In my early 20s I hung around with a group of fun-loving kids trying to figure out what to do with our lives. Some of us were in college, some of us worked and some of us simply hung out in the basement of David’s house drinking beer, playing video games and smoking pot. Lazy days in LA. Vanessa was a popular member of our informal circle and she and I had a strong platonic connection.
One day I showed up at David’s basement and Vanessa was there alone … in tears, with her face bruised, almost hysterical. When I was finally able to calm her down enough so that she could get the story out, she told me that her father – a hedge fund manager based in Newport Beach – had come home drunk the night before. The two of them had gotten into a heated argument, and before she knew what was happening, her father had punched her several times in the face. Then he set about raping her.
Vanessa was never the same afterwards. Before the rape she had been trusting, gregarious and fun-loving. She had a great sense of humor and was probably the social leader of our circle, always coming up with edgy and interesting things to do. It was Vanessa who arranged for our “private night” at Disneyland high on LSD.
After the rape, Vanessa’s personality took a toxic turn. Where before she would often be the life of the party, now she rarely showed up for the party at all. On occasions when I would seek her out to spend time together, she would alternate between intense engagement and vacuous spaciness. She began to gain weight, got into a fist fight in a club with another girl, and was pulled over days later for a DUI. I don’t think I ever saw her smile again after the beating and the rape.
Guurl Brain Interrupted
Rape is a personal violation of the most damaging degree. When it’s perpetrated by a family member, the violation and betrayal can shake us to the very core of our being. The act itself is violation enough, but what happens before, during and especially after a rape can have additional devastating consequences to the way our brain and body function going forward. Here’s what trauma psychiatrist Roland Summit has to say about sexual abuse in his paper on The Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome:
Initiation, intimidation, stigmatization, isolation, helplessness and self-blame depend on a terrifying reality of child sexual abuse. Any attempts by the child to divulge the secret will be countered by the adult conspiracy of silence and disbelief. “Don’t worry about things like that; that could never happen in our family.” “How could you ever think of such a terrible thing?” “Don’t let me ever hear you say anything like that again!” The average child never asks and never tells.
One of the most devastating ways rape disorganizes our brain is by making home no longer a safe sanctuary. We all need places to call home in the world – to feel at home. They are essential for growing our neurophysiology sufficiently to be able to regulate stress hormones and build out our immune systems. There are reasons that children who have been violated grow up to later have a great variety of health challenges. Compromised immune function is but one of them.
The immune system contains two types of “memory cells” called CD-45RA cells and CD-45RO cells. RA cells and RO cells exist in ratio to one another (T-cells in the illustration below). RA cells are those which have been previously exposed to toxic threats and are ready to pounce should those same threats reappear. RO cells are free floating “virgin” cells held in reserve to deal with new or novel threats our bodies have not met before. They allow us to safely explore unfamiliar people, places and environments.
People who have been sexually abused turn out to have many fewer RO cells and greater numbers of RA cells. This makes their immune system not only super-sensitive to threat, since they’ve been exposed to many more highly stressful (inflammation-generating) experiences, but also leaves the immune system much more susceptible to new threats. A higher RA count also correlates with autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis – the body essentially mounts a threat against itself. That ratio imbalance also correlates with obesity and memory difficulties, thus it makes perfect sense that when criminal justice professor Linda Williams interviewed 136 women who were documented victims of sexual abuse as children, 38% of them had no memory of the assault at all.
No Trust = No Safety
Trust is obviously another issue. Trust has a strong neurophysiological basis. People, places and things we don’t trust make us nervous. Around them stress hormones put us on high-alert. Can we learn to trust people our brain and bodies don’t? It’s not easy in the least. The brain and body develop a hyper-sensitivity which can distort perception and blow all perspective out of proportion – for good reason: our trust has been violated. Without trust, the world unconsciously becomes a dangerous place. Why? Because of neuroception – the feeling of threat that invades our liver, stomach, colon, kidneys and heart below the level of conscious awareness. Our bodies have all the evidence we need to repeatedly confirm that the world is a truly dangerous place, even though 99% of the time, it’s not.
The good news is that our understanding of the adverse impact of rape and other personal violations on our brains and bodies is slowly beginning to filter into the wider culture’s consciousness. With that growing awareness, effective treatment modalities are beginning to become available in increasing numbers of communities, large and small, all over the world. Better, of course, would be for those treatment protocols to be never needed in the first place.