This is just the tip of the iceberg
September 22, 2008 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Why do people forget the awful things they do to their kids?

My SO's mother has convinced herself that an incident where she tied my SO's 11 y.o. sister to a pole in the basement and beat her with a metal dog chain for writing a horrific story at Catholic school that was about her gang rape a few days earlier. The mother insists neither happened, and she is very upset that this daughter has not spoken to her in years. My SO knew about the rape, (she was 8) and witnessed the beating.

My own mother has completely blocked out the time my father, in a Vietnam Vet rage, almost choked my little brother (8) to death. He had bruises on his neck from my dad's fingers. My older brother was 13 and I was 11 and we both were there and literally jumped on my father's back and started hitting him, screaming, "You're killing George!" My mother was furious with my father about it then.

A few years ago, my older brother and I were talking about childhood memories and mentioned this one and my mother had no memory of it. She said, "Where was I when this was going on? I don't remember that at all."

How do people forget these things? And WHY?

Because of this forgetting by my mother, and by numerous friends' parents, I am so hard on myself about never forgetting the bad things I've done that my life is pretty much a cycle of shame and self-loathing. I am so afraid that I will forget or deny or justify something that I did that hurt someone that I berate myself constantly and remind myself constantly of the ways I failed people. It makes for a very difficult life.

But I see other people do it all the time, and it scares the shit out of me. I DON'T UNDERSTAND. How can you erase a memory of something so HUGE? Is there a term for this? And, is there any way, once you've forgotten something that horrific, that you could be persuaded to remember it say with therapy or hypnosis?

Just got back from visiting aforementioned mother-in-law and was wondering how this whole chain of events happens in the brain.
posted by joaniemcchicken to Human Relations (41 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think there's a solid answer for this. I doubt, however, that your SO's mother or your own parents or anyone else's parents really forget any of it so much as refuse to acknowledge it. I'm sorry you and your SO have had these negative experiences, though.
posted by katillathehun at 1:19 PM on September 22, 2008

Best answer: As defined by Psychology Matters . org
Repression: The basic defense mechanism by which painful or guilt-producing thoughts, feelings, or memories are excluded from conscious awareness.
posted by greta simone at 1:24 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

This isn't about parents, this is about humans. It's a self-protective mechanism, and whether or not it's admirable, it certainly helps people live happier lives. Considering the results of your own efforts to avoid it ("I am so hard on myself about never forgetting the bad things I've done that my life is pretty much a cycle of shame and self-loathing"), I strongly suggest you do your best to stop worrying so much about it.

Two quotes:

"Don't truth me, and I won't truth you." —Vonnegut

"Humankind / cannot bear very much reality." —T. S. Eliot
posted by languagehat at 1:25 PM on September 22, 2008 [9 favorites]

Sometimes, people are just lying when they say they can't remember something.
posted by interrobang at 1:27 PM on September 22, 2008

It makes for a very difficult life.

I believe that's at least part of the answer to the "why" question. (As for "how," I couldn't say.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:28 PM on September 22, 2008

People also tend to want to preserve a good image of themselves. For your SO's mom to acknowledge that yes, she did brutally beat her own child would mean acknowledging that she might not have been the best mom in the world. For your mom to acknowledge that she saw your father choke your little brother might mean facing her fear and shame that she wasn't "able to protect him" (despite the fact that she did try, judging by her jumping on him and beating his back). For women who have kids, being a Good Mom is usually central to their self-image, and there's a lot of guilt and self-loathing involved in acknowledging that one might have somehow damaged one's kids. Better for peace of mind to be the Queen of Denial.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:29 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's some interesting information on the wiki page for Repressed memory (and it should obviously be noted that the article is marked for a dispute of its factual accuracy). So that leaves to possible conclusions. Either A. They remember and want to pretend it didn't happen because of the fact that it was so horrible. or B. They truly have blocked the memory out because of the trauma it caused them.

If we're going to assume that B is possible my guess (and it can only be a guess because I hold no degree in psychoanalysis) is that the reason they are able to do this is years upon years of telling themself "Something horrible happened, I am not a horrible person, yet that horrible thing happened in my presence, it couldn't have possibly happened could it, how could I let such a horrible thing happen, perhaps I have the details wrong" And on and on it goes until little by little the trauma allows them to recreate history and the memory is repressed fully. I would also guess if this is truly possible, that bringing the memory back to surface is also possible through reenactment, hypnosis, etc.
posted by genial at 1:29 PM on September 22, 2008

Mistakes Were Made covers some things like this.
posted by milkrate at 1:35 PM on September 22, 2008

I can't give you an answer, but I can tell you that my mom has done the same thing with me. It's not only infuriating, but incredibly hurtful.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:39 PM on September 22, 2008

I dont necessarily agree with the folks who are saying they must be lying.

Personally...there is a lot of stuff about growing up that I just cant remember...even good things that might have been during a bad period. My lifelong friends are astounded by this when they bring something up and I just give them a blank look. And I REALLY don’t remember, its not that I am just trying to protect someone else by saying that I can’t.
posted by Jenny is Crafty at 1:40 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm so sorry these things happened to you and your SO. The answers above cover it. But you need to get professional advice in helping you strike a balance between self-awareness and self-loathing. You're waaaay to far in one direction. Life's shorter than you think and you don't need this roadblock in your path.

(mods, fix tag?)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:44 PM on September 22, 2008

There is a lot of pressure in our society (heck, all societies) for people to have kids. I think often people have children without necessarily thinking about how they're going to raise the child, whether they have the resources to raise the child, and whether they would actually be good at raising children. Children are born that aren't unwanted, per se, but they're born to people who aren't psychologically prepared for them.

And once you have the child, there is a lot of pressure to be a good parent. Not pressure like "It's important to do well in school" pressure, but pressure as in "If you fuck this up, you are an awful person." Making a mistake when raising your kid, whether it's something like not teaching them financial sense or something really big like losing your temper and spanking them so hard they bruise, it's simply not allowed. General society is not really forgiving of parents who don't seem perfect. For good reason--you are shaping a human being who basically has no control over what you do to them or how you shape them--but I imagine, not having children myself, it is incredibly stressful. You can do a whole lot of things in your life that are amazing, but if it comes out you're a bad parent, that's going to be pretty much your identity to the rest of the world.

If you do something truly awful, there's a lot of impetus there to try to pretend that shit never happened. You want to believe you are a good parent and thus a good person. What kind of person beats their kid, right? Who wants to believe they're the kind of person who would beat their kid? It's probably a psychological defense mechanism more than anything else. I know my mom is a huge perfectionist who has difficulty admitting she's wrong about even the littlest things. Facing the fact she was not cut out to be a parent would probably destroy her.

Finally, remember, what might be extremely significant to a child may not be significant to a parent at all, and therefore a parent may pass off as a minor event that in actuality shaped the kid's psychological profile in adulthood. This isn't going to cover tying your kid down in the basement and beating them, but it does cover the little things.
posted by Anonymous at 1:49 PM on September 22, 2008

People with certain kinds of personality disorders (the same disorders which make them capable of over-the-top child abuse) often not only have memory problems, but also literally can't see themselves or anything else in shades of gray....if they believe they were an excellent parent, they'll literally block out any evidence to the contrary.

It's crazy making. But not uncommon. You and your SO are not alone.
posted by availablelight at 2:08 PM on September 22, 2008

I regularly thank God for repression. Its very much a double-edged sword.

Think about your brother George, or your SO's little sister. For them, repression might be a very useful thing - a way to forget about what happened to them and try to live a somewhat normal life in the aftermath of those incidents. I'm not sure if that's entirely healthy - it probably isn't - but I know that's how I've used it, and frankly I prefer it that way.

I can't remember most of my life from the age of 15 to about 18. I know I wasn't living at home with my family after a series of events there that lead to my leaving, and I know I kept a job at a grocery store. That's really it. I can't remember much at all about where I lived or people I knew or things I did. Its like this very dark area in my memory that is pretty much completely unique in that I can remember most of my other years with rather stark clarity. But you know what? I don't have any desire to try and figure out what happened then. I'm almost certain it was a pretty bad time. I don't think I did anything really bad to anyone else then - I mean I've never raped or killed or even been in many fights, and I've never been in jail - frankly I think that it was a pretty bad time because of things that happened to me. But I'm not sure what most of them were.

And if nobody ever tells me, I'm fine with that. I know that because some of my very general suspicions about people in my life and the things they said and did at that time have been proven true in recent years, and while I suppose its been a bit of a coming clean for those people, it has not at all been a pleasant experience for me to be taken back to that time. And I should be very clear - I don't actively try not to think about those times - in fact I think about them often, and how they had an effect on the person I became. Its just that when I do think about them, I can't remember much - and I think that's for the best. I'm not sure if that makes sense, but there it is.

I suppose repression is a lot more acceptable for the victims of traumatizing events, however I can certainly understand how someone who has done something horrible might need to use the same device to block out their memory of that action and still accept themselves as a human that is part of a society. It doesn't excuse it but it could certainly explain it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:15 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Two things:
Obviously, in your case, there's no denying these were significant and traumatic events, so, as others have said above, the parents in question are either deliberately lying, or blocking the memories because they are too painful for them to face, as a self-defense mechanism. For less serious events, though, there really can simply be a difference in perception that leads people to remember things differently. My Mom and her sister, for example, have vastly different memories of their childhoods, and either would swear to the veracity of her own version over the other's.

The second thing? I would like to suggest that you keep a journal. If you do something really horrible OR really wonderful, write it down, get it out, commit it to paper or your computer's hard drive. There. It's done. Now you won't forget about it. You can stop beating yourself up all the time over the mere possibility that you won't remember something for the rest of your life. The way you are living now seems incredibly stressful, and I fear that you are punishing yourself far out of proportion for every little accidental or intentional slight you commit.
posted by misha at 2:42 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Shankar Vedantam wrote a brief article in his Department of Human Behavior column that touches on this; it basically comes down to cognitive dissonance. If you believe that you are a good person (and most people believe this about themselves), and you also believe that people who do X are bad people, you can't square that thought that you did X with your own perception of yourself as basically good. Hence, you downplay or forget what you did.

In a way, it's the exact same problem that it sounds like you're struggling with when you describe yourself:

I am so hard on myself about never forgetting the bad things I've done that my life is pretty much a cycle of shame and self-loathing. I am so afraid that I will forget or deny or justify something that I did that hurt someone that I berate myself constantly and remind myself constantly of the ways I failed people. It makes for a very difficult life.

One thing that you might want to think about is that there's a different way to react when your self-perception and your actions seem to contradict each other: you could choose to recognize that the "good people always do X and only bad people do Y" is simplistic thinking, and take the opportunity to realize that good people can sometimes do bad things. It seems to me that the alternative to cognitive dissonance --> forgetting isn't necessarily to never forget anything and flagellate yourself for being bad every time you make a mistake; rather, it's to recognize that we all are frail and prone to doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons, even if we're good people who generally try to do right by others.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:47 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

There's one other thing here - if the person in question didn't believe at the time that what they were doing was very significant (like taking out the trash, or visiting a museum), then the memory would fade along with all the other day to day stuff. You might think that's ridiculous - what parent would think physical violence enacted on their child was insignifiant or trivial, but in some families, it is the norm, and it's only the person who decides, I'm not going to do this anymore, I'm not going to hurt my children like I was, that changes the cycle.
posted by b33j at 3:07 PM on September 22, 2008

Why do people forget the awful things they do to their kids?

They don't. They lie. They put the old adage to use: What I say three (thousand) times is true.

Sure maybe there are some cases where people repress or honestly forget and maybe your SO's mom is one such case, but 9 times out of 10, I call BS.

My wife confronted her parents with a veritable laundry list of bad things. MIL's response? We never did any of those things!

Its a bold faced lie made at the expense of the former child's sense of sanity. Its the icing on the cake after the 'awful thing' itself.
posted by ian1977 at 3:09 PM on September 22, 2008

I sympathize with you and your SO. I have family with the same issues. I have tried to talk to my mother with no luck, and have recently sought help through counseling to clear up my issues with personal failure and guilt. I feel we share the same personal guilt, and it is not for us to bare at all! There is no way to make my family own up to what they did, but I can help myself and would like to give you a push in the same direction. Our lives are our own to lead! Don't let guilt from others stop you from being truly happy. Sorry I'm so sappy, your post has just struck a chord with me.
posted by phytage at 3:13 PM on September 22, 2008

I agree with b33j. The memory may be unremarkable to the perpetrator if it was a normal pattern of abuse. The victim is obviously going to be far more affected by the event than the perpetrator. If someone mugged you in an alleyway, he may not even remember it the next week, if it's something he does often. But you would almost certainly remember it forever.
posted by desjardins at 3:43 PM on September 22, 2008

I don't understand either. My family history is similar (but not on the same scale).

And I have the same fear and self-loathing when I do something that hurts someone else. Nowdays, I try and deal with it as soon as possible - nothing beats a heartfelt, timely apology, acknowledging what you did wrong, to help start the process of rebuilding relationships. And having someone forgive you helps you to forgive yourself too.

And for older stuff - please forgive yourself. If you ever have an opportunity in the future to discuss things with people you hurt (i.e. if they bring it up!), then take it. But otherwise, forgive (yourself) but don't forget. No-one is perfect, and you can't change the past. All you can do is try and be a better person in the future...

Good luck.
posted by finding.perdita at 3:44 PM on September 22, 2008

post from someone who would prefer to remain anonymous.
This happens. It happened to me. I used to spend a lot of time with my mother's sister, my aunt. Then at some time we just *didn't*, and in fact my mom stopped talking to her. I never knew why, and I was afraid to ask. It was the type of situation where I KNEW I loved my aunt, loved spending time with her, my mom loved her, my sister loved her, my dad loved her...

I often wondered what had happened between my mom and her sister that could cause such such such a bizarre rift. I was scared to ask, because talking about my aunt had become verboten. My mom would occasionally trash mouth her, but other than that, nada. The two sisters didn't even talk at their father's funeral, which was probably about eight years later, when I was in high school.

When I was about to go to college, I finally screwed up the courage to ask my dad. Mom and dad had gotten divorced at about the same time, so it felt safer to ask Dad. "Dad, why don't Mom and Aunt BLAH talk anymore? What happened?"

What had happened? They discovered that my uncle had been sexually abusing my older sister, who was 11 or 12. My mom's reaction was to call my dad and go to my aunt's house to rescue us. They took us away, and got us safe. It turns out my uncle also been abusing his daughter from a previous marriage. My uncle and aunt got divorced following this incident.

My aunt wasn't involved in this. She didn't know about it. But from what my mom says now, my aunt didn't believe my mom at first that my uncle had abused my sister. Due to a looooooong and mostly unknown-to-me history of not-awesome sibling interaction, my mom didn't/couldn't/wouldn't give my aunt the benefit of the doubt about this. Personally, I think my aunt's reaction was probably more like "OMG, I can't believe it. Are you sure?" After all, this was her husband.

Anyhoo, they told me what was going on at the time. I went to therapy. They asked me if he had done the same thing to me as to my sister. They say I said at that time that no, nothing had happened with me. I don't know. I don't remember a thing about it. I was eight. There was some kind of intervention that I was involved in in some way. I was in the thick of it. And I don't remember a thing. To this day I wonder if he abused me, too. I'm now 38. All this happened at the same time as my parents were divorcing themselves, so it was a pretty stressful time.

Way back then when I was headed off to college, when I eventually asked my dad what the deal was between my mom and my aunt, his response was "You don't know? We told you." He told me, we cried, and I immediately went to talk to my sister about it. I told her I didn't know, that somehow I had repressed that memory entirely. She didn't much want to talk about it, either.

Called my grandma, explained the situation, and got in touch with my aunt. So did my sister. My mom threatened not to go to my sister's wedding if she invited our aunt. Sister called Mom's bluff. Mom went to the wedding.

I go and see my aunt as often as I can. I really love her. My sister and her kids go visit, too. My mom still barely tolerates being in the same room as my aunt. It's sad.

Long story, but what it boils down to is that I'd have never believed that a person could forget something so important. I'd imagine it's harder to believe, and definitely harder to stomach, when you're talking about the perpetrator who was adult, rather than a child victim. I think it has to be the same sort of thing though.
posted by jessamyn at 4:35 PM on September 22, 2008

I was just discussing politics with my father yesterday, and reminded him what a big Nixon supporter my mother was. He denied it. He insisted that both of them had voted for Kennedy and both of them had loathed Nixon.

This sounds trivial, but I don't think it is. As my mother declined into alcoholism, she beligerently railed against the persecution of the president. My father, I think, would rather not remember her slow deterioration, so he remembers how she was when things were happier.
posted by acrasis at 5:16 PM on September 22, 2008

My ex-husband used to flat-out deny that he'd done or said what he'd done or said. Recently, I mentioned something he did 3 1/2 years ago, something significant that left a paper trail. He claimed to have no knowledge of it, and he was quite credible.

My Mom recreated the facts of family events so often (in her favor), we developed a term for it: Mom's Revisionist History.

I think it's cognitive dissonance, repression, whatever. It helps the person live with themself.

You are unlikely to get the person to admit or recognize the truth, let alone accept responsibility for the damage they caused. You (or your SO) have likely added some spin on your version of the event, as well. These people who behave badly, then edit the facts from their memory, are best left out of your life. Therapy and building a life for yourself will heal you faster than trying to convince someone she might have been a crummy Mom.
posted by theora55 at 5:49 PM on September 22, 2008

I wonder about this all the time. Both my parents do this, not about things as serious as sexual abuse, but not about totally minor things either. I think the thing that's so jarring to me is the basic assumption I make that if they say they don't remember something -- in that way that implies strongly that they think it didn't happen -- it must mean that *I* am misremembering it, and I resent the hell out of that.

My mother often stays away from disturbing books or movies because she says she literally can't watch them with any sort of distance or remove. Seeing a hurt animal is the same as watching her own pet get hurt, reading my uncle's autobiography would cause her to relive her own (sometimes unpleasant) childhood again. And this is the sticking point for me. I think the autobiography thing is unpleasant specifically because she's only moderately successful at repressing disturbing things from her own past and she's basically using strategies to help ensure that those memories stay buried. Her and my uncle can fight it out, but when it's her memory versus my memory I'm not okay with this approach.

So, when I tell her I was smacked around as a kid (by her) and she says "No you weren't" I see us at an impasse where only one of us can be correct and she's denying the truth of my story. Being a child hit by a parent is hard to forget. Being a parent who hits your child is something you'd like to forget. I have come to the understanding that this is really not how she sees it. She doesn't remember specifically and so is resigned to just not knowing what happened. And, she's unwilling to take my word for it, which is really where to me this falls apart. As the person who (assumedly) actually remembers, I am flabbergasted by this approach and, like you OP, do the same "I will never forget any way I was ever a bad person to anyone just so I am never the person who forgot they hurt you"

This is, however, a bad strategy as you know. I have a more removed approach to it though where I skip the shame/loathing part and just try to be a little clinical about it. I was sort of an oppressive jerk to my little sister when we were both kids, and over time I've come to be able to talk to her about it, mainly because she's not mad at me about it anymore. I can't un-be that person, but I can not repeat jerky oppressive behaviors and that, to me, is really how you move forward. Also, having a sister as an ally when you're trying to get over this sort of forgetful parent nonsense is really really useful. It's been incredibly important to me to have someone to talk to about scary things from my distant past that no one else acknowledges happened.
posted by jessamyn at 6:11 PM on September 22, 2008 [9 favorites]

Check out this similar posty-post. Also about mothers!
posted by Coatlicue at 6:12 PM on September 22, 2008

How do people forget these things? And WHY?

Because they were drunk when they did them, sometimes.

(Thanks for asking this question. It's something I've wondered about a lot too.)
posted by selfmedicating at 6:24 PM on September 22, 2008

Heh - I've wondered this myself too!

My brother-in-law was stunned to find out from me that while my sister and I were young, our dad came flamingly out of the closet with a taste for certain young, Catholic members of my immediate peer group.

It was shocking to both of us - he was shocked that his wife had never told him such ridiculous gossip, and I was shocked that my terrible horrible unmentionable childhood trauma had gone entirely unnoticed by my sister - she just figured he'd ran off to be with his ham radio and stamp collection :)

People can convince themselves of the most incredible substitutions for the truth when the truth is too painful. I'm not exactly looking to shatter any more illusions unless absolutely necessary, because the people I love seem to forget things that are terrible and sad. I don't want to make the people I love feel any more terrible or sad than they need to be.
posted by grippycat at 6:58 PM on September 22, 2008

Alice Miller talks some about denial. Her site is a great resource on recovery, and your SO's right (and the sister's right) to experience the rage in order to move on.
posted by lysdexic at 7:04 PM on September 22, 2008

Do you remember every time you've ever flipped someone off? Every time you've insulted someone? Probably not. When we do terrible things to other people, but don't feel pain or remorse, we're as likely to forget them as we are making a sandwich or driving to work.

We tend to remember events that hurt us deeply. Traumatic memories are often especially vivid. We remember the things that were done to us, because we're the ones who felt the pain.

Part of rebuilding my relationship with my mother was bringing up some of the times she'd been especially abusive. At first, she claimed not to remember the incidents, because I presented them as huge, memorable events. When we went back more calmly, she vaguely remembered times when she'd been very hurtful. She just didn't have them in the forefront of her mind, because she had no strong emotions attached to them.

Some people are lying, and maybe some people are repressing memories. More often, people don't remember the times when they've hurt you because those memories aren't significant to them. Sad, but simple.
posted by freshwater_pr0n at 7:35 PM on September 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

iminurmefi nails it with regard to cognitive dissonance. And I second the recommendation for Mistakes Were Made, co-authored by Elliott Aronson, a prominent researcher of cognitive dissonance.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:40 PM on September 22, 2008

I got a 90-mumble on a test when I was a kid-- the second-highest grade in the class. My classmate got a (90-mumble)+1. I go home for the day, say "I got a 90-mumble, but Jennifer got a (90-mumble)+1" to my mother and grandmother, and sit down to watch G.I. Joe or whatever.

A short while later, I hear my grandmother on the phone telling her buddy from the hair salon that I got the highest grade in the class on a test. I walk over and go "No I didn't, Jennifer did."

My grandmother says "No she didn't, you did."

"No, really, I got a 90-mumble. I didn't get the highest grade in the class."

My grandmother shrugs and says "But I like to think you did."

QED. Sometimes they just like to think something that's a total piece of bullshit. Revisionist history was the order of the day in my family, about everything. As a result, I am bluntly honest about just about everything-- I can't be any other way, because watching my mother and grandmother lie about everything without the slightest semblance of shame made me completely crazy.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:11 PM on September 22, 2008

I'm sorry you went through that, joaniemcchicken.

Thank you for asking this question...both because I'd wondered this myself (along with several folks close to me) and because you got some really amazingly helpful/insightful/confirmational answers.

For me, I'm another who has become paranoid about just up and losing my mind and purporting a reality that didn't actually happen. I write stuff down, now, to make sure. I try to lock down things I've done or that look as if they may have an effect by getting them recorded asap. Anything that seemed innocuous before and then pops up, I try to make note of that stuff, too.

I wish I could just not worry about it, but then I run the risk of potentially turning into my parents and their associates. Nuh-uh. I'd rather be freaked out and over-documented than relaxed and evil.

Anyway...around here, we subscribe to the cognitive dissonance thing, particularly in how it ties in with jessamyn's way of looking at it.

What really gets me is how many who have the same situation are able to identify with the situations and feelings here. Not that it shocks me by existing - one of the worst things about any kind of mistreatment is how prevalent it is.

It just pulls at an emotional core from when I was young and wanted to band together with the rest of the kids having a hard time and let them know we aren't alone and we'll one day be able to escape from the grown-ups...
posted by batmonkey at 12:37 AM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Slightly off subject.

For years I had told others the story of Dom Deluise having his driver pull his limo to the curb on Melrose Ave. so as to solicit sex from my friend Joe. When I say years I mean 10 plus and many times told, till once in a group I ask Joe to recount his experience and he looks at me with the wtf face. At that exact moment I realize my oft told story is false but have no idea how I came to it. I know Joe had not given me the idea for my tale, and that until then had never been present in it's retelling. I truly believed, I don't know why. Just my mind playing tricks with me.

To that I say, "Family everybody has them"
posted by pianomover at 12:45 AM on September 23, 2008

This was refreshing, thanks for asking. Sorry you and yours have those issues yourselves. I too have problems with the memories of family members, but I have little to do with them now.

But this "repression" thing, or "buried memories", if you will, is totally real. There was something from my childhood which I had totally "forgotten", until I was 25. Then it came back. First one chunk fell into place, then others followed.

Trouble is, I'm fairly sure there is a huge chunk still missing. Part of my certainty is simply that, if I try hard to examine my past, with a view to digging at something bad, I go crazy. Even telling this, here, is uncomfortable. So I'll shutup now.
posted by Goofyy at 11:35 AM on September 23, 2008

It's hardly a coincidence that you and your SO are both the children of narcissists with selective memory (or whatever you decide is the case), surely you saw commonalities in one another. So, even though your SO and all these responders are replying with similar experiences, I suspect the self-selection will make it seem like this is a more common experience than it really is.
posted by kristymcj at 12:43 PM on September 23, 2008

Response by poster: I wanted people to know that I have done extensive work in therapy about my childhood trauma in which this one story is truly the mildest of many. My mother and I have worked through a lot. She has bravely made herself available to hear my anguish, and we have a loving, adult relationship. My father spent 40 years being crazy and denying he was in any way at fault for the estrangement his children preferred. About 4 years ago, I got a call from his therapist. My father, at the age of 75, had been attending a Vietnam Vet's support group and had gotten on medication. This therapist brokered our reunion after ten years of silence. My father is who I remember before Vietnam. Gentle, loving, present, honorable. We have had long conversations where I have asked him about some of the violent acts he committed. He has never denied they happened, but has been able to listen with care and love and has been able to acknowledge that, even though he does not remember a particular incident, that does not mean it didn't happen. He accepts my memories and has been able to talk, without defensiveness, about why he was the way he was. He and I are trying to make up for the 40 years when he was lost to me (and the world) because of his war trauma. He is a good man, and I am very proud of his military service, but deeply saddened at the price he had to pay. The question about why people forget was to find a name or some answer that made sense, so, when it happened, I'd be able to understand it for MYSELF. I do hold myself to a very high, constant standard because of what has happened to me. I agree that I must learn to forgive myself and let go. I'm working on it. Strangely, having people be so kind and encourage me to go easier on myself has been very helpful. I think I needed to know that it was okay to feel more kindly about my errors.
posted by joaniemcchicken at 1:23 PM on September 23, 2008

If 25% of females in the USA ( 301,139,947 million population- July 2007 est.)are estimated to have survived sexual abuse in childhood and 15% of males, that would a lot of perpetrators not talking about what they did to children.

It is estimated that there are 60 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today.

official government statistics are only "the tip of the iceberg."
(excellent resource for adult survivors)
posted by nickyskye at 1:24 PM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

*oops, posted that without previewing.

Congratulations on your awesome recovery work joaniemcchicken.
posted by nickyskye at 1:26 PM on September 23, 2008

Yes, congratulations joaniemcchicken. That's really amazing.
posted by halonine at 3:20 PM on September 25, 2008

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