Denial of the Effects of Trauma Disorder (DETD) is endemic

The other night, as I watched the CBC News TV interview with Dr. John Bradford, the renowned forensic psychiatrist who has worked on some of the most horrific murders involving “sex” as a weapon in Canada and the UK (including the Paul Bernardo/Karla Homolka and Russell Williams cases), I was reminded once again of how endemic Denial of the Effects of Trauma Disorder (DETD) is in our world.

In the interview, Dr. Bradford said that up until 2009 when he began suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder while working on the Russell William’s case, he did not believe the condition was real. I respect Dr. Bradford for having the courage to speak up. His is an important voice in the efforts to heal society from Denial of the Effects of Trauma Disorder (DETD).

The fact that until a few years ago one of the top psychiatrists in this country did not believe trauma causes severe physiological injuries to the brain that result in devastating symptoms — from depression to anxiety, psychosis, suicide and much more — despite the decades of research proving otherwise — speaks less about him than it does about the health of the psychiatric community as a whole. If there is one area that frontline doctors and psychiatrists seem stubbornly ill-informed about, it is trauma and abuse and its effects on the brain.

Heck, even the PTSD psychiatric diagnosis, which puts together some of the symptoms of the pain and agony caused by the physiological injuries of psychological trauma on the brain and calls it a “disorder” reveals much about the extent of DETD within psychiatry. It really is like taking a patient with a broken leg bone, writing down the primary symptoms and labeling it Post Physical Trauma Disorder, with the swelling, pain and limping being the primary indicators of the disorder (not the broken bone, which would typically be left untreated as if the pain and swelling were disordered reactions to physical trauma). Patients who self-medicate with non-prescription pain killers and who become exhausted and depressed due to the pain and disability can be diagnosed with having biologically caused co-morbid conditions such as addiction and depression.

When I heard Dr. Bradford say he hadn’t believed PTSD existed, I thought of the millions of people who suffer the consequences of DETD being so common among medical and psychiatric professionals. Too many people suffer without any access to therapy that treats the actual injury. Too many die, whether through suicide or complications of the injuries, including many serious physical illnesses. Certainly, even in Canada and many developed nations, the majority of survivors of psychological trauma lack the resources and funds to seek out specialized trauma therapy because we have two-tier mental healthcare systems. Governments and policy makers clearly also suffer from DETD, as they are so  blind to the cost of untreated psychological trauma in human, social and economic terms that they fail to realize investing in publically funded psychological trauma therapy and support would in the long-term result in significant savings.

Also, if a forensic psychiatrist working on major cases did not believe trauma can injure the brain, it means it’s likely the history of childhood abuse and neglect common among serial murderers is being ignored at very high levels in our legal and prison systems. And that means the opportunity is being missed to improve our understanding of when and how interventions early on could potentially prevent such children from ever becoming so mentally damaged and disfigured by the injuries as to commit such crimes.

I will write more about the link between abuse and crime another day, but for now, I’m deeply concerned how widespread Denial of the Effects of Trauma Disorder (DETD) is in our society and call upon politicians, psychiatrists and healthcare providers, workers in the legal and prison systems and pretty much every group in our society to take that first step necessary for healing: accepting there is a problem. And that problem is DETD.

What the Woody Allen case can teach us to help fight sexual abuse in families

Way too much of the response from the court of columnist and media opinion to Dylan Farrow’s letter on being sexually abused by her father, Woody Allen, illustrates why sexual abusers who prey on children in their own families remain empowered and their crimes hidden. Meanwhile, the victim — in this case Dylan — and their protectors — in this case Mia — are lynched by the mob denial mentality. Abusers don’t just groom and manipulate their victims. They do the same with possible witnesses and protectors and bystanders, including other family members, friends and neighbours and ultimately, the public — and in the case of celebrities, the media.

If you want to understand how this happens so you can play a part in raising the awareness needed to end abuse of children by family members and protect today and tomorrow’s victims, please read on. Warning, it’s a long read.

We’ve come a long way from the time when most people believed sexual abusers were exclusively strange, dirty old, unemployed and dysfunctional men who kidnapped children to abuse them. That belief used to empower coaches, priests, doctors, teachers and other middle and upper class predators to repeatedly sexually abuse children, decade after decade, by rendering their crime and criminality invisible. Even when the abuse was witnessed, the abusers were able to exploit the denial, minimize the abuse, and turn their shame into the witnesses’ shame, who then reacted by taking charge of hiding the crime for the abuser and lashing out to silence those who wanted to speak up. That denial is fading. But it remains entrenched when it comes to sexual abuse by parents, particularly within middle and upper class families.

Tragically, the statistics are very clear: most sexual abuse occurs within families, often by the father or mother. And these abusers are no different from those who prey on other people’s children in that they come from every social class and profession and can easily hide behind a façade of respectability and charm. Let me give you an example of how this denial plays out in the court of columnist and media opinion. In his column on Dylan’s letter, the National Post’s Jonathan Kay wrote, “Until relatively recently — the 1970s or so — many families had ‘funny uncles’ whose presence was tolerated, despite the creepy sexual things he’d said or done in the past.”

The “creepy old stranger” myth from the past has simply been replaced with the “creepy, funny uncle,” ignoring the 40 years of research that points to parental sexual abuse being tragically common. This in a column specifically discussing allegations of abuse of a young child by her father.

Avoidance of facts is the foundation of denial of sexual abuse. For example, on Nov. 11, 2011, Kay wrote: “Gerald ‘Jerry’ Sandusky has not been convicted of any crime. The 23-page Investigating Grand Jury report recommending criminal charges against the former Penn State football coach should be taken as a catalog of allegations, not crimes. Yet even those allegations of pedophilic sex abuse against boys, and the snippets of reported testimony set among them, betray some interesting lessons.”

Compare this to Feb. 7, 2014 when he wrote “his best hunch” was that Allen didn’t do it. From this same ill-informed hunch, he suggested Mia Farrow was likely guilty of abuse by falsely accusing Allen. The strongest evidence he provided was a Yale New Haven Hospital report conducted by two social workers with staggering unprofessionalism that was influenced by Allen and failed to even interview witnesses. That report was dismissed for these reasons in 1993 by Justice Elliott Wilk in the Farrow/Allen custody trial.

In the Sandusky case, Kay read the 23-page investigative report and discussed specific details. For his column on the Allen case, he seems to not have bothered to read Judge Wilk’s 33-page custody ruling. If he had, he would have realized that, although Allen has not been convicted of a crime, the allegations of pedophilic sex abuse against him, the snippets of reported testimony set among them, betray some interesting lessons.

“If Sandusky is convicted, everyone will say: ‘We missed all the warning signs.’ And they will be right,” wrote Kay in 2011. (As an aside, the idea lessons can only be taken from cases with convictions is chilling because the vast majority of sexual abusers never face trial let alone conviction, especially in abuse by a family member of a young child. It’s incredibly difficult to prove because it is such a well-hidden crime. There are very few cases with irrefutable evidence such as Ashley N. Jessup, who in 2012 was charged with abuse after she videotaped herself performing oral sex on her 10-month old son while placing his hands on her genitals. Had she not made that video tape, she could as most do have gotten away with abusing him through infancy, and the only evidence would have been in her son suffering from the devastating and lifelong mental and eventually physical health symptoms that afflict victims. We need to learn the warning signs to save children from abuse because protecting children should be our prioritiy.)

Today we know a lot more about sexual abuse than in 1993, including many common warning signs. Some of these can be found in the 1993 Allen/Farrow custody judge’s ruling. They include Mia Farrow’s concerns going back to 1987, long before there were any problems in her relationship with Allen, about the sexual way in which Allen treated then two-year-old Dylan, including fondling her, having “play time” with her in bed in his underwear, wrapping his body around her and having her suck his thumb. She complained to Allen that he looked at Dylan sexually when she was naked. All this points to covert sexual abuse. In another classic warning signal, his relationship with Dylan was obsessive, putting intense demands on her time and attention, often separating her from her siblings to spend time with him. This was supported by three other witnesses, including a psychologist. In fact, the concern over Allen’s behaviour with Dylan reached such a degree that efforts were made to ensure he was never left alone with her. As well, Allen began seeing Dylan’s child psychologist to address his behaviour.

Again, all this took place long before his so-called “affair” with Soon-Yi.

To this day, many family members who see the warning signs of sexual abuse prefer not to believe their eyes. They look away in denial and shame. The slightest justification to minimize or excuse quickly helps the witness feel relief from the horror and consequences of what they have seen. So the abuse continues. Sometimes they blame the victim. This attitude was reflected in the court of columnist and media opinion, not only in the avoidance of looking at the facts, but also in every comment on the “inappropriateness” and “unpleasantness” or “disgracefulness” of Dylan’s letter being published and reviving an old issue that should be a “private family matter.” This is sexual abuse, folks. It’s a crime, not a family issue. And shaming those who speak about it is despicable behaviour that further harms the victim, often triggering them relive the abuse.

Sometimes, if a child victim is very lucky, a family member will put their instincts to protect them above the pull of denial and avoidance. Despite the limitations of societal knowledge and awareness at the time, Mia was such a mother. She tried speaking to Allen about her concerns, mitigating the risk by trying to never leave Dylan alone with him and seeking help from a psychologist.

Then came the Soon-Yi crisis. Mia’s first instinct was that Allen had sexually abused Soon-Yi. Pretty understandable reaction. Allen would later attempt to discredit Mia by saying she had been suicidal and had given him the infamous Valentine’s card, which in actuality is an incredibly accurate depiction of what a sexual abuser does to a family. In contrast, sexual abusers remain calm and composed, appearing rational and balanced. One of the most powerful tools sexual abusers have for manipulation is shaming normal reactions of horror, anguish and anger to sexual abuse. They use this on their victims — and others. “Normal” from the abuser’s perspective is calm, controlled denial.

Despite Allen claiming he and Mia were in the midst of an acrimonious custody battle when he was accused of abusing Dylan, this was not the case. Mia’s fears Allen had sexually abused Soon-Yi seemed to have died down. Between February 1992 and August 1992, Mia continued to allow Allen in her home to see their children. The only custody discussion going on between them was that Mia wanted to continue ensuring Allen’s visits with Dylan were supervised.

In fact, in 1992, Allen and Mia took the children together to stay at a friend’s house. Mia went out shopping with the friend. The friend’s babysitter, Alison Strickland, walked in and saw Dylan was sitting on the sofa with Allen kneeling in front of her with his head on her lap facing her body, according to the judge’s report. Dylan was staring vacantly in the direction of a television. Later, it was discovered she was not wearing underwear. “Alison came to me and said there was something I should know, she said it was the kind of situation where if she had walked in on grown-ups she would have said ‘sorry’ — then she realised there was a very small child involved and she was horrified,” Casey Pascal, the friend Allen and Mia were visiting, told the Daily Mail recently.

The “vacant staring” points to the most common coping mechanism found among sexual abuse victims: dissociation, the escape for the child where there is no escape. The child simply disconnects from their body and reality. Thanks to neuroscience we now know that dissociation results in a disruption of normal brain function and communication between the different regions of the brain. This can last throughout that child’s life, leading to the mental health issues survivors struggle with. The description of what the babysitter saw is deeply disturbing and haunting, a snapshot of Dylan’s brain being injured as she’s being sexually abused.

Notice the babysitter’s first reaction. She left without saying a word. Had she witnessed the child being beaten over the head with a bat, she might have screamed and intervened. Still, the babysitter had more courage than many and told Pascal, who then told Mia, who then had the courage to ask her child about it. It was then that Dylan told her mother Allen had inserted a finger in her vagina while in the attic. Mia took her daughter to a pediatrician, who then informed the police, as required by law.

There is no wrath like the wrath of a familial sexual abuser caught. They jump into action with their well-honed manipulation skills. Vindictive isn’t a strong enough word for what some are capable of. Seven days after Mia took Dylan to the doctor, Allen retaliated with a custody suit. He then turned to the court of columnist and media opinion, lashing out to destroy Mia’s reputation by depicting her as a “jealous, vindictive lover,” directing people away from the abuse of a seven-year-old to his “affair” with Soon-Yi. He suggested Mia was crazy, an unfit mother who “collected” children, implied Dylan had psychological issues. He even once said in an interview that Soon-Yi thought it was in character for Dylan to lie, though he himself did not believe this was the case. Throw the character smear on a seven-year old out there but put it in the lips of the sister, and disagree so you come out looking the nicer one, eh Woody? Clever. Disgusting. Among Judge Wilk’s criticisms of Allen’s parenting was the fact he pitted one child against the other.

The court of columnist and media opinion lapped it all up and does so to this day. It doesn’t matter that Judge Wilk’s ruling included a scathing assessment of Allen’s parenting. The Judge’s assessment was not based on minor parenting ills. This was serious stuff. It doesn’t matter that there was plenty of evidence of sexual abuse. The court of columnist and media opinion is fixated on whether or not vaginal penetration took place, which is the only piece in the case that remained in question, mostly because the prosecutor dropped the charges when he realized Dylan was too traumatized to continue. Her healing was more important. Sexual abuse is not limited to penetration, just as sexual assault is not just about rape. The psychological injuries that lead to such things as self-harming, eating disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, all of which Dylan has suffered from, occur with covert sexual abuse and certainly with any form of oral sexual abuse on the child.

This same reaction and scenario is played out over and over again when a familial sexual abuser is confronted. With the abuser pulling the strings of the duped, logical minds start to get loopy. Suddenly, a “false” accusation and a “destroyed” reputation are, as Scott Foundas, Chief Film Critic for Variety, put it, doubly worse than if the abuse had taken place. Really?! Regardless of guilt, Allen seems to have done quite fine these last two decades compared to Dylan, who was then a helpless child. The accusation is presented as what destroys families, not the fact that sexual abuse might have occurred, and it’s described as a “sordid affair” as if it were a case of infidelity rather than a horrific crime against a child.

The most destructive abusers will begin a vicious assault to discredit the victim and those who believe them. They will lie. Deflect. Distract. Manipulate. Turn others against the victims. Tap into ignorance and prejudices and denial. Ironically, their reputation is of utmost importance but they set out to destroy their accusers’ reputations. And that’s okay, it seems. What did Allen do in his reply to Dylan? He attacked her credibility as a manipulated child. He attacked the integrity of the prosecutor and the judge. Mostly, he attacked Mia.

With a mountain of evidence pointing to his culpability and zero evidence for Mia being a vindictive, jealous lover who resorted to emotionally abusing her own child in order to win custody, the court of columnist and media opinion lynched Mia and largely dismissed everything Dylan said. Seasoned journalists such as the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente blathered on, irrationally quoting other journalists about Soon-Yi being Mia’s adopted daughter not Allen’s and the fact that Allen was cold and distant to her as she was growing up, even when he went on holidays with the family, as evidence he did not abuse Dylan. She even inaccurately claimed the case had been dismissed due to lack of evidence. Columnists parroted Allen’s vindictive and reputation-smearing accusations against Mia, which had been dismissed in a court of law as false, a court of law that weighed all the evidence and ruled entirely in her favour. And in a moment of theatre of the absurd irony, at the same time as this, they lectured the court of public opinion — which includes many survivors and child abuse experts — on the unfairness of judging Allen without facts and outside of a court of law. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff reduced the whole thing to an agit-prop piece to promote the Farrow family, particularly Ronan’s career. New York Times book critic Janet Maslin, on the other hand, weighed in by saying Dylan’s letter was sibling rivalry, with her competing with her brother Ronan for attention. It’s as if reason and facts had gone out the window and they were all in a state of distress, grasping for anything while convincing themselves they were being objective and rational. Denial does that to people.

“Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse,” wrote Dylan.

Yes.

But as a survivor myself, I think it is far worse than that: the response to Dylan’s letter is a testament to the denial, avoidance and lack of awareness of warning signs of sexual abuse by a parent or close relative as well as the manipulative tactics used by such abusers to keep abusing — or seek revenge on those who try to stop them. This means we are failing to protect children who are being sexually abused today by respectable middle or upper class parents. It doesn’t get much worse than that, really.