Historic abuse: the return of the repressed?

The last eighteen months or so has seen tsunami of allegations and court cases against the rich, famous and powerful in relation to alleged and actual sexual abuse. Much of this has involved children, so we are essentially dealing with a wave of paedophilia as well as inappropriate sexual behaviour, assault and rape against adults.

Although there is always the danger of overstating the impact of the Saville case, there is no doubt that his enduring legacy will be that of exposing a dark side of the rich, famous and powerful – and that of a culture that tried to cover up such a dark side. At one level it should come as no surprise that those with wealth, fame and/or power are as capable of the most heinous acts as anyone else. If we were to be cynical perhaps we might argue that the only difference between them and everyone else is that they can afford the lawyers and spin doctors to cover their tracks.

And yet, when it comes to sexual misdemeanours – especially those involving children and vulnerable adults, the darkness seems to become very black indeed. It’s one thing for Russian oligarchs to make their fortunes through exploiting the economic and political chaos that ensued after the collapse of communism; it’s one thing for financial institutions to exploit the aspirations and insecurities of the poor (and not so poor); but it’s something else when it comes to the rich, famous and powerful (men) taking sexual liberties with women, children and the vulnerable.

However, I think there is one particular issue in all this that deserves more attention than it seems to be getting at the moment. This is the whole question of ‘historic’ abuse, and related to this, the question of ‘why now’? In other words, why is it only now that so many survivors of abuse are coming forward?

To start with, perhaps we need to be what the term ‘historic abuse’ actually means in practice. The term ‘historic abuse’ is generally taken to refer to abuse which took place decades ago – be it twenty, thirty, forty or even fifty years. Of course, like all definitions this one can be immediately contested; for example, what about abuse that occurred two or three years ago – is this ‘historic’ or ‘current’?1

Be that as it may, there is more fundamental issue here: in one sense, isn’t all abuse ‘historic’, in the sense by the time it’s reported it’s already history? The problem, however, is that for the victim – or perhaps we should say survivor – of abuse, it is pretty much irrelevant whether the abuse occurred yesterday or fifty years ago; for them it’s as if it’s in an eternally recurring present.

And this raises another issue, which is relates the nature of the past itself. In a previous post2 I argued that the ‘past’, at least in psychoanalytic terms, refers to memory; and this is not memory of the past, but memory as the past. In this sense, it becomes completely meaningless to talk of ‘historic abuse’ as if this was somehow different from ‘current’ abuse. Part of the problem is that the word ‘historic’ itself implies that ‘history’ is to do with another place called ‘the past’, rather than recognising that the ‘past’ is a product of ‘history’, i.e. is the product of the activity of historians – both professional and non- professional.

The point I’m getting at here is that to argue, as some have, that because something, in this case sexual abuse, occurred thirty or forty or fifty years ago means that somehow it’s no longer ‘relevant’ is a complete misnomer. As I’ve noted above, for the survivor of abuse the (chronological) time that has passed is of no relevance whatsoever – except insofar that it becomes more difficult to be taken seriously the ‘longer ago’ the event occurred. For the survivor, the event is always here and now.

There is another, rather more complex, issue here as well. This relates to the nature of trauma, which is intimately related to the question of abuse. One of the rather peculiar things about trauma, as Freud noted early on in his work, is that when the original traumatic experience occurs, for example in early childhood, it is not experienced as traumatic. It is only later on, when a similar event occurs in the person’s life, that they become traumatised

Freud used the term Nachträglichkeit to denote this rather peculiar phenomena, which has a number of translations including ‘deferred action’ and ‘afterwardness’. For example, a child may be subject to abuse when she or he is very young, but it is only years later, say in their early or mid teens, when they begin a sexual relationship with another person that they become traumatised. This is not to say that the original event was not traumatic (or indeed abusive); rather, at the time it was not registered as such by the individual. As Bistoen et al note in their recent paper on Nachträglichkeit, it is not a case of the individual’s original traumatic experience lying ‘dormant’ for a while (in some cases years) and then being ‘triggered’ by the another traumatic event; rather, the original traumatic event is only registered – for the first time – at the moment of the second event.3

How might Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit be relevant in throwing light on the unfolding drama of celebrity (and now possibly politicians’) abuse? It might be tempting to think about the waves of allegations regarding ‘historic’ abuse as some kind of collective ‘return of the repressed’. In other words, it’s payback time for all the misdemeanours perpetrated by the rich, famous and powerful in the past.

However, if we take Nachträglichkeit seriously then it’s not so much a return of the repressed but rather a reconfiguration of the ‘past’. In other words, the ‘second’ traumatic moment reconstructs the individual’s history. Or it might be better to say that it subjectifies their history.

At this point we need to be aware that although Freud was using the concept of Nachträglichkeit in relation to what he called precocious sexual experiences, i.e. sexual encounters by the individual when they are very young, this does not always have to be the case. Bistoen et al cite the example of a woman who had been raped (as an adult) but did not develop any psychological symptoms in the immediate aftermath of her ordeal. However, many months later she received news that the perpetrator had raped, and this time murdered, another woman. She then developed full blown post- traumatic stress disorder. Bistoen et al argue that it was only after the second event, i.e. the news of the second rape, that the woman was able to register subjectively her own rape as a traumatic experience. “The subjective past was literally altered, which produced new and unexpected effects in the present”.4

With regards to all the allegations of abuse in the wake of the Jimmy Saville affair, I think there is a strong argument to be made that it was Saville’s death which acted as the ‘trigger’ for the wave of allegations – both in relation to Saville himself and with regards to other celebrity abuse cases. However, I am not arguing that it was a matter of survivors feeling that it was now safe for them to come forward because Saville was dead. Rather, the news of Saville’s death allowed survivors to finally register, in a subjective way, what had happened to them all those years ago; and this did not just apply to Saville’s victims but all the other survivor’s of celebrity abuse as well.

Just to be clear: it is not a matter of Saville’s death suddenly ‘reminding’ survivors of their ordeal; rather it’s that his death enabled a traumatic memory to be constructed out of a traumatic event, which at the time was not registered as traumatic or abusive.

  1. For example, the following is a definition of historic child abuse used in The Lothian and Borders Joint Police/Social Work Protocol on the Management and Conduct of Enquiries into Allegations of Historic Abuse:

    Historic Abuse will include all allegations of maltreatment whether of serious neglect or of a sexual or of a physical nature which took place before the victim(s) was/were aged 16 years (or aged 18 in some circumstances) and which are made after a significant time has elapsed. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/11/20104729/5

    However, what is not clearly defined is the meaning of ‘a significant time’. []

  2. http://www.therapeia.org.uk/wp/touching-the-real-2/the-traumatisation-of-history/ []
  3. Bistoen, G., Vanheule, S. & Craps, S. (2014) Nachträglichkeit: A Freudian perspective on delayed traumatic reactions. Theory and Psychology, pp.1–20. []
  4. Bistoen, G., Vanheule, S. & Craps, S. (2014) Nachträglichkeit: A Freudian perspective on delayed traumatic reactions. Theory and Psychology, p.11 []

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