What about “repressed memories”? A response to John MacArthur

In a recent post I quoted John MacArthur as saying this:

Nearly everyone now is searching for some kind of victimhood. Psychologists would tell them they were probably victimized as children but they can’t remember it so they should go into repressed memories just for the sole purpose of uncovering some supposed victimhood so they can have some place to belong in this completely victimized culture.

If you’re not a victim of anything you have no moral authority and nothing to say, get out of the conversation. Everyone needs to have had at least a micro-aggression, some category of victimhood to divest yourself of the responsibility for the fact that your life is the way it is because of your own sin.

As I listened to him say these words (which you can listen to here) I was deeply troubled at his mocking of those who have been abused. In that post I said, “Maybe sometime I can talk about recovered memories.” Well, now is the time.

If someone in her twenties, thirties, or forties starts talking about trauma she suffered as a child—trauma she didn’t remember till recently—could there possibly be any legitimacy to that? Is it crazy to think that someone could “forget” something so huge?

Note: I was assisted in this article by Michele Hardy, a licensed professional counselor associate who practices at The Joy Center in Easley, South Carolina. She specializes in working with those suffering the effects of traumatic life events, including complex trauma.

Repressed memories and suppressed memories

“Repressed memories” is a term invented by Freud that has fallen out of use in recent decades. The more commonly used terms are “suppressed memories” and “dissociated memories.”

Suppressed memories are memories we’re aware of—we never lose the fact that the thing in the memory actually happened—but because of shame or horror or cognitive dissonance or some other reason, they’ve been stuffed into a back corner of the mind. They can be brought forward if we want to, for example in order to work on them in counseling or prayer ministry, because they were never really forgotten.

Suppressing traumatic or shameful memories isn’t healthy, of course, and is one of the reasons counseling exists. Any shame or sin associated with the memory can be dealt with through truth, and repentance if necessary.

Heath Lambert, the head of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors, answered a question about “suppressed memories.”

Question: Why would ACBC or the Bible not be supportive of trying to go and dig up suppressed memories? And if the person can’t remember abuse, they need to try to figure out how can they be healed. In other words, Why would we not support digging up suppressed memories to try to help heal people who have been abused?

Lambert: James 1 says let every person be quick to hear and slow to speak. Before I can talk to you I need to have heard you. But I can’t talk to you in a way that’s helpful if I haven’t heard facts from you. And a fact is a true fact. In order for it to be a fact it must be true. And if I start to help you with things that are not true, than I actually won’t help you.

You know, there’s so much research and so many horror stories of people who dug up suppressed memories and then it turns out the memory wasn’t true.

So I would answer the question this way. Biblical counseling is not afraid to deal with any fact in counseling. But we have to be very, very careful that we’re dealing with facts and not . . .  so if you don’t remember something and then we go and dig it up, then where did that come from?

So what we’re doing is we’re looking for facts. Is it the case that someone can remember something after having forgotten it for a while? Sure they can. But the idea of suppressed memories is fraught with all kinds of baggage of suggestion and it’s not evidential and that kind of thing.

So I would say “Hey, we want to deal with the past, we just need to be sure that those facts—that what we know about the past is true, and that means we have to be dependent on facts.”

I appreciate that Heath Lambert says he is willing to deal with the past. I also appreciate that he didn’t deny that a memory that has been suppressed can actually be true. However, he did cast significant doubt on it, especially with his comment about “so many horror stories” about false memories (which could be the topic of another blog post). It sounds like he’s saying if you can’t prove that a traumatic experience happened, with evidence, then the counselor should consider it a non-fact and not deal with it. He didn’t say this outright, but he did strongly imply it, and this is troubling for the doubt it will cast on all those who remember things they can’t prove.

But maybe rather than “suppressed memories,” Heath Lambert and the questioner may actually have been talking about dissociated memories.

Dissociated memories

“Dissociation” takes place on a spectrum, with some of the more extreme types being derealization (feeling that the world around you isn’t real) and depersonalization (feeling that you are outside your body, either standing somewhere else in the room or floating above and watching what’s being done to you). The most extreme variety of dissociation, in which a child splits into “parts,” each of which hold some aspect of trauma, is called dissociative identity disorder.

When trauma is extreme and repeated, and if other criteria are met, the child being traumatized will completely disconnect from the memory. This will allow the child to live a “normal” life even while being traumatized during many parts of the night and possibly even in the day. (If you recall that child sex trafficking and child pornography are huge problems in our Western nations, you’ll see how essential this would be for many children’s survival.)

In a case like this, when the child becomes an adult, the memory won’t be accessible by simply trying to remember it—the adult is not even aware, for example, that her father abused her repeatedly as a child.

It is when a “trigger” event happens—something that dislodges the equilibrium in the brain, so to speak—that the memory of the abuse may come flooding back all at once. Or some of the memories may come back at one point and others return over a period of time, as the person is able to process in a safe environment.

Many doctors and scientist who have studied the brain-mind-body connection have written on this phenomenon of dissociated and recovered memories, including Bessel van der Kolk in The Body Keeps the Score and Karl Lehman in works such as “Brain Science, Psychological Trauma, and the God Who Is with Us.”

When John MacArthur speaks this way about something he apparently knows nothing about, he is not a help to the gospel.

The epidemic of abuse

When John MacArthur set out to mock victims and survivors of abuse, he said:

Nearly everyone now is searching for some kind of victimhood.     

If he cared to find out, he could learn that child sexual abuse is rampant. Pastor Jimmy Hinton, whose father was a pedophile, estimates that at least 40% of people sitting in the pews at church have been sexually abused.

Psychologists would tell them they were probably victimized as children but they can’t remember it, so they should go into repressed memories just for the sole purpose of uncovering some supposed victimhood so they can have some place to belong in this completely victimized culture.

I know several licensed counselors, and I know a lot of people who have told me their stories of going to licensed counselors. I have never heard of any of them trying to get their clients to claim “victimhood.” They may be less than helpful in one way or another, but what MacArthur indicates is rampant is really a non-issue, especially in 2018, when he thinks “victimhood” is a threat the gospel.

Though it’s wrong for any of us to try to “suggest” memories of trauma to someone, if that person does recover previously un-remembered memories of trauma and abuse, on her own, then anyone in her sphere should respond with compassion rather than this arrogance MacArthur is showing.

If you’re not a victim of anything you have no moral authority and nothing to say, get out of the conversation. Everyone needs to have had at least a micro-aggression, some category of victimhood

Why would he exaggerate in such a way? Why would he sound so afraid of abuse survivors remembering what happened to them? Why would he think that those who are coming forward with memories of abuse are such a #threattothegospel?

to divest yourself of the responsibility for the fact that your life is the way it is because of your own sin.

Your life is the way it is because of your own sin . . . This is what it comes down to. MacArthur refuses to acknowledge the possibility that someone may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the child abuse he or she endured.

A plea to fellow Christians

One of my friends as a child suffered some of the most extreme abuse possible, dissociated her memories and then found herself remembering them again when she was in her twenties or thirties. She keeps her secret with all but a very few very close friends. Because who would understand?

She once said to me

It is horrific not to be known.

As long as teachings like that of John MacArthur are propagated in the church, and especially with church leaders who see him as a revered teacher to be trusted, then those who have suffered extreme abuse, even ritual abuse, will continue to suffer the continued trauma of being unknown. Because it is not safe to speak.

So I plead with you. Be willing to listen. Be willing to truly hear. Be willing to care, even when you hear stories about wickedness you didn’t know existed. Be willing to do some research into things you may have thought weren’t real.

They’re watching you as you post on social media or joke casually in a group. You don’t know they’re among you, but they are. Sometimes they’ll laugh too, just so they won’t stand out as different. But they are there.

Love them. Recognize that they’re not crazy. Listen to them. Have compassion on them. Because this is what Jesus would do.

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Brenda Linn
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Brenda Linn

“So I plead with you. Be willing to listen. Be willing to truly hear. Be willing to care”

That is something we should all be doing already, especially if we call ourselves ‘Christians’.

Arrogance is characterized by a refusal to listen, to really hear, to care.

Such behavior and such talk in response to hurting people is the opposite of Jesus ‘response.

Those who mock the abused are trying to excuse themselves from the responsibilities of compassion.

Gloria Repp
Guest

Well-balanced and helpful. Thank you!

nadia
Guest
nadia

I read MacArthur’s article and feel sickened. In his world, there is no place for people who have walked through the experiences of trauma. It’s as if simply surviving horrific events has labeled us as untouchables. Abuse, in and of itself, is isolating. Having religious leaders pile on the condemnation is just cruel.
Imagine if he were to say these same things mocking people who struggling through cancer. Imagine if he say these things to those who witnessed the horrors of a school shooting. Imagine him saying it to war veterans who come home haunted by the horrors of war. Why is there such a battle to squash, belittle and shame victims of abuse?
Why would anyone say things? What is the purpose? Is it perhaps to “purify” their churches so no one tainted by abuse will somehow wrongly assume that the world of Christianity would be accepting of them?

Warren Lamb
Guest

I appreciate your approach in speaking to this. Clear and gracious. As a Biblical counselor specializing with survivors of abuse and other significant trauma, and as a survivor myself, I know how real this is.

The common denominator that I’ve observed is that the Holy Spirit brings these dark memories to the fore when it’s time. His timing is flawless. He knows when the survivor has been prepared by Him to do the healing work with the person He has prepared to walk with them on that portion of their healing journey.

Dr. MacArthur is, sadly, a prime representative of the unprepared and unqualified who are leading many churches today. We need more voices speaking this kind of truth.

Shalom

Bunkababy
Guest
Bunkababy

In my experience it is still not safe to discuss ritual abuse, or even chronic systemic abuse. There was a few comments this year on either SSB or Watchkeep with people who actually said it doesn’t exist.

They brought up the Martin trials and other things to support their claims which are not the end all be all to these crimes. A little digging would reveal a much bigger scope of the problems.

Most, if not all people do not want to face the atrocities of those kinds of evil . I can’t blame someone for not being able to stomach somebody elses truth, but to blatantly say it doesn’t exist just slams that door shut in a survivors face.

In recent weeks it has become clear the climate for sexual assault is to be refuted and denied. How much more for a childhood filled with so much terror that to live and function the brain had to develop a way just to survive?

In defence of ritual abuse.
What has been done will be done again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9

For emphasis it was said twice. Animal sacrifice, even human sacrifice , with the testing of Abraham and his son, even the sacrifice of Christ are easily accepted by Christians.

Why then the dispute the truth that Satan can use it for evil? Evidence exists of cultures participating in this sort of thing.
There is nothing new under the sun.

In general terms a person who has suffered any sort of childhood trauma will have exhibited or exhibit the results of abuse in her behaviour and life. Memories usually do not come in isolation. There is a lead up of problems that put her in a position to be in a counselors office.

Irrational fears, wreckless behaviour, pyschiatric problems , promiscuity , emotional aggression and or no feelings. There are all lead ups of problems that bring a survivor into an office for counselling.

I think the problem with MacArthur and others boils down to selfishness. Really.
If you refuse to acknowledge a problem, if you refuse to give a wounded person the status of being a victim, it absolves him of any responsibility, thus helping fixing the issue. The issue isn’t his problem.

It is the exact opposite of what is taught by Jesus As seen in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The very essence of Christ , the very message of the Gospel ironically is of self sacrifice. Laying down yourself, your desires, time, actions, voice, so that others can be lifted up, and loved, unchained, and lead out of oppression.

Denying victims, blaming victims for sins against them, keeps them prisoners, poor and oppressed.

We are to bear another’s burdens Gal 6:2, weep with those that weep and mourn with those that mourn.Rom 12:15

Jesus prays for God to take that cup that bears judgement and wrath but he takes it . He bore it for us and that should be the greatest example for Christians.

Jesus didn’t want to bear it but he did anyways.
John MacArthur is saying don’t take that cup, give it back to them, it’s their fault anyway.

I find John MacArthur’s stance to be unscriptural and selfish and anti Christ. He doesn’t want to bear the cup of messy, wounded people. He doesn’t want to self sacrificially lay down his life for the ‘victims’.

And in his refusal to do so is instructing others to do the same.

Mark
Guest
Mark

Any kind of abuse or dysfunction from broken families or not being mentored by parents that didn’t love or communicate with each other, affects different people in different ways.

There seems to be a “no-pain no-gain” football or boot camp mentality embraced by certain people, whether they are clergy or non-clergy, where by appearance they are marginalizing the pain or lack of guidance that some of the abused and those who have grown up in dysfunction.

I’m bothered not only by the one size fits all speaking, preaching and one-sided Calvinistic or bust approach, that is going on in some SBC churches today. Lines have to be drawn in the sand and probably the SBC needs to split Calvinism and Non Calvinism apart.

NG
Guest
NG

Replying to Mark’s comment, I have come across mostly the type of triumphant victory mentality which almost exalts any difficult and tyraumatic life experiences, in line with ‘God will turn it all into something good’ and ‘He will make your mess into a message’ etc. Those of course are true for many Christians, who have seen the Lord use their own painful life stories as a source of comfort and wisdom for others.

But that should not hinder anyone from showing abuse victims love and compassion. Instead of speaking of ‘God’s greta plan’ how about showing love and kindness here and now? Instead of clichees like ‘Oh, God allowed those things to teach you something’ (a very commonly heard one in many circles), how about offering help and support now? It is one thing if and when a person tells his/her own story, and says that God used their own pain to help others, but please, do not make that a legalistic demand for anyone else.
I believe that exalting pain and difficulties just gives them an unhealthy meaning and creates narcissistic, unloving celebrity Christians.

Mina
Guest
Mina

If sin is rampant in the world then victims are also rampant. Let’s keep caring for the victims by hearing them, seeing them and understanding them. Something they never received from the perpetrator. They need value, safety and tenderness. I don’t get hung up on searching for facts from the past. Though it is vital for the protection of the victim and in court proceedings etc. In regards to healing, It’s more important for me to uncover the perception of what a person believes happened. Possibly, the emotions of that are being held in the body. That is the pain that needs to be released to Jesus when the victim is ready. HeartSync prayer counseling model is a gentle way to acknowledge, love and free parts of people that have needed to dissociate because of trauma. Thank you fir being an advocate for victims. It paves the way to see the victory God decrees over them.

Quietrunner
Guest
Quietrunner

Truth. ❤️

Barbara Roberts
Guest

Superb post, Rebecca! I especially loved this part:

“As long as teachings like that of John MacArthur are propagated in the church, and especially with church leaders who are graduating from his seminary, then those who have suffered extreme abuse, even ritual abuse, will continue to suffer the continued trauma of being unknown. Because it is not safe to speak.

“So I plead with you. Be willing to listen. Be willing to truly hear. Be willing to care, even when you hear stories about wickedness you didn’t know existed. Be willing to do some research into things you may have thought weren’t real.

“They’re watching you as you post on social media or joke casually in a group. You don’t know they’re among you, but they are.”

I’ve recently been derided and mocked for believing people who suffered extreme abuse, even ritual abuse.

Some of those people had dissociated their traumatic memories as children, and in their adulthood the memories came back. Some of them had never dissociated, but had suppressed their memories (pushed them into the back of their mind) in order to get through daily life. But whether they’d dissociated or suppressed their memories, they all continue to suffer from the traumas they have endured. And many of them – as adults – are still being stalked and re-traumatised by their abusers.

Rachel
Guest
Rachel

I’m thankful for your posts, Rebecca. They’ve been instrumental in helping me think more clearly.

Alana
Guest
Alana

Excellent article, thank you for sharing!

Barbara Roberts
Guest

Bunkababy, I second everything you said upthread.

“Most, if not all people do not want to face the atrocities of those kinds of evil. I can’t blame someone for not being able to stomach somebody else’s truth, but to blatantly say it doesn’t exist just slams that door shut in a survivors face.”

That ^

Rebecca, I tried hitting the ‘reply’ icon under Bunkababy’s comment, but nothing happened. Maybe there’s a glitch at WordPress?