Denial: A Memoir of Terror

After a series of traumas, one can lose the capacity to feel fear appropriately. (xiii)

But in the mountains, I was forgiven. And my dad was forgiven, too. (266)

Denial helps the bystander. We don't want to know what the boys we send to Iraq have done to others out of terror, or what others have done to them. We would rather not know about terror or be confronted with evil. This is as true about Abu Ghraib as it is about person assaults and more private crimes, the crimes that occur inside families.

But the victim, too, cannot bear to believe. She may bury or dissociate from or disown her pain...to be raped or abused or threatened with violent death; to be treated as an object in a perpetrator's dream, rather than the subject of your own - these are bad enough. But when observers become complicit in the victim's desire to forget, they become perpetrators, too.

When authorities disbelieve the victim, when bystanders refute what they cannot bear to know, they rob the victim of normal existence on the earth. Bystander and victim collude in denial or forgetting, and in so doing, repeat the abuse. Life for the victim now begins anew. In this new world, the victim can no longer trust the evidence of her senses. Something seems to have happened, but what? The ground disappears. This is the alchemy of denial: terror, rage, and pain are replaced with free-floating shame. The victim will being to wonder: What did I do? She will being to believe: I must have done something bad. But the sensation of shame is shameful itself, so we dissociate that, too. In the end, a victim who has suffered the denial of others will come to see herself as a liar. (144)

Here is what I think now, reading what I wrote down for the police at age fifteen, right after I was raped. I was a good girl. Always a good girl, even when I was bad. I did my homework. If I can only be good enough, someone will eventually notice that I am trying so hard, exhausting myself with my effort to be good. This is true even today. (17)

How much of what we think of as an admirable response to trauma - the "stiff upper lip" - is actually dissociation, the mind's attempt to protect us from experiences that are too painful to digest? I can recall the facts, at least some of them. But I don't feel very much. At least, the feelings I have are not kind. They are not sympathetic toward my fifteen-year-old self. It happened. It happens to a lot of women. I survived. Most women do. I am "strong," but in those moments of strength, I don't feel. I will admit that I am very afraid of one thing. Not just afraid. Ashamed. I am afraid that I am incapable of love. (11)

I believe the best revenge is to live. (136)

I can still bring into my body the joy I felt at seeing the first trillium of spring, which seemed to be telling me, "Never give up hope, spring will come.

I have listened and I have been quiet all my life. But now I will speak.

I must have wondered if the police were right, if the entire story was a figment of my imagination. This is the worst impact of severe trauma: the victim loses faith in the evidence of her own senses. And this is the great gift Paul Macone gave to me. He believed what I told the police back then. He believed me enough to try to solve the case, and he did.

Perhaps because I've sought out evil in this world, attempting to understand and tame it, I am particularly moved by goodness. There is a light that animates an act of generosity, when a person is kind - not to call attention to his own goodness, or to make a pact with God, but just because he feels it's right. I see this light in Paul Macone. Still, his kindness is almost too much to bear. I feel shy around him, despite this conversation. I even feel shy writing this down. (184)

I often feel like nobody," Skip says. "I ask myself: Why would you want to talk to me? Why would anyone want to talk to me? It comes on me suddenly, this feeling that I'm not anything...a person who has spent a lot of time in bed, who doesn't want to be anything."

I know what he is talking about, and this time, I tell him that. For years, I could not understand why anyone took me seriously. I could not understand how I managed to get into MIT or Harvard, why anyone would offer me a postdoctoral fellowship or a job. I could not understand why people kept turning to me after September 11. I didn't see myself as a person who couldn't get out of bed, but as a salesgirl in a coffee shop - the job I had as a teenager who was afraid to apply to college. My identity was stuck there for year.

"Inside me there is the person who wants to be dead," he says. "I can't advocate for myself. I can advocate very strongly for others, but not for myself...Sometimes I'm not sure that I exist. Is this really me - this person whom people want to consult about clergy sexual abuse? Or am I really the person who can't get out of bed? I've gotten better - I spend more of my time living in the present. But it takes a lot of effort to stay in the present - a lot of yoga and meditation. (195)

My breathe would catch at the sight of violets-so common in the woods at home, so surprising in the mountains. The violet's message was "Keep up your courage, stay true to what you believe in." p264

Other flowers came at the end of the summer, but by then the winter sadness had already dissipated, and the effect of the blooms was not the same.

People say that rape is not sex, that it's violence," Lucy says, bitterly. "But it's also sex. You can't get around that," she says. "he didn't run me over with a car. He had sex with me. You're not supposed to do that. You're not supposed to have sex with an eighth-grader. You're not supposed to have sex when you're in eighth grade. It was very intimate. You can't get around it. This part of the body," she says, gesturing from her heart to her lower abdomen, though I understand she means to indicate her vagina. "If you're sitting around with a group of women, talking about various traumas, someone will say, I got beaten by my mother. But if you say, I got raped, it's a different thing."

I wonder if that is true. Is rape really the worst sort of violation? I'm not sure. I often wonder why it matters whether we're penetrated or not. There is the pain, but the pain doesn't last. The shame does. (216)

Some people's lives seem to flow in a narrative; mine had many stops and starts. That's what trauma does. It interrupts the plot. You can't process it because it doesn't fit with what came before or what comes afterward. A friend of mine, a soldier, put it this way. In most of our lives, most of the time, you have a sense of what is to come. There is a steady narrative, a feeling of "lights, camera, action" when big events are imminent. But trauma isn't like that. It just happens, and then life goes on. No one prepares you for it.

That man penetrated me with his shame. Shame, I realize now, is an infectious disease. Shame can be sexually transmitted. (107)

This book is a memoir - not of specific life events, but of the processes of dissociation, and of re-enlivening emotions that are shameful to admit or even to feel. It is an account of the altered states that trauma induces, which make it possible to survive a life-threatening event but impair the capacity to feel fear, and worse still, impair the ability to love. (292)

What is courage?" I ask. "Bearing witness. That is a form of courage." (137)

When I asked my father whether he thought that it was possible that his mother was raped behind that closed door, he said, "She had washer-woman knees. No one could possibly think of her as a sexual object. Besides," he explained, "she would have told my sisters, and they would have told me." I am not so sure. Maybe someone needed to ask her. Someone needed to want to know, to be able to hear the answer. (77)

Why does the threat of violent death alter some of us, even if subtly, forever? Why does it make us unusually numb or calm when we ought to feel terrified? Why do scents or sounds trigger in some of us a feeling of terror or unbearable dread, even in situations where we know, at least, intellectually, that we are perfectly safe?