(This post draws upon the article “The Missing Piece” by Shirley Vanderbilt and the book The Obsidian Mirror by Louise Wisechild).

Abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse, contributes significantly to body memories due to its physical nature and the fact that perpetrators are frequently family members the child is supposed to trust. Sexual abuse is by nature physical; it involves an adult taking a child’s body, a child that cannot understand and thus cannot consent to this activity. These events are both physically and emotionally painful for the victim, and the two become tied up in one another in the form of body memories. For example, if someone grabs a survivor’s shoulder in a similar way her abuser did to force her into sexual activity, that grab could elicit flashbacks in the survivor, where she reexperiences the abuse and the emotions she expeienced at the time. The physical nature of the abuse makes the victim/survivor especially suseptible to to these body memories. Additionally, when children experience abuse, the perpetrators are most often family members; few other adults have as much opportunity to take advantage of a child’s trust and vulnerability. The betrayal of a family relationship is something much more fundamental that the betrayal of a friend or a stranger; these are the people the child is told to trust, to listen to, to count on to take care of them. When abuse shatters the sanctity of that relationship, it cuts much deeper that other forms of abuse. This betrayal of such a fundamental relationship built on trust leaves a victim all the more open to forming body memories that remind them of their experiences, almost as a warning not to trust others the same way again.

Survivors of assault experience significant shame due to the way these memories manifest themselves in their bodies. Physical and sexual abuse changes the way we relate to our bodies, and thus our physical reactions may not be “normal” by society’s standards, resulting in internalized shame. For example, some survivors find it difficult to be sexually intimate with their partners, especially when they are not the initiators of such contact. This difficulty can directly lead to body shame, as the survivors feel like there is something wrong with them for not feeling a particular way about their partners. They may believe that something is permanently wrong with their body and may feel like inadequate partners due to their body’s “incorrect” response. On the other extreme, some survivors engage in extremely promiscuous behavior, almost as a way to try and demonstrate some control over their bodies. This still may result in significant body shame, as these individuals may still feel used and may internalize societal judgement and shaming as a response to their promiscuity. The disconnect between body and mind that abuse creates can create body shame in a number of forms, and it can take significant work for survivors to rebuild that connection.

As an example of this phenomenon, we can consider Louise Wisechild, who detailed her abuse and recovery process in the book The Obsidian Mirror. Louise experienced sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather, her uncle, and her stepfather, and thus faced significant trauma that manifested itself in body memories. The extreme physical nature of this abuse left her vulnerable to the formation of body memories which, when triggered, brought her back to these appalling events. Throughout her recovery process she experienced significant shame and disconnect from her body. She found it difficult to be sexually intimate with her longterm girlfriend unless she herself initiated activity and faced difficulty relating to her body, unable to really feel herself interacting with the world. When combined with the emotional abuse she experienced at the hands of her mother, which manifested itself in a harsh internal critic named Sarah that picked apart her every fault, Louise was vulnerable to intense body shame. Just like many victims and survivors of abuse, the physicality of what she experienced robbed her of her connection to her body, resulting in shame about the ways in which she was “wrong” or “broken” or unable to perform adequately as a girlfrield. Over time, she was able to confront this shame and her body memories through both therapy and body work in the form of massage. This recovery process took years, however, demonstrating just how deeply physical and sexual abuse can affect survivors.

 

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