Rotating Betrayal Blindness and the Non-linear Path to Knowing

By Laura K. Noll, M.S. & Jennifer M. Gómez, M.S.
Copyright © 2013, Laura K. Noll and Jennifer M. Gómez

In many ways, Tamara had an idyllic childhood: two loving parents at home; family game nights with mom, dad, aunties, uncles, and cousins; good grades and loads of friends at school. Hers was the house in the neighborhood where all the other kids wanted to sleep over. In the daytimes of her childhood, she knew she was special. In the nighttimes . . . well, she knew she was special then too, but in a different way. Her father began molesting her when she was very young and by middle childhood was regularly raping her. During these assaults, she’d float away—escape to a safe place in her mind. During the days, she enjoyed a life of love with all her family, including her father.


Once Tamara left home at age 18, her awareness of incest fluctuated dramatically, as if she were on a merry-go-round, rotating around her experiences of trauma. Sometimes, aware that her father had betrayed her, she faced the reality of sexual abuse in her family with tremendous pain, depression, and anxiety. At other times she denied her experience of abuse by forgetting, free to appreciate all the wonderful aspects of her childhood, while being blind to the incest.


As an adult, Tamara’s betrayal blindness protected her from the pain of knowing her father had sexually abused her, just as it had in childhood. However, her presence on this merry-go-round of rotating betrayal blindness also structured her possibilities for growth and prevented her from moving toward a deeper, more integrative healing from trauma. In this way, she stayed stuck for years, the rate of the rotation in and out of betrayal blindness dependent upon the situation: present-day vacation with family = blind to historical betrayal; dinners with her best friend = awareness of incest; entering a sexual relationship with a man = quick rotation from awareness back to betrayal blindness.


Although a healthy body, supportive relationships, and the opportunity to make safe disclosures may help an individual come to terms with trauma (as explained in Blind to Betrayal), integrating the knowledge that one has been betrayed by a trusted other rarely proceeds in a linear fashion. More often, individuals like Tamara—and those bearing witness to the trauma of others—rotate in and out of betrayal blindness on their journey to make sense of the past, find words for their experience, and heal.


Overt examples of rotating betrayal blindness like Tamara’s may be common amongst those who have experienced betrayal trauma, but this phenomenon can also manifest itself in more subtle ways. For example, even when traumatic events are explicitly remembered and disclosed, individuals may minimize their significance by dismissing the event as unimportant or otherwise engaging in what Mic Hunter describes as “bargaining” with the self. For example, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse who suddenly remembers the incest might insist: “it couldn’t have been abuse because Dad was such a family man.” Likewise, an individual whose lover committed infidelity might say to themselves “Yes, but it only happened once” or “Yes, but she was hurting and unable to make good decisions.” Such statements are often interspersed with stronger aversive reactions to the betrayals in question. In this way, individuals may use rotating betrayal blindness to maintain the coherence of their autobiographical memory without letting go of denial that a betrayal has occurred.


While more research is needed to understand how and why rotating betrayal blindness occurs, it is clear that the degree to which memories of betrayal remain available over time (something Sivers and colleagues refer to as memory persistence) fluctuates—often dramatically—even long after discovering and disclosing memories of abuse. The very nature of trauma may help us make sense of this phenomenon. By definition, betrayal does not fit cleanly within the confines of an individual’s expectations, but rather, unexpectedly disrupts one’s experience of relational and narrative continuity. As such, betrayal poses a threat to the individual’s experience of close others as safe and predictable.


This may be especially true for children. Their experience (and by extension understanding) of the world is more limited than adults’ and they depend on adults to scaffold their experiences of the world. As Robyn Fivush explains in “The Development of Autobiographical Memory,” although younger children are able to connect past events with their present self, research from developmental psychology suggests that it is only in middle childhood that one’s life narrative begins to emerge. As such, children who experience betrayal in early childhood may have a particularly difficult time constructing a coherent narrative of the trauma. However, even for adults, relational betrayals may be so incongruous with their beliefs about relationships with trusted others that recognizing and naming betrayal is extraordinarily difficult—requiring significant narrative reorganization to maintain a coherent sense of self.


Given the discontinuity between betrayal and the rest of an individual’s experience, it is perhaps not surprising that trauma memories often emerge in unexpected ways. In the case of flashbacks, awareness of the trauma violently intrudes into the individual’s experience, as a betrayal is suddenly remembered, triggered by a touch, sound, or smell that reminds them of the event. By contrast, awareness of the betrayal may emerge slowly, as though through a fog. And these two experiences may occur within the same individual—even simultaneously—for the same trauma. In either case, the process of integrating trauma memories necessarily resists a linear course, and may entail what Johnathan Schooler describes as changes in the individual’s meta-awareness of the abuse.  


During healing, rotating betrayal blindness could perhaps be described as the dialectic between a self’s fidelity to the event of trauma, on the one hand, and a self’s bearing witness to that event, on the other. For some, concurrent denial and awareness help protect the individual from one truth of trauma, while helping them integrate others. That is, denial itself can be conceptualized as a sort of fidelity to the event of trauma: it signifies the unallowable nature of what has happened and, in some cases, reflects direct instruction by a betrayer to forget or disbelieve personal experience.


True healing begins when this rotating motion takes an individual beyond the merry-go-round, which only spins in place. Rotating betrayal blindness often persists into a phase that we can call the upward healing spiral—a process that leads the individual toward fuller integration of trauma and its ongoing effects on their life. In this phase, however, rotating betrayal blindness occurs within a larger narrative frame of recovery from trauma. Here, denial and awareness still co-construct the meaning of traumatic events for the individual. In contrast to the merry-go-round phase, however, where they alternate without going anywhere new, in the upward healing spiral, the rotating elements of denial and awareness drive integration and foster meaningfully new experiences.


As a child, Tamara was completely dependent on her parents for survival and denied that her father was sexually abusing her at night. During these years, betrayal blindness helped her survive and protected her from immense psychological pain. Once Tamara had left home and became financially independent, she slowly began to remember the incest. However, remembering was hardly a linear process, and she often doubted whether her memories were real. Sometimes Tamara couldn’t remember the sexual abuse at all. For years she lived on a merry-go-round of rotating betrayal blindness, stuck oscillating between blindness to the immense betrayal of her father’s actions and awareness of the abuse. Without an overarching narrative frame of recovery from trauma, this process of alternation between denial and awareness kept Tamara stuck. However, by putting words to her experience and sharing her memories with trusted others, Tamara made a decision to step off of the merry-go-round and begin a healing journey where betrayal blindness played a new and important role—taking her beyond survival and helping her grow. While it may seem counterintuitive that denial could aid in healing, rotating betrayal blindness—when operating within a context of recovery—helps people like Tamara integrate the reality of betrayal and move forward with their lives.    



For Further Reading:


Fivush, R. (2011). The development of autobiographical memory. Annual Reviews of Psychology, 62, 559-82.

Freyd, J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood sexual abuse. Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press.

Freyd, J. & Birrell, P. (2013). Blind to betrayal: While we fool ourselves we aren’t being fooled. Hoboken, N. J.: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Hunter, M. (1990). Abused boys: The neglected victims of sexual abuse. New York, N.Y.: The Ballantine Publishing Group.

Schooler, J. W. (2001). Discovering memories in the light of meta-consciousness. Journal of Maltreatment Trauma, 4(2), 105-136.

Sivers, H., Schooler, J. & Freyd, J. (2002). Recovered memories. In V.S. Ramachandran (Ed.) Encyclopedia of the Human Brain, Volume 4. (pp 169-184). San Diego, California and London: Academic Press.