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Making Meaning From Delayed Recall and Recovered Memory

I am certain my memories of childhood sexual abuse are true.

I did not remember my abuse until I was 37 years old. Even as a child, I had no conscious memory of the atrocities except for while they were occurring.

When discussing recovered memories like mine, the focus tends to be on their credibility. Since I no longer need to give my time and energy to determining the validity of my recollections, my attention has turned to examining the many ways delayed recall benefitted me.

Vacations help us maintain our emotional wellbeing, especially for those of us with extremely demanding jobs. There is no job as demanding as surviving an abusive childhood. Delayed recall for a child is like taking a vacation from the fear, horror, and shame of the abuse. As a little girl who was molested by both parents, delayed recall gave me a psychological vacation from the abuse.

Delayed recall enabled me to not only do well in school, but to also find comfort there. I was always aware that my parents were very critical and that they yelled a lot. In contrast, my teachers were kind and respectful. They complimented me when I worked hard. School was a haven for me; a calm place where things made sense.

Friendships have nourished me throughout my life. My social skills were well- honed in grade school. In school, I associated with high achievers. Many of my long-term friends have graduate degrees.

I had a Master’s degree in Social Work by the time I recalled my abuse. Two of my articles were published in professional journals. I was appointed by judges to do divorce custody and parenting time evaluations. I testified as a mental health expert on a regular basis. I now realize that the respect I received from judges and attorneys was one of the factors in enabling me to trust myself enough to remember what deep down inside I always knew.

I was making strides in becoming self-actualized. I read books on codependency, then took a class about it, and eventually joined a 12-step group for Adult Children of Alcoholics (neither of my parents were alcoholics but my mother acknowledged alcoholism on the part of her deceased father). I finally realized the problems in my first marriage were not all mine and I insisted on marriage counseling. I began finding ways to have fun, like acting at the community theater level. I started dressing in brighter colors and I quit choosing styles that hid my figure.

Remembering what happened to me as a child turned my world upside down. In no way do I want to minimize that fact. Still, I am thankful for my delayed recall. During my childhood, forgetting allowed me to fulfill my developmental tasks in tandem with my peers.

In college, I studied Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In his five tier model of human needs, Maslow suggests that you must fulfill the lower needs before it is possible to fulfill the higher ones. The lowest needs are physical, such as food, water, and shelter. The next level is safety and security. After that is belongingness and a sense of community. Then comes esteem needs which are associated with accomplishments. Lastly, according to Maslow, is the need to become self-actualized.

When I first learned about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it did not make sense to me. I argued with my college professor saying that starving people can become self-actualized. I now realize on a deeper level I was speaking for myself. My parents led a double life. In their upper middle class respectable existence my physical needs were met.The life that my mind kept hidden from me included food deprivation and torture.

For me, Maslow’s triangle was in a sense upside down. I began to meet my higher needs before having the solid foundation that enabled me to process what happened to me as a child. I had the skills and connections by then to enable me to find a sense of community and family that did not include my abusers. My professional accomplishments gave me the confidence to make it on my own.

My safety needs were the last of my needs to be satisfied, partly because I had been drawn to men who were untrustworthy like my father. I finally feel safe in my own home. Jerry and I married 10 years ago. We live in a house we can easily afford and the view from our deck fills me with joy daily. Creative activities, which are a form of self-actualization, absorb a large portion of my time.

Rather than an upside down or a right side up triangle, my process of remembering has been lines that are far from straight. I still have new memories occasionally. Some are brutal, even in the midst of my put-together life, so I take good care of myself. I have a pajama day, enjoy long baths, relax my body with yoga and massage, dance, journal, and hike alone or with my husband. And I think about the child I once was who did not have these opportunities. I don’t push myself to remember. I’m fine with unclear memories.

I don’t need all the details. The only memories I need are the ones that will help me or another person.

While I celebrate everyone’s path to recovery, I am glad mine included delayed recall. I don’t know how I would have survived my childhood without it, but it did more than save my life. Delayed recall gave me a life worth living.

- Mary Knight

Washington State native, Mary Knight, MSW, experienced various forms of incest. She was sexually abused by both of her parents, as well as by grandparents and uncles. Knight's current life is filled with safety, love, joy, and children. Happily married, she is a child advocate, a foster parent, and a grandmother. Her personal documentary, Am I Crazy? My journey to determine if my memories are true, and other films have been viewed over a million times on various channels, including on her own YouTube channel. She recently published a unique survivor memoir, with essays that range from heartwarming to brutal. Individual trigger warnings (TW) allow readers to practice self-care.

This essay is included in Mary Knight's memoir, My Life Now: Essays by a Child Sex Trafficking Survivor.

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