The Therapists' Opinion
By David Mills
Carolivia Herron provided The Washington Post with the first 44 pages of "An Instance of Holocaust," a relentlessly explicit catalogue of her purported memories of childhood sexual abuse, starting with a rape at age 3. With her permission, The Post showed them to three specialists on child sexual abuse for their comments.
"There's a part of me that hoped it was bogus, not to defame a writer, but just to hope she had not gone through that," says psychotherapist Yvonne M. Dolan, author of "Resolving Sexual Abuse." But Dolan and the two other professionals who read the manuscript say it's largely consistent with what they know about survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse.
For example, Herron's description of her feelings while being raped indicates "dissociation" – a familiar coping mechanism whereby a victim's consciousness seems to leave her body – Dolan points out. Herron writes: "It is as if I were screaming in another time and place over another event. ... I watch it all from a distance, wondering over what is happening, feeling nothing."
The tales of rampant intra-family sex don't shock Kathleen Faller, director of the University of Michigan's Family Assessment Clinic and author of an upcoming study of 36 "polyincestuous" families. "There are families like this," she says. "Everybody does it to everybody. It's like a way of life in these families."
The most "startling" thing about "An Instance of Holocaust" to Lucy Berliner, research director of the Harbor View Sexual Assault Center in Seattle, is "the extent of the eroticization of the experience," particularly Herron's account of arousal while being molested in a house of prostitution at age 4.
"I found this to be more characteristic of an adult who has developed an eroticized association to early childhood abuse," says Berliner, "as opposed to being an accurate description of how children experience abuse at the time. It doesn't convey the terror and horror aspect that the child would feel at the time."
It's not unusual, Berliner says, for victims to incorporate elements of abuse into their adult sexual fantasies, and for there to be sometimes a "fusion" of memory and fantasy.
"I have not heard somebody describe that level of arousal before," says Faller of Herron's account. But Herron's eroticized recollection isn't necessarily fusion, she adds. "I have seen incredibly eroticized very young children, and they have been from polyincestuous families."
Says Herron: "I know how to separate a fantasy from a fusion from a memory. I'm very rigorous on that. There are many things I haven't told because they're fusions or fantasies."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company