Help me understand the psychology of abuse survivors
October 10, 2017 8:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a sci-fi/fantasy novel in which one of the characters has survived a childhood of systematic sexual abuse. I'd like to understand the psychological effects of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, on survivors, and different ways in which people react to and overcome that history. (Or fail to overcome it, as the case may be.)

I am an abuse survivor myself, but my trauma was nowhere close to what this character has gone through, and it wasn't sexual abuse. I want to do the best I can to make the character's reactions and motivations feel authentic.

What are things people wrongly assume about sexual abuse survivors? What personality traits or coping mechanisms allow someone to survive those experiences? What do survivors tend to have in common? For those who survive terrible trauma and go on to do great things, what is it within them that makes that possible?

Books or articles on the subject would be very helpful. I've looked a bit on forums like, but the accounts there tend to be more about self-expression and community rather than psychology or analysis.
posted by crookedgrin to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman is an excellent overview
posted by CarolynG at 9:37 PM on October 10

I recently read Rani Patel in Full Effect, which was written by a Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist. Over the course of the novel, Rani experiences many common mental health and behavioral symptoms of CSA. There is an afterword where the author explains how trauma commonly effects growing teens and how some of Rani's actions were linked to the ways that trauma survivors process things.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:54 PM on October 10

You should read The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, and
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
by Bessel van der Kolk.
posted by spindrifter at 12:36 AM on October 11

DBT is a skills based therapy often recommended for survivors of trauma, and peer reviewed studies lf many groups show it to be effective. I suggest looking into it to get an idea of the skills that might be lacking and the reactions that might be Common. Keep in mind there is no "one" psychology of survivors.

Also please remember that generally speaking, the maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors expressed by victims/survivors were likely at some point adaptive/helpful in heir abusive situations.
posted by bilabial at 7:05 AM on October 11 [4 favorites]

I am a survivor but can only speak to my own experiences. An important factor that you could perhaps clarify is the identity of the abuser and what the character's home life is like.

Here are some misconceptions that come to mind:
-Not all abuse victims blame themselves for or feel complicit in the abuse. This is a common trope but was not my experience. That said, my abuser certainly tried to make me feel complicit.
-Abusers are often portrayed as creepy loners, but of course they are more often "normal" members of society who are adept at concealing abuse.
-An abuser who targets young people may also assault / push boundaries with adults.
-It's pretty much impossible to identify an abuse victim from behavior or psychological distress. If you're a kid, the abuse is normal and coping mechanisms are not necessarily easy to spot.

I think your question "What is it within them that makes that possible?" is a bit wrongheaded. People are resilient through this kind of trauma the same way people weather anything - childhood poverty, disease, war, other kinds of abuse. Human beings want to be happy and are good at compartmentalizing, and adults are capable of (painfully, partially) unlearning the maladaptive lessons of childhood.

That said, the reason I asked about the home life / background of your character is that I think this is huge. I grew up upper middle-class in a stable, if dysfunctional, family. I grew up believing in my own self-worth. I felt safe disclosing my abuse (many survivors never do). I had access to therapy when I needed it. Whatever personal well of resilience I drew from (and it was definitely there), my privilege helped me access it.

This is not to say that folks from other background aren't just as capable of thriving, or that my emotionally closed-off middle-class upbringing didn't add to my problems, but I still feel very lucky.

Feel free to memail me if you have any further questions.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:45 AM on October 11 [3 favorites]

You may find reading about Complex PTSD of interest. For example: Pete Walker - articles and links.
posted by Coaticass at 1:08 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Survivors are more often than not assumed to and in addition be blamed for, through the uninformed perception of nonsurvivors, having acquired traits of survival and self protection, and be further demoralized by labels suggesting narcisstic , paranoia/schizoid, borderline, histrionic and anti-social personality disorders, victim complexes, addictions, and overwhelming negative traits of character and intent.
It is inconceivable to nonsurvivors of extreme/prolonged abuse during critical development periods, that an individual may reach adulthood having never experienced unconditional love, acceptance, security, or trust and most notably, the long term effects of developing/growing up inside a world that was entirely seperate from reality through the psychological effects of gaslighting which made the abuse possible. They do not understand that the point in which the survivor broke free from the abusers mind control and psysical control, was only the point in which they began to learn how to self-regulate and be in control of their own mind, feelings and body.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:02 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

In addition: Survivors will spend a lifetime playing "catchup" to their nonsurvivor peers emotionally and mentally and will expend a considerable amount of personal resources on managing "triggers" so that they may exist as baseline functional members of society.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:09 PM on October 11 [3 favorites]

They will be further systematically oppressed for the remainder of their lives for any and all personal failures to adequately adapt and cope as adults and will likely always be seen by those who don't understand as any or all of the above, while conversely, being shunned for "attention seeking behavior" to others with whom they attempt to relay an understanding to, or an "excuse", for trying to better themselves or re-learn normal ways of behaving/thinking/feeling in any way whatsoever: meaning it's more often than not lose/lose in any interpersonal relationship from there on out, because, Well, "we should know better. " Yes indeed we should, and certainly we'd like to, but systematic shame and blame placed solely on the surviors shoulders is a difficult lifetime weight to bear.
posted by OnefortheLast at 2:24 PM on October 11 [1 favorite]

Another thing to explore, if the abuser(s) has/have died, is "complicated grief." The death of an abuser can be re-traumatizing for some survivors.
posted by bilabial at 2:40 PM on October 11

I'm answering your question late because I think I could write a book about it.

What are things people wrongly assume about sexual abuse survivors? Canada, 15% of women and 5% of men report that they are survivors of CSA and 1/3 of Canadians report that they are survivors of some form of child abuse. There are definitely changes that occur when children are traumatized - I recommend this TED talk for the idea of adverse childhood experiences and their impact on long-term health. And some of the books recommended are good ones.

However I think what people most wrongly assume about sexual abuse survivors is that they are a type, or that you can identify them externally. There are definitely common things that survivors struggle with, particularly those who seek treatment.

I feel like inherent in your question there is an implication that survivors of abuse are some kind of Other. And after decades of being both on my own survivor journey and having spent a lot of time in survivor communities on and off line (which is where those seeking support end up, so it's a particular slice) I have to say...would you have asked this question about people with depression, or cancer, or poverty? Or would you have assumed that because they are holistic beings that each hero's journey for those groups of people would be unique and what makes someone a Terry Fox is not something you can find in reading up on bone cancer, or the effects of chemotherapy?

The biochemical and psychological challenges of abuse are not what defines a person, they are obstacles (and sometimes strengths) for unique human individuals on their unique human paths. One third of people, in fact. While OnefortheLast has a point that there can be an uphill battle, really survivors are very unique individuals.

I'll just toss in here that one of most externally -- as in 1%, top-of-profession -- successful abuse survivors I know accomplished that by forgetting everything in hir life before the age of 16. This is appallingly against all the recommended way to handle CSA and yet there it is.

What personality traits or coping mechanisms allow someone to survive those experiences?
While suicide rates can be higher for people who have experienced abuse, the vast majority of people do survive. Human beings are wired to learn in particular ways and to forget in others (see also: childbirth.) Some people survive by learning helplessness and getting really good at getting other people to help them. Some people survive by over-achieving.

The average abuse survivor (whoever that is) has learned a lot of things about the world due to being abused (lack of trust, boundaries, etc.) and has probably also learned to cope or hide things about themselves because a lot of it's just not socially acceptable, but treating survivors as a homogeneous group is a bit negating of other parts of their lives as toastedcheese mentioned above, as well as not recognizing that people are very individual.

For those who survive terrible trauma and go on to do great things, what is it within them that makes that possible?
This is the question that makes me want to write a book with a fairly angry foreword. Even though I actually have contradictory responses to it.

So the first round of response basically goes like...why would the question of heroism be any different for abuse survivors than anyone else (how do members of oppressed minorities/poor people/women/kidney transplant patients)? Are you assuming that it is somehow harder for them to accomplish great things?*

I don't think this is really that much different for abuse survivors than anyone else. I am having some trouble explaining why this is troubling to me but I hope you can see that it's kind of like asking could a person suffering from anxiety, or from an attachment disorder possibly ever be heroic? Well why not, doesn't that describe a good chunk of heroes ("a hero walks alone...") and reluctant heroes? Survivors are people first and foremost.

For my second round of response...I might at some points argue that if you are talking about stereotypical Great Things that involve self-sacrifice or supremely focused willpower, that abuse survivors may be primed for those things because they learned as children that their survival depended on subsuming their own need/pain/fear in order to pleasure the adults around them and so they developed those skills. Unfortunately applying them is not always appropriate when not in Epic Heroic situations.

That belief -- that abuse separates survivors from the rest of humanity, or that our strengths are somehow rooted in our abuse, whether having to be extra-special to overcome it or mired in it -- can really negate survivors' personhood, strengths and weaknesses, needs and desires, etc. When I read your question I had a very visceral reaction which went like this: oh no, not another Strong Traumatized Character.

So I would ask you to think about what your real purpose is in trying to marry survivor psychology to heroic acts and abilities. Are you creating a more nuanced character, or a less nuanced one? Are you using an abuse background to portray a "more heroic to go from zero to ten, than from nine to ten" situation?'s a bit painful for this thing to be the go-to bad background for writers much of the time.

* I might argue it's harder for them to accomplish non-great things like a low-drama relationship but...even there I'm not sure. So many people, so many paths.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:07 AM on October 12 [4 favorites]

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