Burning Down the House

reliving trauma

by guest blogger Andy Weisskoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker

Some people who survive a life or death event — like war, sexual assault, or a plane accident — get mired, reliving trauma for decades, experiencing the intense anxiety, depression, vigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares characteristic of PTSD. For these people, memories remain vivid and feel horribly alive until a therapeutic intervention, such as EMDR, softens them. For others, who have been through the same types of dangerous events, memories of the trauma transform apace into manageable life lessons, without professional intervention.

The difference is in large part determined by the social resources available in the aftermath of trauma. If you have people around who help you process the thoughts and emotions aroused by trauma, you are much more likely to recover. If, however, you struggle alone with your memories, and the conclusions about yourself that follow, (like, “It was all my fault,” or “I’m still in danger,” or “Something’s wrong with me), the memories stay stuck in their original form, inspiring fight/flight/freeze responses to triggers of the original event.

I’m reminded of the episode of the 1970s TV series The Waltons where the family’s house burns down. In case you don’t know the show, I’ll recap using my very faulty memory of watching it forty years ago. One night in Depression-era Virginia, John Boy Walton leaves his lit pipe on a table in the hallway. That same night Grandpa Walton leaves the electric heater running in the bathroom. The next day both artifacts are discovered in the smoking embers. But was it John Boy’s pipe or Grandpa’s heater responsible for the disaster?

Eventually, (it was a two-part episode), Grandpa Walton takes John Boy aside in an effort to ease his guilty mind. Grandpa says something like, “It was either your pipe or my heater that burned the house down. We’ll never know which. Either way it was an accident. Put it behind you or you’ll drive yourself crazy with guilt. And that won’t help anyone.”

Wisdom from Walton’s Mountain.

After a catastrophe, the reactions of family and friends have the power to either mediate or reinforce our tendency toward self-blame. At the time of the event, if the people close to us are non-blaming, if they tell us, “This is not your fault,” or, “Even if you participated, you had your reasons,” if they say, “I’m glad you survived,” and “I still love you,” we have a decent chance of setting the experience to rest alongside our other important life lessons. If, however, the soothing messages are absent, if they’re ambiguous or frankly accusatory, our memory of the event will stay alive indefinitely, along with the belief, “I’m bad.”

In Every Moment of a Fall, Carol’s memoir of recovery from trauma using EMDR, we watch in agony as her parents miss one opportunity after another to challenge her self-blame. Like John Boy with his pipe, Carol takes responsibility for the crash that killed her sister. Then, because there is no Grandpa Walton in her story, (not in her immediate family, nor, when she becomes an adult, in her primary relationships), she remains stuck. That is, until her therapists Connie and Jan arrive. Connie, with acceptance and gentle prodding, starts challenging her life’s narrative.  Jan, with EMDR, facilitates a radical re-examination of the facts. When the work is done, instead of believing the accident is all her fault, she sees it as nobody’s. From this vantage she gets curious about why her dad let her take the blame in the first place, why her mom went along, and why the other men in her life had followed suit.

After EMDR Carol rejoins her life from a new perspective: “Accidents happen. People who blame me when things go wrong, or allow me to blame myself, are not on my side.” This perspective suggests an action plan: “From now on, I’m only hanging with the non-blamers.”

And that, as the poet wrote, has made all the difference.

Andy Weisskoff, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist. Learn more about EMDR and his practice at AndyWeisskoff.com.

On Forgiving and Forgetting

My brother Tedd is a compassionate man. An ordained Christian minister, he takes his faith seriously and works hard to be a force for good in the world. He has a special interest in helping those living through trying times. He and a friend do grief counseling with people whose spouses have died. He also has an active music ministry, booking concerts and sharing his story of personal struggle and growth with church congregations.

Were someone to approach my brother after one of these concerts and ask him to pray with them about the wounds they carry from childhood abuse, he would be glad for the chance to offer comfort. He would not ask the person if they are sure the abuse really happened.

But when the confessor is a sibling and the abuser is our father, my brother has asked more than once: How do you know?

Most of us don’t realize how devastating that kind of skepticism can be. We haven’t learned that abuse victims often expect not to be believed when they disclose their abuse, which makes speaking up especially risky. The abused tend to doubt their own credibility. Maybe I made the whole thing up. Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell write that children abused by parents often blame themselves, harboring great shame. “With repeated betrayal, the shame becomes chronic.”  It “makes us feel crazy at times and silences us.”

That crushing, silencing shame is something my sibs and I are familiar with. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that we somehow provoked our father to mistreat us. When he angrily pulled me out of my chair and hoisted me up to the mirror, insisting I see what a bad girl looked like, I was sure I’d brought it on myself.

Tedd’s less than sympathetic reaction to the mention of our father’s abusive behaviors makes him seem indifferent to the ways we’ve suffered. Which makes me wonder what’s really going on.

It’s possible my brother’s repeated questioning–how do you know?– is a kind of willed forgetting. Freyed and Birrell call it betrayal blindness. “We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves,” they write. Violating a child’s physical, emotional or sexual safety is the greatest act of betrayal a parent can commit. The child depends on the parent for her very survival, so how can she protest? She can’t. Instead, she hides the abuse from herself and others. She pretends, ignores, forgets. Because “forgetting and unawareness help the abuse victim survive.”

As I wrote in a previous post, at one time in his life Tedd believed that he, too, had been sexually abused by our father. He has since changed his mind, following a pattern of disclosure and retraction identified by clinical research. For many people, the possibility of abuse is too monstrous or terrifying to entertain for long. So they take it back. When a brother or sister dredges it up again, they deflect it.

Are you sure? How do you know?

Because he is not an unkind or uncaring man, my brother is willing to concede that others of us could have been abused. He doesn’t deny our reality. But lately he has taken to defending our father’s behavior. Making excuses for him. He tells me he can understand what drove our father to prey on his family and his patients sexually. Living for years with a sickly, bedridden wife the way our father did with Tedd’s mother would give any man large sexual appetites, my brother explained to me. He’d felt some of that himself during his wife’s protracted battle with cancer.

It’s hard to believe my brother would willingly identify with his abuser. That is, until you consider the other options. Like admitting our father threw him under the bus. Like bumping up against his own rage.

After reading what I wrote about our father in my memoir, Tedd brought up forgiveness. Our father helped a lot of people during his life, my brother insisted. Had my therapist encouraged me to consider that and forgive our father for the wrong he did to our family? I explained that what therapy taught me about forgiveness was how to begin to forgive myself. To surrender the self-blame and shame. That’s not the sort of forgiveness my brother was driving at, though. He wanted me to turn my burden over to God and find the freedom he believed would come from granting our father pardon.

No doubt about it, forgiveness can be powerful medicine. But if you don’t first acknowledge the truth of what a person has done, how can you meaningfully forgive him for it? How can any measure of real freedom flow from refusing to face what happened to you and how you really feel about it?

In The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson writes that often we would rather believe we are to blame for the painful parenting we received than “look directly into our feelings of hurt and anger.” Furthermore, “we have multiple messages from society and religious teachings that tell us the only way to release these feelings is through forgiveness.”

“Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” Alice Miller writes in For Your Own Good.

Blanket statements of forgiveness that suppress or circumvent our real feelings are not the starting point for healing. Instead, Payson continues, “all healing must start with awareness and the retrieval of our authentic thoughts and feelings.” In Where to Draw the Line, Anne Katherine describes the freeing encounter with genuine emotions this way: “Expressing our true feeling about a true incident lightens and enlightens. All the energy tied up in keeping the anger contained is released. After we’ve been angry in a healthy way, we have more energy.”

“Only the truth will shift a feeling,” Katherine writes.

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jesus Christ promised his followers.

I am not a religious person. But I claim that promise for my siblings and me. When we elect not to forget, not to blind ourselves, but keep charting our way through the minefield of our own explosive feelings, we’re making ourselves free. We’re navigating toward lasting forgiveness.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Abuse



My brother Bruce decided to go for counseling after seeing the great benefit I got from EMDR and talk therapy. In an early session, his therapist gave him a children’s book to read, a story about a servant of the king who takes pity on a street urchin and invites the boy to the castle for a meal. After the boy stuffs himself at a banquet table, the servant offers him new clothes to replace his rags. They stop first at the castle baths, where the servant prevails upon the boy to discard his filthy clothes and climb into a warm tub. While the boy is soaking and the servant is off fetching clean things for him, another man, the king, comes into the room to speak to the boy.

My brother’s immediate thought, before he had time to quash it, was this: What is that man going to do to the naked boy?

Bruce told me this story while we were picking blueberries together in Maine. Blueberrying has been one of our very favorite things since we were little kids. Our aunties would set off with metal pails and milking stools, a parade of kids in tow carrying empty Cool Whip tubs. The tiny, taut berries gave us blue teeth and a row of warm pies oozing juice on the counter.

Not everything about our childhood scared us. We have our cinnamonned memories. But there are so many shadowy fragments. Hunches, nagging feelings, questions like the one that ambushed Bruce. Intimations and awful possibilities.

My oldest brother, Allon, has told me a few times on the phone recently that he’s pretty sure our father had sex in the office with his secretary, a woman from church.

While she was dying of cancer, my mother talked about the time she walked into the waiting area of my father’s medical practice and heard the sounds of rutting coming from a treatment room. “Don’t you dare open this door,” my father’s voice commanded from inside.

When my middle brother, Tedd, started counseling people in his church who were struggling with memories of abuse, he realized that he had suppressed similar memories himself. Our father used to take him along when he made house calls to female patients. Tedd was posted outside the closed door and told to give the signal if he heard anyone coming. Maybe there was more, my brother admitted.

Today Tedd chooses to remember his version of blueberrying, the good things about our father. His generous support of missionary organizations. His role in founding a Christian academy and Bible college in Maine. The relief from suffering he gave his patients. Tedd says these deeds more than make up for whatever hurt our father caused. He urges me to join him in offering forgiveness.

But forgiveness for what, I have to wonder. How can you forgive what you don’t see? What you can’t quite pull into focus?

My sister Sue confessed as an adult that she suspected our father had sexually abused her. Maybe over a prolonged period. She was reluctant to say so, even though he’d been dead for decades, because she had no proof, just a feeling. We learned to keep our feelings to ourselves in my family. Airing them was an invitation to a trampling. But Sue was brave and spoke aloud what her gut had been telling her for a long while. She wanted corroboration. Maybe our mother saw or heard something all those years before. Maybe she could shed some light, dredge up some kind of confirmation.

Our mother was familiar with our father’s predilections. At the end of her life, she talked pointedly about the ways he forced himself on her. He did so even in the presence of my siblings and me.

Although she shared a bed with our father for fourteen years, our mother could not say unequivocally to my sister, “Trust you instinct. This happened to you. I believe.” Our mother preferred to “just drop it.” She believed the past was behind us.

To her credit, my sister has not let it go. She works with an exceedingly kind therapist and sometimes, together, they use EMDR to address her history of abuse. I know from experience a very little bit about how brave Sue is to do this, and how paralyzingly scary it must be.

Still. What do families talk about when we talk about sexual abuse? About a doctor who violates his patients? A husband who violates his wife? A parent who violates his child? Where are the words? How do we begin?


My First Narcissist

Father #1 in my family diagram is my biological father, Arthur. It was important to him to be taken for an important man. As a sought-after family physician, he rushed to the bedsides of his patients at all hours and made himself indispensible at the local hospital. As a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, he taught Sunday school and counseled struggling souls in the ways of righteousness.

From every angle, he looked like a pious man of God, an unimpeachable community leader.

He sent my oldest brother, Allon, to school in Florida because an Evangelical minister with an international following sent his kids there too. Allon was thirteen years old. Our father bought him a ticket and put him on a train to travel the 1,500 miles by himself. You can still hear that dejected kid in his voice today when my brother asks, “What did I do wrong? I don’t know why he sent me away.”

My middle brother Tedd was sent away to the Christian academy our father later helped to found with an itinerate preacher. Since reading a draft of my memoir, Tedd has told me many times about being in his dorm room at that school, which overlooked the parking lot. He knew our father was on campus when his car showed up in the lot. But instead of coming to say hello after his business was finished, our father climbed in his car and drove away while his son watched.

He’s been dead for four decades but people still take my sister aside to tell her what a Godly man our father was. A faithful servant of the Lord. How can she tell them that this revered Christian man was incapable of loving his family? That he stalked his patients, his wife, his children as sexual prey?

The hell a narcissist creates for those closest to him is an intensely private one.

Most Sunday nights after the evening service, my parents invited their church friends over to our house for fellowship. Bruce and Sue and I were sent to bed before the guests started arriving. Our father demanded that we stay out of the way. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling while cars pulled in and ladies’ heels clacked up the front walk. One night, instead of settling in the living room or drifting to the kitchen for coffee and sandwiches, a group of guests hung back in the front hall. Spasms of laughter floated up the stairwell to the bedroom I shared with Sue.

I padded down the stairs in my footie pajamas and stood sleepily rubbing my eyes.  “Oh no,” one of the adults said with a wink. “Did we wake you?” Then they whirled me into the living room and plied me with chips and cookies while I performed. I danced. I sang. I answered questions. They hooted at my answers and looked approvingly at my parents. My father stood stiffly against the wall, arms crossed, his thin smile stretched taut.

He grabbed my wrists, marched me back to bed, hustled me under the covers and slammed the door shut on his way out. He wasn’t about to be upstaged in front of his flock. Least of all by a snot-nosed little kid.

When I met my husband, forty years after my father’s death, I found myself resisting the powerful manifestations of his love. This was what I’d been trying to invite into my life. Yet to be the object of such unequivocal feeling made me anxious. My therapist, Jan, suggested that I was holding onto the belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved so well.

We used EMDR to pursue that possibility. As I slowed my breathing and listened to the tones ping from one ear to the other, my father’s face appeared. We were outside, at dusk, standing in the space between the garage and the house. It was cold. He towered over me. He kept saying the same thing again and again: You don’t deserve to be loved. You don’t deserve to be loved. And then: Your mother only loves you because she has to.

Jan stopped the tones and let me cry a while before asking what was happening. Then she proposed I go back as an adult to get my child self out of there. She restarted the tones and back I went. I told my child self not to look at him, to keep her eyes on my face. As I held her and backed away from my father, I showed the child me all the things she was going to learn and experience, the fullness of who she would become. I told her that person was already inside of her. That she was perfectly suited for the journey just as she was.

I carried her into the house. My mother was lying on the couch. I told my child self to brush Mom’s hair until it was time for dinner, and while she was brushing, to raise the brush to her head sometimes and brush her own hair too.

Jan suggested I might be feeling unworthy of unreserved love because my mother hadn’t received it herself. She asked me to go back to the couch and have a conversation with Mom about that.

I told my mother I didn’t want to hold back or defend myself out of fear. I didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. She encouraged me to open myself completely, without reservation or doubt that I might not be worthy. Sitting in Jan’s office, I felt a palpable expansion, my chest brimming with breath.

We used the tones to reinforce the new belief: I deserve to be loved well. I laughed out loud at the image that came. My child self and I were outside again, between the house and garage in the almost-dark. We flicked our fingers and my father crumbled like dust. Poof.


Survivor Guilt

In the days and weeks following my family’s airplane crash, people kept assuring me I’d be fine. “You’re young,” they’d say. “You’ll bounce back in no time.” It would be a different story for my parents, these same people confided. A parent should never have to bury his child. One day when I had children of my own I’d understand, they promised. Losing a sister just wasn’t the same. And I still had my whole life ahead of me. I was lucky to be alive!

I listened. I tried to feel lucky. But all I could think was: Nancy is dead. I wasn’t even wearing my seatbelt. Why am I still here?

When my father told me he wished Nancy had been the one to survive, the guilt bloomed inside of me like a fungus. Gradually, I made myself a living corpse. I took shallow sips of air I didn’t deserve to breathe. I slogged through heavily freighted days.

Survivor syndrome emerged in the 1960s as psychotherapists began to identify a pattern of symptoms present in Holocaust survivors: depression and persistent anxiety, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, nightmares, mood swings, loss of physical drive. Survivors of natural disasters, warfare and terrorist attacks often suffer the same conditions. Our traumas differ, but we shoulder a common guilt at having lived through the horror that killed others around us.

I was forty years old when I finally began to invite myself back to life. First my therapist gave me the words “survivor guilt.” Then she gave me the eye movement therapy EMDR. (Hang on to your hats. There is much to come about EMDR in subsequent posts.)

Six months into therapy I wrote in my journal: “If everything I do has to be good enough to justify my LIFE, my having been allowed to live when Nancy died, how do I even get out of bed in the morning?” I was beginning to plumb the depths of my guilty self-punishment. Beginning to sense that every single day might not require me to defend my existence.

At the same time, I was realizing that my second father was not the only one who wanted to negate my life. My earliest childhood memories predate the plane crash by at least a decade. In them, my first father tells me again and again that my life has no value. To him or anyone else.

Survivor guilt gave me language to explore a big part of what had happened in my life. It helped explain why I behaved as if I didn’t deserve to occupy my own skin. But there was more. That guilt was compounded by the message I received from both of my fathers: We don’t want you.

My journal entry ended this way: “I’ve been raised by men who, given the choice, wouldn’t have had me live. Now I have to grow up, grow out from under them, grow past them, tell them to BACK OFF because I’m here to stay.”