My sister Alice died in April of 2011 at the age of 51.
The Report of Autopsy Examination of the Office of the Shelby County (Tennessee) Medical Examiner listed cardiomegaly (enlarged heart) as the “Cause of Death” and, in addition, pulmonary congestion and edema, hepatic steatosis (fatty liver), and a history of multiple sclerosis as a part of its “Pathological Diagnosis.”
But was Alice’s tragically early death connected with my sister having been sexually abused by our father during her childhood?
In this post and a series of upcoming posts I’ll give my reasons for why I think the probability is high that the answer to this question is yes.
The catalyst, by the way, for this post and the upcoming related posts was the publication of a piece of creative non-fiction—”Tornado,” powerfully and eloquently written by my niece Feagin Jones—in the July issue of “Hippocampus Magazine.”
Feagin’s piece—a personal essay or a brief memoir depending on how you look at it—focuses, among other things, on her relationship with Alice—her mother—and on Alice’s various tribulations in life, which included periods of deep depression and addiction to cocaine. Alice’s health had also, by the time of her death, long suffered from the effects of other serious ailments and conditions including alcohol abuse, smoking, obesity, and, as noted above, multiple sclerosis.
As I read the piece again, on the “Hippocampus” website (Feagin had previously sent me a draft version), I found myself once more being filled with the feeling, as I’ve often been previously, that the origins of much of the darkness and suffering my sister experienced as an adult could quite possibly have lain in our father’s having sexually abused Alice as a child.
Alice told me on at least two or three occasions—the last occurring during a visit I made to Memphis, Tennessee, where she was living at the time, in late March and early April of 2011, several weeks before her death—that, although she had memories of having been emotionally—verbally—abused by our father, she had no memories of having been sexually abused.
Nonetheless, I remain convinced of the strong possibility of my sister having been sexually abused by our father.
Forgetting severely traumatic events, such as being sexually abused as a child by one’s parent, is a by no means unusual occurrence. (For footnoted references to this phenomenon, see, for example, Blind to Betrayal by Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell, professors of psychology at the University of Oregon: “Sometimes [sexual assault] victims forget all or part of their assault experience. . . . Rates of forgetting were higher for certain interpersonal victimization experiences (such as childhood abuse and completed rape) and lower for other noninterpersonal traumas (such as motor vehicle accidents). Forgetting is apparently more likely in cases involving a betrayal trauma, such as when the victim trusted, was very close to, and/or was dependent on the perpetrator.”)
(Of course, the opposite of forgetting can occur, as well—intrusive memories, or flashbacks, of traumatic events—for trauma survivors who never forget their traumatic experiences or who later recover their memories after a period of forgetting. However, in light of the abundant academic literature documenting the commonness of suppression of memories of trauma, the use sometimes made of the occurrence this opposite phenomenon—of intrusive memories—in an effort to undermine the validity of the idea that memories of trauma can be suppressed, and to insist upon some sort of either-or choice between these two phenomena, can seem quite baffling unless one considers the possibility that the person so insisting may have had their views on this matter skewed, to detrimental effect, by some sort of personal agenda whose legitimacy depends upon such a choice.)
In addition, research supports the existence of a strong link between childhood trauma and significantly greater probabilities of substantially reduced longevity. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which I discussed in a previous blog post, involved a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente’s Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego. The study, which involved over 17,000 participants, showed—according to one article, titled “Can Childhood Trauma Shorten Your Life?” and based on an interview of Dr. Vincent Felitti, the study’s co-principle investigator working at Kaiser Permanente—a very strong connection between the degree of highly adverse experiences, including sexual abuse, that a person suffers during childhood and a person’s chances of developing:
various “coping mechanisms to reduce chronic major stress that are recognized as deleterious to health, such as smoking, drinking and drug use”;
various serious diseases as an adult—including heart disease, which, as noted, my sister’s autopsy indicated she’d been suffering from—independent of other risk factors, such as the just-mentioned coping mechanisms, for these diseases.
(The same article cites a previous article by Dr. Felitti as follows:
‘The study makes it clear that time does not heal some of the adverse experiences we found so common in the childhoods of a large population of middle-aged, middle-class Americans,’ Felitti wrote in his 2002 article, ‘The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Health: Turning Gold Into Lead.’
‘One does not ‘just get over’ some things, not even 50 years later.’
And here are two links to YouTube videos—a long and a short version—of one of Dr. Felitti’s presentations on this subject:
More to follow in upcoming posts.
(Note: The entire contents of this post and the upcoming 3 connected posts – outside of a few for the most part minor changes and additions – can be found in a single very long post I posted on July 19th of this year . I’m re-posting that longer post’s contents again, as a 4-post series, to make them more easily digestible, and also since, now that I’ve started using Twitter and can post tweets linked to this blog’s posts, the contents of that longer post are among the most important of this blog’s posts to me personally and, I believe, the most potentially useful to others. If you want to read everything at once and together, click/tap here to view the July 19th post.)