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.
“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 unwise 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 and even moral injury 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.