Revisiting the Scene of Trauma and Abuse

Q: Dear Dr. Ochberg, My therapist feels that it is not important to try to recall traumatic events, but rather to deal with the feelings that bother me now. However, I have felt haunted for years about the need to remember a specific house and the surrounding neighborhood where I lived during a traumatic time. I’ve gone as far as doing research on my own and calling complete strangers in the town in an attempt to get photographs of important places. I asked my therapist what she thought about exposure therapy and hypnosis in an attempt to help me remember, firmly believing that if I could revisit this place it would lose it’s power over my life. Revisiting the house in person is out of the question since it’s been demolished. I would love to know what Dr. Ochberg thinks about this.

A: Dear reader, There certainly are situations in which ghosts from the past can be confronted and overcome. Consider this marvelous example of three women who called themselves the Marvellas:

Twenty-five years have come and gone since Margie last visited the old man’s farm. She’s not sure she can even find the place. She’s not sure she wants to.

The 51-year-old Anchorage travel agent has made a lot of progress lately confronting her fears. But she still has trouble talking about what happened in the barn.

So fragmented are the memories. She remembers her Uncle George carrying her piggyback across the horse pasture, her bony legs, black patent-leather shoes and white-lace socks poking out from under his arms. She remembers staring up at the barn’s rafters, and how the hay scratched her skin. She remembers her ankles being strapped down, legs apart.

And then there’s the time she was tied by her wrists and hoisted. Did things like this happen a couple of times? Every visit? Why didn’t her aunt come looking for them? Did she not want to know?

Margie wants to remember more. No, she wants to forget. But she knows she has to go back there if she ever wants peace. And so she studies a local map.

Although Uncle George has been dead for more than 20 years, the courage to go through with this comes from two friends.

A year ago they were strangers – Vivian Dietz-Clark, 41; Ezraella “Ezzie” Bassera, 44; and Margie (to protect their own privacy, her children asked that the family name not be used). Now they call themselves sisters.

Their demons brought them together. Within the past few years, memories have surfaced, forcing them to deal with what had long been buried – the sexual abuse they’re convinced they experienced as children.

A tremendous amount of energy goes into locking things up inside, Ezzie’s therapist, Joan Bender, explained. It’s like sitting on a huge, bulging chest to keep it from popping open. Any added stress drains energy from that chore. The lid creaks open. Memories escape.

The three Anchorage women met in a support group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse offered by STAR (Standing Together Against Rape). And when that group ended, they continued to meet on their own.

The Marvellas, a combination of their first three names, is what they call themselves now that they’re a team. The melding of their identities is a metaphor for the journey they’ve taken on together.

That journey comes at a controversial time. Repressing memories has long been recognized by mental health experts as a way victims cope when events are too horrible to face. But more recently, some victims of childhood sexual abuse have been accused of concocting memories – and therapists of planting ideas in their heads.

To read the whole account, see This is the first news story to win the $10,000 Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence. It explains Margie’s voyage back in time and her success at accomplishing just what your writer desires: a visit to a place in order to cause that place to “lose its power over my life.” But was it Margie’s journey — or Margie’s bond to other women– that defeated her childhood demons? Perhaps it took many factors, including time, distance, death of the offender, maturity and a secure connection to others.

Therapists are not all in agreement when it comes to answering this month’s question. And even when we support the idea of revisiting the scene of trauma and abuse, we wouldn’t recommend it for everybody.

There are people who have vague, unclear images of abuse. They believe it must have happened, but they have no proof. Decades ago, Freudian psychoanalysts would have used hypnosis, free association, dream analysis and even sodium amytal to recover repressed memory. But most trauma experts are very cautious nowadays, knowing that there is no way to be sure that such memory is accurate, and fearing as well that horrifying images may make matters worse.

But if childhood abuse actually did occur and if a person has matured in a healthy way and if there is excellent support from true friends, a visit to the scene might be liberating. Think about veterans returning to battlefields (the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”). Think about trips by relatives of Hitler’s victims to Auschwitz or the Holocaust Museum. For some descendants and some survivors, these experiences are too painful too contemplate. For others, they are meaningful exercises in mastery and in the exorcism of evil.

I wouldn’t go back there alone. But with the right friends at the right time, I’d consider emulating the Marvellas.