For a graduate research project at Harvard in the mid-1990s, the psychologist Susan A. Clancy arranged to interview adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, expecting to confirm the conventional wisdom that the more traumatic the abuse had been, the more troubled an adult the child had become.
Dr. Clancy figured she knew what she would find: “Everything I knew dictated that the abuse should be a horrible experience, that the child should be traumatized at the time it was happening — overwhelmed with fear, shock, horror.”
But many carefully documented interviews revealed nothing of the sort. Commonly, the abuse had been confusing for the child but not traumatic in the usual sense of the word. Only when the child grew old enough to understand exactly what had happened — sometimes many years later — did the fear, shock and horror begin. And only at that point did the experience become traumatic and begin its well-known destructive process.
Dr. Clancy questioned her findings, reconfirmed them and was convinced. . . .
[H]er model that may really help victims. Adult survivors of childhood abuse are commonly mortified by their own behavior as children. By not fighting back or calling for help, they blame themselves for effectively colluding with their abuser. It can be intensely comforting for them to hear that their reaction, or lack thereof, was completely normal.
Dr. Clancy’s model also makes some sense of the whole sticky question of repressed memory. Most traumatic events are likely to be vividly remembered. But if instances of sexual abuse are simply among the many confusions that characterize childhood, they are perfectly forgettable: “Why should a child remember them if, at the time they happened, they were not particularly traumatic?” Only when reprocessed and fully understood do the memories leap into focus.
The empirical data have been unsettling to those who assumed as she did initially, the child sexual abuse was primarily harmful at the time that it happened, and provoked widespread criticism that contradicts the evidence.