CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Learning for Penn State: the Legacy of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Much has been written about the recent news out of Penn State. Throughout the country, people were disturbed by the magnitude of the sexual abuse allegations, and the negligent way that coach Joe Paterno and the administration swept aside this serious matter.

The news brought home a dynamic of childhood sexual trauma with which many survivors and fellow professionals are familiar. In fact, a number of former abuse victims in my practice again felt violated by the news that unfolded throughout the week, including the way the beloved father-figure Paterno had further betrayed the children involved by not acting on the charges more seriously. (The insensitivity of Penn State students who violently rallied on behalf of Paterno as if he, and not the boys involved, was the victim also upset some.)

It is sadly ironic that the name Paterno sounds so much like paternal. When a young person is abused, frequently a parent (or both) who should have known instead adds to the victim's trauma. Whether consciously or not, they ignore signs (including of the child's distress) that something is amiss. Worse, they may disbelieve or even blame the child, perhaps re-creating a dynamic from their own childhood. (Victims of child abuse frequently marry abusive partners to whom they cling.)

The results can be devastating. Sexual trauma -- including various forms of seduction and boundary violation -- can overwhelm the child's ability to make sense out of what has happened, leaving him or her feeling frightened, overwhelmed, and guilt-ridden. Without the support of protective parents, the child feels doubly isolated and betrayed. He or she may blame themselves for whatever small degree they enjoyed the attention. Incest and other forms of child abuse generally take place in dysfunctional and chaotic households where children feel unseen and unprotected. The attention of a seductive father can be the only form of love the child knows, leaving her to blame herself for what had happened. ("I must have wanted it.") When one or both parents reinforce this message, the child is left burdened by a sense of guilt and shame too massive to process.

And so the victim frequently employs something called dissociation to try to maintain some form of self integrity. Dissociation is a coping mechanism designed to help an overwhelmed individual cope with trauma -- although at great cost. Threatening experiences and feelings are split off from the person's conscious awareness and are experienced as if not part of the self. The unconscious is acting like a surgeon, sacrificing a cancerous limb to protect the rest of the body -- except the person is not aware of what they are missing. In severe cases, called Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder), the parts of the self associated with the trauma become autonomous personalities that take over the person's consciousness.

However, dissociation need not be so pervasive. An adult can function quite competently in the world, yet be afraid of sex, for instance, since sexual feelings cannot be tolerated due to their link to the original trauma. Or he or she may be unaware of their own anger, dating back to the original betrayal. These people present as compliant adults terrified of aggression or confrontation. Without being able to get in touch with their own healthy assertion, they attract demanding others who use them and leave them confused -- precisely the original trauma from childhood the person was trying to avoid.

This is one explanation why trauma survivors often unwittingly reenact painful situations in the present. What cannot be integrated and understood can only be lived out over and over again, seeming to reconfirm for the adult that life is in fact terribly dangerous, that they are bad and worthless and sure to be betrayed.

For such adults, psychotherapy -- particularly a psychodynamic approach -- can be a vital part of the healing process. Therapy helps the individual understand and incorporate parts of themselves that have been left behind. The analyst -- another parent-like authority figure -- creates a safe environment to inevitably reawaken the patient's hope and dread of being both recognized and helped, but also once again seduced and betrayed. It involves more than simply recovering memories, but rebuilding trust. This involves the adult being able to experience and integrate what had previously been dissociated. Rather than simply reenacting the trauma in adulthood, the person finally begins to see themselves in a new light and moves on in their lives in ways they never would have imagined.

If some good comes from the Penn State tragedy, perhaps the discussion about sexual abuse and adult responsibility may increase awareness and make it that much easier for others to come forward and get the help they need.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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