Mind Matters — A Psychologist’s Trauma

I was probably a first grader standing in line, waiting to be dismissed from school at the end of the day. I muttered to myself, “I could hit that sister in the head for giving us so much homework.” The tattletale in front of me ran up to the teacher and blurted out, “Sister, Sister, Kathy wants to cut your head off!”

With that, Sister whipped me out of line and roughly pulled me to the principal, who was also the eighth grade teacher. Sister Prudentia exuded sanctimony while simultaneously eliciting fear among most students. Her penetrating blue eyes were fierce and cold, all the scarier because she was a “bride of Christ” who proudly proclaimed her piety. Indeed, she was quite the Pharisee.

Small child that I was, I had looked up to her as saintly. On this day, however, I was frightened, shaking and crying, as my teacher thrust me before Prudentia’s wicked glare. As I sobbed, trying so hard to catch my breath, this nun-turned-witch took a knife from her drawer and put it to my throat. Now, I really couldn’t breathe. I choked back tears as she demanded I stop crying and asked in a most cruel tone, “How would you like it to have your head cut off?” Would I die? I was doomed. Darkness descended. This was a religious person telling me I am bad: Her black habit was my shroud.

I don’t remember how long this interrogation and torture lasted, but I do know that I was frightened into silence. I walked home too ashamed to tell my mother. Yes, I walked home alone. We lived across the street from the church and school in a row house with my mother’s store in front.

Saying not a word, I suffered this brutal abuse of my six-year-old self, burdened with shame. The nightmares began. I must have woken up screaming every night until my mother somehow discovered what had happened. How she managed to find out was never clear to me. My guess is that an eighth grader witnessed the scene and reported it to my older brother. When my mother heard the story, she sat me down and asked me to recount my rendition of events. What she did then saved my life, because she believed me! She must have held me and made me feel safe again, but even more than that, I remember her practically sprinting to the convent herself, livid with rage. I don’t know what she told Prudentia, but I do know that after my mother confronted her, she never threatened me again. Ever after, she put on her piety persona, sweetly sanctimonious. However, my innocence never returned and the wound has always remained.

Many years after I became a psychologist, I decided to learn how to do Jungian sand tray work to use with my clients. I did not want to undertake this new tool without experiencing it myself first. So I went to a Jungian analyst who could supervise my sand play. Sand play work entails boxes of sand in which the person creates a scene from miniatures—figurines and such. In my first session with this analyst, I spied a nun miniature on her shelves of sundries. I was shocked at how I took that tiny doll and jammed it into the sand upside down and with great force.

Sixty years after the incident of early childhood, I still carried a dormant volcano of emotion. I thought I had worked on this trauma over and over, and yet there it was—clearly still carried within.

After discussing the trauma with the analyst, I set out to confront Sister Prudentia about the abuse she had inflicted upon me. I contacted the superior of her order and found out that, yes, she was still alive. I explained in detail what she had done. The Mother Superior said she would talk to Sister Prudentia about the matter and contact me. The outcome was what I fully expected.

Sister Prudentia told her superior, “I would never do such a thing to a child.” All I could say to her superior was that I knew she would deny what she did as almost all abusers do. “Remember, Sister Superior, I am a psychologist now. I know this happened and I also know from professional experience that she would deny it.” My innocence is lost, but my memory is not.

Neuroscientists and trauma specialists in the fields of psychology and psychiatry understand how the body remembers such trauma.

I was fortunate that at least my mother believed me. In my practice over the years, I have seen many people who have been severely traumatized by abuse in their childhoods. To make matters even worse, they were not believed by their families or the grownups in authority.

In fact, it was often a family member or person in authority who was the perpetrator. Other family members either denied the abuse ever happened or blamed the victim for it.

With the plethora of research in neuroscience and trauma over the past forty years or so, would that denial and blaming the victim become passé. That day may come, but it is not here yet.