by Christina Enevoldsen
When I was sued by my parents for exposing the sexual abuse that was perpetrated on me by my father, my lawyer asked me a question: “How do you if know your memories of sexual abuse are real?”
He was defending me against charges of defamation of character and intentional infliction of emotional distress so that was a fair question.
Though I was solid in my history by then, that’s a question I asked myself frequently as I faced my past.
I didn’t always remember my abuse—at least not consciously. I repressed most of it until I was an adult. When the memories returned, they felt like dreams. It was like seeing them through a wall of water or heavy mist.
Even though I forgot most of my abuse, there were a few things that I never forgot. I didn’t define them as sexually abusive until I learned the true definition of sexual abuse.
I had minimized them by just calling them, “strange” and “hurtful”:
When I was about eight or nine years old, I was playing dress up with my mom’s things as my parents were entertaining guests. I put on my mom’s black half slip and wore it as a dress. I accessorized it with her shoes and pearls. I felt pretty and wanted to show everyone. I was too afraid of rejection to present myself to the adults so I passed by them on the way to the front patio, hoping they would see me.
As I was going outside, my dad joked to the guests that I would make a good call girl. Everyone laughed. I felt a strange mixture of pride and shame. Somehow, I knew that my dad approved of me “making a good call girl” but I also knew there was a badness attached to it.
Another part of my sexual abuse that I always remembered but tried not to think about was that my dad liked to watch me masturbate. He’d get a glazed look in his eyes when he was sexually aroused. I remember feeling uncomfortable about it, but my dad really liked it and he gave me his approval.
When I was married to my first husband, he told me that he’d been sexually abused by his parents. I was devastated as though it had happened to me. Soon after that, I began to remember that I had been sexually abused. It was more than just a suspicion; I knew.
For years, I couldn’t remember anything specific. I knew that it was my dad who had abused me, but also thought I might have been abused by others. I had the feeling of being passed around.
Many years passed without too much thought of abuse. I divorced my husband for emotional and financial abuse and discovered that he had molested our 19 year-old daughter almost all of her childhood. She decided that telling me and a few other people was as far as she was comfortable with so the issue was buried again.
The Memories Resurfaced
Five years later, I was happily and safely remarried when everything changed. My daughter called me one night to tell me she was ready to report her father for sexually abusing her.
Sexual abuse was again in the forefront of my mind. While doing my best to support her, I started having graphic flashbacks and dreams. The flashbacks, nightmares and other memories revealed that my father not only abused me himself, but also traded me to other men. He took me to sex parties where young children were exchanged. My dad sent me to the neighbor’s house, where the neighbor raped me with a pool cue in his basement.
I also started seeing my childhood memories in a different light. Being “Daddy’s little girl” took on a whole different meaning. All along, I thought I had no memories of my abuse, but it slowly occurred to me that what I thought of as normal Father/Daughter activities were, in reality, acts of sexual abuse.
Struggles With Denial
It was hard to accept those things as real, but they kept coming up. All of them seemed to have a common theme of betrayal and violation. As hard as it was to accept, it was hard to deny that they fit all that I’d felt my whole life and the ways I thought and behaved.
When the memories started coming up, I wanted to dismiss them but I also desperately wanted to break through the fog. I was afraid of what I was seeing but I was more afraid of not knowing. I hated believing something might be there, yet not be able to see it clearly or at all.
I’d accept my memories as valid one day and deny them the next. But there was something about them that felt true and I couldn’t shake the relief I felt that there were answers to my strange behaviors and feelings.
My memories surfaced slowly over several years. I think any faster would have overwhelmed me and left me too weak to actually process the memories. That’s the point of remembering, as far as my healing is concerned. It’s not so much about what happened; it’s about how it affected me. What did the abuse tell me about myself or the way the world works? What is the truth?
Do the Details Matter?
The thing that used to bother me was that I used those details like what color the wallpaper was to “prove” that I was really remembering my abuse correctly because it was so hard to accept. But those details don’t really matter when it comes to healing. I didn’t need to know how old I was or which bedroom it was.
The only thing that mattered when I was sorting those things out was what that event told me about myself. What false messages did I learn that I needed to debunk? Seeing the truth isn’t about the color of the walls; it’s about seeing that I’m a valuable person no matter how I was treated.
This is an example of how my abuse memories surfaced:
My son casually mentioned that my mom had brought up a trip to Jamaica that my parents made when I was very young. I didn’t know the context of their discussion but that trip had been a sore spot for me all my life.
My parents had dropped me off at my grandparent’s house in another state while they were gone. The story I’ve heard my whole life from my parents was that I was very angry when they got back. They thought I was mad at them for leaving me and they’ve laughed about that ever since. It’s always bothered me that what they said I felt didn’t match something inside of me. Something didn’t sit right and it hurt me that they were laughing about my anger.
I had two dreams in the same night. In my first dream, there were fuzzy people who were murderers. They had hair that looked like dandelions and were covered in fuzz. With clothes on, they looked like regular people.
I was with a group of friends and there was a man behind us who wore a black jacket with the hood up. I was the only one who knew he was really a fuzzy person. Since I recognized what he was, I warned my friends and we escaped before he caught anyone.
In my second dream, I was getting ready for my journey home after staying with friends. I had just packed up the car and was using the bathroom before the long road trip and my mother walked in. She told me that it was all arranged that I would be riding with her.
Both of the dreams were very disturbing to me. I told my daughter about them, starting with the second one about my mom. Something about that reminded me of my parent’s trip to Jamaica. I still didn’t know what it was.
Then I told her about the scary “fuzzy people” dream and mentioned that I had an uncle I called “Uncle Fuzzy”. Immediately, I felt afraid.
Over a period of a few hours, I had frightening flashbacks of being 1 ½ years old. I saw little flashes at a time. Some were pictures like when I saw my kicking booties and others were flashes of emotions like my fear and confusion.
One of my mother’s brothers was still living at home and got me alone and starting touching me. Terrified, I squirmed and kicked. He got angry that I wasn’t being still. He yelled at me and grabbed my legs and held me down.
The last thing I remember is standing with that same uncle when I was a little older and flirting with him. I felt shame even while I was flirting. I wondered why I did that and I suddenly knew the answer: Flirting told him I’d cooperate and that he didn’t have to hurt me.
I have a strong feeling that was the first time I was sexually abused. Remembering that experience answered some questions for me. In the later abuse, the abuse by my father, I was very compliant and even participated and worked for praise. I knew that was a coping method but seeing how much that first experience taught me made it make so much more sense. I didn’t want to be yelled at or physically hurt. Praise was much more pleasant than punishment. I used that coping method into adulthood and the more threatened I felt, the more I flirted and the more promiscuous I became.
How do you know if your memories of sexual abuse are real? This is how I know:
- I’d always remembered some of my sexual abuse, though I thought those things were just normal. That doesn’t prove that my recovered memories are real, but they do show me that my dad was a sexual abuser and not the dad I thought I had.
- The feelings, beliefs and behaviors matched my memories. Among many, many other things, I had problems saying no to men, I acted seductively, I was full of shame and had difficulty setting boundaries. I grew up feeling different from everyone else, as though I didn’t deserve to belong. I was terribly alone, no matter how many people were in my life.
- The neighbor’s house where I was raped came up for sale during my recovery. The photos of the interior matched what I remembered.
- I had implicit memory (emotional and physical reactions) before I’d consciously remember an abuse event. Days beforehand, I’d feel gloomy or find myself craving chocolate or using some other coping method.
- I didn’t only have recalled memories, I had body memories. On one occasion, when a friend was helping me with a floor exercise, she grabbed my leg to position it correctly. When she touched me, I shrieked and scrambled away. I burst out in tears. I flashed on someone positioning me for better “access”.
- The biggest reason I believe in my memories is that my life is completely different since I’ve been using them to heal. As I’ve addressed my past, I’ve healed my life.
Did I need to remember to heal?
When was being abused, I couldn’t stop it, but I used what resources I could to help me survive. One of those resources was to repress the memories. Just as I used the resources available to me at the time of my abuse, I used what I had available to heal. I believe every abuse survivor has the same ability to heal.
Before I had specific memories, I started to heal with what I had. I worked on boundary issues and on affirming my value apart from sex. I used what I knew. Looking back on my healing journey, most of the healing has come from the emotional abuse, not specifically the sexual abuse. If I’d understood then how much I’d been abused in other ways, I could have made huge progress in my process without even recovering one sexual abuse memory.
How do you know if your memories of sexual abuse are real? What do you think?
Do you believe you may have been sexually abuse but aren’t sure? What makes you think so? What makes you doubt it? I’d love to hear your feelings and experiences about this. Please share them with me below and remember to subscribe to the comments so you don’t miss any of the discussion.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.