People may lie, Symptoms Don’t

I’ve been following the controversy surrounding Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow. Even though I have the limited information of the case that everyone else has who has been reading the opinions and articles has, there are some very clear facts that cause me to believe in Dylan’s reports. Mainly, her symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD.

People accuse rape victims of lying all the time. It’s an easy way out. Accuse the accuser, create doubt, and you can make sure there are no punitive actions. Add in society’s already prevalent “blame the victim” attitude, and the disturbing reality that most rapists don’t themselves believe their actions constituted rape, and you have an environment where the victim is put on trial more than the perpetrator.

Now false allegations do happen. But despite what rape apologists and deniers would like to believe, the actual percentage of allegations that turn out to be false is extrememly low, between 2% and 8%. Factor in the fact that 60% of rapes go unreported, and you see how really misguided it is to accuse the accuser.

But if that isn’t enough for you, if you still think the factors of celebrity and divorce still complicate the issue too much for such an easy conclusion of Dylan’s honesty, then let me point out that while, yes, people do lie, symptoms don’t. Dylan’s speak a truth.

**For those readers who may have histories of thier own, I am about to repost segments from Dylan’s own letter to the New York Times. I will try to put it into clinical perspective. For many you may find this helpful, but for others, you may find it triggering. You know yourselves best, continue or leave according to your own best judgement. **

Dylan describes the constant fear of their abuser children of sexual assault experience. “I didn’t like it when he would place his head in my naked lap and breathe in and breathe out. I would hide under beds or lock myself in the bathroom to avoid these encounters, but he always found me” She describes the terror his face still invokes, “Critics put him in magazines. Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.” She describes how she would escape her body during the abuse by focusing on objects in the world around her, objects which now also trigger the memories of the abuse. “I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.”

This fear and avoidance are characteristic of trauma. The actual event is one that is too overwhelming for the person. They must find an escape, any escape. Dissociation is not uncommon, and that is what Dylan reports doing. She couldn’t run, she couldn’t fight, so she left her body by focusing her awareness on her brother’s toy train. She did what she could to survive a violation from a man who was physically stronger than her and an authority in her house. The resulting scars were very distinct. Any reminder, whether it be the face of the man who attacked her, or the train her mind fled to in the actual rape, sends her into a panic.

But the scars don’t end there. “I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself.” The flight from her abuse was so severe, that any man’s touch triggered her horror. But on top of that, there was the cutting and the eating disorder. Today these problems are seen as worrisome teen fads. But the truth, for the people who are serious about harming themselves these ways, both cutting and eating disorders are desperate attempts to regain control of a life and world that for them is perpetually out of control. Cutting is done in response to overwhelming emotions. The physical damage causes endorphins to release while the actual experience of pain distracts the person from the uncontrollable emotion. Eating disorders are fundamentally about control; they can’t control anything else in their life, but they can control their body, down to the point of dangerously denying themselves the otherwise instinctual and self preserving need to eat.

But what if she is making up and lying about  her symptoms? Or what if her mother just put the idea of the abuse in her head, and the symptoms came from that?

Again, symptoms don’t lie.

With PTSD, the fear and anxiety are visceral. They aren’t remembered as a horror in the past, like one would if they were recalling a scary movie. Normal memories start in the short term “now” memory, get processed, small details get discarded, and finally get stored in the long term memory. With trauma, the event is too overwhelming to be properly processed. Because of this, the memory actually stays in the short term storage area. Every little detail, down to the bodily sensations felt, are still there. Every smell, every sound, and every pain inside and out, are sitting in the short term memory, and when the memory is triggered, it is all perceived as still occurring in the moment. The physical, bodily nature of these symptoms make them near impossible to realistically fake.

And if her mother had somehow put these ideas in her head (the letter addresses this and reports the opposite), the symptoms would be different as well. When a person is made to believe something that did not happen happened, the memory is stored differently. Because the event did not actually occur, it did not spend any time in the short term memory, and could not get trapped there in the visceral manner of a real traumatic memory. Such a form of gaslighting could cause one to develop the secondary symptoms of the cutting and eating disorder, because gaslighting makes a person call into doubt their own experience of the world, and is traumatic on its own. But when it comes to the memories imposed, they will lack that visceral element, because there was no touch or smell to experience. There will be no flashback, because there is no actually memory trapped in the short term buffer to re-experience.  In short, you can’t react the same way to a memory that isn’t really there.

We are very quick in this culture to decide the guilt or innocence of an individual. All to often, though, when it comes to sexual assault, the person we rush to judgement about is the victim of the crime. But if the studies and the statistics on the reality of allegations are not enough to convince you, take a moment to listen to what they have experienced since their attack. Watch the terror in their eyes as they re-experience the crime, listen to how their breathing changes as they struggle to hold off the panic, and note how they disappear from the moment as the past reasserts itself into his or her life. You will know the truth, because their symptoms won’t lie.

Then notice the monster you have become by forcing them to go through that horror once again.

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2 thoughts on “People may lie, Symptoms Don’t

  1. Lydia

    My therapists never really seem too concerned over whether their questioning was causing me distress or not. I was really interested when I read the last sentence.

    Then notice the monster you have become by allowing this horror to occur to yourself.

    That is the “him” in me talking.
    But his voice grows smaller the stronger and healthier I get.

    I was small.
    I was helpless.
    I was forced.
    I was threatened.

    Then notice the beauty you are becoming by just being as you are alive at this moment.

    • When it comes to working with trauma in therapy, there is a very difficult balance to maintain between allowing the person to feel just enough distress to properly process the memory and and not letting the person become overwhelmed. I can’t speak to how your therapist worked with you, and I don’t know the path to healing you have taken, but it takes a lot of strength to make the progress you have.

      But I also wanted clarify that when wrote that last sentence, it was motivated by the way people often try to force the survivor to relive the trauma in non-clinical environments just to prove they were, in fact, traumatized. As I was writing the piece, I realized, near the end, that someone could use what I wrote as a justification to grill a survivor and try to prove they were lying because they didn’t act as traumatized as they think they should. The last line was thrown in (somewhat awkwardly) to try to answer that fear, because it is monstrous what society does to survivors.

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