Healing and recovery cannot take place in isolation," Torielli says. "Survivors need support and to feel heard and understood." For her, that means helping survivors create a new narrative to allow the person to gain some control over the trauma. "The goal of treatment is never to erase the traumatic event, but to allow equal access to all the other parts of self," she says.
Pratt also helps her patients to reframe the story, to help them say, "I may have been victimized as a child, but I am safe now. I have created meaningful relationships and I am a survivor."
Marin has more universal advice that everyone, no matter their experience, should heed: "It's important to be extremely kind and gentle with yourself." For her clients who have gone through something traumatic like sexual assault, she helps them to create healthy and happy relationships with sex again. "It's important to shape your sex life in a way that meets your specific needs." Amen to that!
Sexual assault is an immeasurable experience. No matter what circumstances surround the assault, every instance of it is unfathomably awful, even if the instance is "forgotten." If it happened to you, it still happened to you. And everyone has the right to heal however they see fit. If you think you might have been abused but can't recall the incident, it is your prerogative if you want to take it upon yourself to search for the key that your brain threw away all those years ago. If trying to remember will help you to move forward, then get digging. But if you feel anxious about what you could potentially unearth and you're fine not knowing for sure, then that is also your choice. Either way, you should not feel ashamed for what has happened to you, and you are not alone.
What I have learned from my own personal excavation attempt is that it may be time for me to stop looking for that key. In talking to my team of experts, I've realized that I am extremely lucky to have come out of my potential trauma, and the stress of not knowing, unscathed. I haven't let my "flashes" of sexual abuse define me.
I never ended up confronting my mom about the flashes, and I don't think I will. The possibility of learning the truth from her is not worth the potential pain that might come with it, and I'm certainly not going to let this maybe-incident color my judgment of her as a mother. So I'm going to let my memories, flashes, figments of my imagination — whatever they are — stay hidden, and instead, I'm going to unlock something else, door number two. That door leads to a life without wondering, a life in which I focus on the happy and healthy things that I know for certain happened throughout my life. I think it's the life that 4-year-old me would have wanted to have.