Advice From the Trenches

Advice from the Trenches: Aftershock

Dear C and Dr. B:

This past Christmas my extended family got together after many years apart. Whenever we had reunions in the past my daughter Laura always was unable to attend. This time she did, but I noticed she was looking very uncomfortable. 

Later, when I asked her what was wrong, she broke down crying. It turns out that 20 years ago, when they were both children, my niece had sexually touched my daughter and threatened her if she ever told anyone about it. Up until now, she never has. 

I always wondered why she never came to these gatherings as an adult. Clearly she will not be expected to ever come again but my question is what do I do? Should I tell my brother what his daughter did? It happened 20 years ago!

I am conflicted. My daughter told me she has been in therapy and is over the trauma, but clearly, she isn’t! I am not sure if I should ever attend these reunions again – I’m not sure I can even look at his family.

– Shocked

Dr. B says: 

These are hard decisions. But your daughter is an adult now and in no danger. She did not ask you to do anything. You need to evaluate the purpose and intent of any intervention you might be planning.

I don’t think it would be wise for you to attend any family gatherings that your niece might also be attending, at least for now. And I would not have any expectation that the niece remembers, or is gloating. People who ruin other people’s lives often themselves have not a second thought about it. So what would you hope to accomplish if you confront your brother? Most likely his daughter will not remember doing it, or she’ll deny it. Confronting your brother isn’t going to change anything and it doesn’t sound like it would protect or help anyone else. It won’t lead to resolution, an apology, or any form of redemption. Life seldom works out smoothly like that.  

There is no need to explain or make excuses for your daughter not showing up at gatherings. If you don’t feel comfortable being there, don’t go either. When and if you feel differently, then go. But if there seem to be other people who look uncomfortable as your daughter did, then that is different. The appropriate time to bring this matter up would be when your daughter’s experience might help somebody else.  

C says:

Memory is a weird thing. People have the idea that recalling a memory is like putting an order in for a book at the library – it arrives in print, the same book every time. But not all memories are created equal.

First, there’s our short-term memory, which can encompass events over a period anywhere between 30 seconds and several days. These new memories are created in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. If they are retained, over time they are moved to the cortex (the outer part of the brain) where they become long term memories.

We are far more likely to retain memories if we were alert and paid attention to events in the first place. That is why your daughter’s trauma became part of her long term memory: The experience made a very strong impression on her. But if her cousin was in the habit of initiating unwanted sex play and it was not a singular world shattering experience for her, she may barely remember it.

The recovered memory controversy has been an ongoing debate within the mental health profession for several decades. Repression and dissociation may affect a patient’s recall – and the impact of traumatizing events can affect the encoding of memory. There is also such a thing as False Memory Syndrome, in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships center on a memory of a traumatic experience that is literally false but that the person strongly believes occurred. 

However, for your daughter, what matters is this: whatever the historical truth may be, your daughter felt abused. Her reactions are real. I do not doubt that for her, abuse took place. Whatever your niece does or does not admit is incidental to the effect it has had on your daughter’s life. 

What you have to deal with now are YOUR reactions. As a parent, you will no doubt have a strong urge to act, to DO something to protect or help your daughter. But understand this: your emotions are yours. Your daughter may feel uncomfortable when confronted by her past abuser, but she has already done the work to deal with it. 

The person I am worried about is you. This news has just hit you in the face like a decomposed fish from last week’s garbage. Therapy might help you process the aftershock.

– Cathren Housley 

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