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Ethical Boundaries: Treating Childhood Sexual Trauma
Childhood Sexual Trauma continuing education social worker CEUs

Section 22
Encapsulations of Traumatic Memories
Along Developmental Domains

CEU Question 22 | CEU Answer Booklet | Table of Contents | Child Abuse
Social Worker CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, MFT CEUs


My developmental model of trauma and memory considers parallel distributed systems as avenues for memorializing and making meaning of traumatic events within the context of development. Under normal developmental conditions, the human information processing system is an innervated one: it is a dynamic and integrated system that allows fluid and recursive movement among development domains. When trauma is experienced, however, this normally flexible system for processing information is disrupted. Research has shown that even a single traumatic event can disrupt normal information processing. In a study of disaster survivors Wilkinson found that 36%o the victims reported an inability to feel deeply; 34% reported apathy, and 29% had feelings of detachment. Valent reported that survivors of a fire in Australia felt dazed or stunned, and Feinstein and Spiegel found that 41 % of the survivors of an ambush Namibia showed diminished interest in normal activities and 24% still felt detached 1 week after the attack. Madakasira and O'Brien studied 116 victims of a tornado 5 months after it ripped through their North Carolina community. Fifty-nine percentof the victims fulfilled criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms included intrusive thinking, recurrent dreaming, psychic numbing, cognitive disruption, and impaired memory and concentration.

Developmental features play an important role in the formation of these sympto In a study of children and adults exposed to a school shooting, Schwarz and Kowalsk found that children more frequently suffered from avoidance symptoms than did adults, including losing interest in significant activities, feeling detached from others, and having a restricted range of affect. Avoidance symptoms in adults were associated more strongly with the recall of intense sensory experiences, such as smelling or touching the victim's blood. The authors suggest that the adults' more mature neuropsychological cognitive, and affective capabilities may have enabled them to better resist the formation of symptoms.

Noam proposes the concept of overassimilation, in which particular experience even under normal conditions, resist integration to higher-order systems. Overassimilation is the process of incorporating an experience into a lower-level structure even though higher levels already exist. The products of these overassimilations are call encapsulations. I believe that the psyche has the ability to incorporate traumatic experiences into different levels of development, metabolizing them into higher and lowers levels and systems. Models of information-processing including PDP systems and the' Boolean Hypercube, will be discussed later in this chapter, and will provide a theoretical framework for describing the encapsulation process along developmental domains.

Under conditions of prolonged childhood trauma, aspects of the abuse victim's normal development are dissociated from the whole; they are split off from higher and lower levels of development. These fractured units become frozen, or encapsulated, along the seven developmental domains listed above, creating rigid boundaries that defend the trauma victim against the psychic pain of further assault. The encapsulat unit is thus isolated from the developmental whole without the benefit of future learning. Higher stages of human development embrace earlier periods of development, even under conditions of severe trauma; there are thus an infinite number of possible biological, psychological, and psychosocial interconnections from early to late stages of development and from late to early stages. Implicit knowledge about a trauma can exist in multiple, parallel systems. Encapsulated traumatic memories can therefore express themselves through myriad linguistic, motor, behavioral, affective, and cognitive behaviors. A young child who cannot verbalize her trauma may enact it over and over in her play, for example (see Terr).

Every trauma does not necessarily cause material to be encapsulated. Material related to the trauma may remain available to implicit and explicit memory, and may be "metabolized" fairly easily into the system. Traumatic events are encapsulated when the victim does not have the ability to metabolize the trauma in a meaningful way; a child who has been abused sexually over time, for example, is likely to dissociate and to form multiple encapsulations along developmental domains. Children do not have the ability to cope with the sensory, affective, and symbolic components of a sexual assault. The material in this case may become less available to verbal memory as the victim dissociates from the repeated attacks. A trauma victim may retain more verbal memories of a sudden, one-time trauma such as a car accident. Because of the speed and unexpectedness of this kind of trauma, there is little time to defend against the horror of it. Depending on attentional resources, the victim in the case of a single, unexpected traumatic event may encapsulate some sensory and affective fragments of the trauma, but the cognitive, psychological, and parallel information processing systems are able to metabolize these fragments more successfully than in the case of repeated trauma occurring during critical developmental periods. In the case of a car accident, the victim almost always receives a great deal of posttrauma care and support from family, friends, and medical personnel. Victims of chronic childhood abuse, however, suffer extensive trauma without the normally soothing and protective external objects that help young children to develop trust in the world. This kind of repeated trauma tears away at normal development, moving the victim away from the external world and toward self-preservation and internal vigilance. Abuse victims create their own internal environment based on a lack of trust with the outside world. Because severe trauma separates self-memory from the cognitive system, meaning cannot be made of the experience. With no possibility for making meaning of events in the external world, the victim remains focused internally, creating a cycle for dissociation that can continue into adulthood. Memories have a mitosis-like quality in that they can split into other memories; each remembrance of a traumatic event may mutate as the trauma victim replays it in her hand, perpetuating an endless cycle of memory distortion and mutation.

Consider the situation of Virginia, the 43-year-old woman who was sexually abused by her father during adolescence. Virginia represents an example of a child whose self-memory system for many years was almost wholly dissociated from her cognitive system. Virginia entered therapy with me suffering from intermittent attacks of right hemiparesis and right ptosis to her eye and lip. An extensive neurological work-up could find no medical explanation for her physical symptoms. Although she was able to function in her professional career at a high cognitive level, Virginia's speech in therapy was limited for many months to one-word answers, nonsequiturs, and verbal slips. These utterances can be understood as expressions of traumatic encapsulations in the linguistic domain: during the incestuous attacks, Virginia tried not to utter a sound or make cognitive meaning of the words her father was saying. She also tried not to move a muscle and held all of her limbs as rigidly as possible.

Virginia's self-memory system, unable to absorb the full affective and semantic horror of being repeatedly abused by her father, had no choice but to separate itself from her cognitive and linguistic systems. Because her cognitive system was disengaged, Virginia's sensorimotor responses to the incest (i.e., holding herself as stiffly as possible during the attacks) were directly incorporated into her self-memory system, emerging many years later as paralysis. The very strategy that helped to protect the adolescent Virginia from psychic pain during the long years of abuse-separating her self-memory system from her motor and linguistic systems-disrupted her development by blocking communication among the various developmental domains. Not surprisingly, this severe disruption has led to numerous professional and relationship problems during Virginia's adulthood. She sometimes becomes paralyzed at work and falls to the floor, unable to speak. Keep in mind that the incest began during Virginia's adolescent years, a time when normal developmental tasks include learning about relationships and coming to terms with body image and sexuality. During adolescence, Virginia was unable to focus on these important developmental tasks; she had submerged herself (her self-memory system) in a deep and dark inner world filled with depression, horror, and omnipotent fantasies.

Therapy with Virginia has involved teaching her how to think about her inner experiences and move toward integrating the levels of development that were disrupted during the years the abuse took place. Therapists who work with trauma victims like Virginia need to keep in mind that expressions of encapsulated developmental material may shift, slide, and change as the trauma victim moves through the various developmental stages that were missed during childhood or when encapsulated memories are brought to consciousness during the therapeutic process." Patients in treatment may regress to lower levels of ability and mood, and display considerable ambivalence during the course of therapy.

In the same way that Thelen is working to develop an interdisciplinary theory of motor development, I believe that understanding how trauma is memorialized across developmental domains requires an interdisciplinary synthesis of the following areas: the neurophysiology of information processing; parallel distribution systems; the self-memory system; and the process of placing therapy in a developmental context. Let me note at this point that memory is more than neurochemical processes taking place in the brain. Memory is individual and beautifully human, and a full understanding of its role in trauma also requires us to draw from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, history, I language, myth, religion, literature, and art. As Jeremy Campbell notes in his book about information theory, Grammatical Man:

Like the information system of language, memory can be explained in part by abstract rules which underlie I, but only in part….The passage from the abstractions of structure to the rich products of the mind in its encounters with the world is never simple, seldom direct, and always reflects the uniqueness of the event, the richness of context and meaning, and the peculiarities of the human psyche in action, because that, for better or worse, is the way we are. (p. 229)

My model of the self-memory system, by providing a mechanism for exploring the meaning making aspects of trauma, was designed to allow for discussion of these individual aspects of trauma and memory. I argue that the human, experiential plane must be incorporated into any and all theories of memory. I thus include in this chapter an analysis of the writings and memoirs of Holocaust victims. From the perspective of my developmental model, the initial encapsulation of Jewish memory of the Holocaust was normal, healthy, instinctual, and necessary. Child survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, unable at first to articulate their experiences, roamed from town to town, organizing and participating in bizarre theatrical productions that emphasized strange, acrobatic-like movements and grotesque plots. These children also drew pictures and wrote fragments of poetry. Many adult survivors of the Holocaust cut themselves off from the external world and surrounded themselves with the silence of deep social isolation. In the first few years, adult survivors limited the telling of their trauma to poetry, journal writing, and personal memoirs. Many years had to pass before encapsulated memories of the Holocaust began to loosen on both the personal and the social levels and before the full honors of that time could be fully expressed in literature and art. Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer notes that recent books about the Holocaust have focused on a single theme: that of memory. Langer speculates that perhaps "we have finally begun to enter the second stage of Holocaust response, moving from what we know of the event, (the province of historians), to how to remember it, which shifts the responsibility to our own imaginations and what we are prepared to admit there" (p. 13).

The metaphors and symbolic representations found in the recent Holocaust writing about memory contain vivid metaphors for the encapsulation process. Time and again, Holocaust survivors talk about the splitting of the self in response to the atrocities they suffered. My hope in this chapter is to push current thinking about trauma and memory beyond the clinical and the neurophysiological realm. Dissociation is a natural process that provides protection against the pain of atrocity. As Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld writes,

…[O]ne took refuge in silence. If you read the many collections of testimony written about the Holocaust, you would immediately see that they are actually repressions, meant to put events in proper chronological order. They are neither introspection nor anything resembling introspection, but rather the careful weaving together of many external facts in order to unveil the inner truth. The survivor himself was the first, in the weakness of his own hand and in the denial of his own experience, to create the strong plural voice of the memorist, which is nothing but externalization upon externalization, so that what is within will never be revealed. (p. 14)

The ultimate goal of this chapter is to define memory as dynamically connected to all areas of human existence, and trauma as having historical, moral, and political dimensions.
- Appelbaum, Paul, Uyehara, Lisa, & Mark Elin, Trauma and Memory: Clinical and Legal Controversies, Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.
The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.

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Personal Reflection Exercise #8
The preceding section contained information about encapsulation of traumatic memories along developmental domains. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 22
How do fractured experiences become frozen or encapsulated? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Answer Booklet.

 
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