Memories, Primals, and Reflections

By Belden Johnson

"The older I get the more clearly
I remember things that never happened."

--Mark Twain (attributed)

During the first week of my intensive in 1974, I began experiencing feelings and movements that the Harvard­trained scientist in me insisted couldn't be happening. Another part of me was saying, "My God! I'm re-experiencing being born!"

At that time I'd never heard of anyone having such feelings. My therapist was as non-directive as was humanly possible. He wasn't sure what was happening himself and called in his supervisor, who simply encouraged me to "go with the feelings and not try to figure them out," something I've been passing on to clients for a quarter century. At no time did either of them label my experience as "birth feelings."

After two weeks I knew that I had re-experienced a goodly portion of my birth. I did not think maybe I had. I knew it. I didn't need to convince anyone else of this fact or to sue the obstetrician who'd let me languish shoulder-stuck for what seemed an eternity. My focus was on how great I now felt and how I didn't need to be stuck anymore in my present life. I also no longer despised men in white coats.

Afew month's later I talked to my mother to check on her reality of this mutual experience. Previously the only fact I had known about my birth was that she had searched "high and low" to find a doctor and hospital that would consent to a drug-free, "natural" birth. "Mom," I said, "did I have trouble getting out?. Was I stuck by my shoulders?" Her eyes widened ever-so-slightly.

"Why, yes!" she said. "Your head popped right out, but your shoulders wouldn't come for another hour."

Amiably, we proceeded to verify several more specifics of my birth. What really touched me was that she simply accepted that I could know such details.

This story illustrates three kinds of truth: (1) my subjective truth, (2) objectively verifiable truth, and (3) a legal truth established by a jury.

During therapy, people will tend to make sense of feelings by pigeon-holing them prematurely. Clients and even some therapists do so because most people are highly uncomfortable with ambiguity. We like a clear story rather than a fuzzy ghost.

Early in my training as a primal therapist, I had a client whom I'll call Sorrel who was certain that Satan was (a) real and (b) coming to get us. As she shrieked in absolute terror in the total darkness of the windowless basement room of the Center, I must admit that, despite my skepticism about the reality of the Devil, I was keeping a close watch on the door.

After all, I hadn't believed I could re-experience birth; I no longer had a narrow mind about the limits of the possible. And she clearly believed the Devil was now bending over her. She saw him. During a brief break in her terror, I asked her what he looked like. "Red face, ugly! Awful! All black all around him! And, and, something white just under his chin - Ohmygod!"

The white under his chin turned out to be a clerical collar. Over several more sessions Sorrel pieced together that this figure she'd symbolized as the Father of Evil was in fact an actual man, a priest at her Catholic school who had sexually abused her. After several more months of therapy, she had enough faith in her subjective experience to want to check it out more objectively with her sisters, each of whom confirmed that she, too, had been similarly abused.

They did not sue the Church or the school. They spoke with the abuser and his superiors. He was persuaded to step down from shepherding young people and enter treatment.

While it is true that people in and out of therapy will tend to symbolize old feelings in present dramas, by doing the hard labor of feeling those feelings through to the primal roots of the experience we will eventually arrive at a subjective truth which no one can steal from us. This truth is in itself liberating: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."

However, we must remember that the standards for scientific or legal truth are quite different. The fact that many of us knew for a certainty that neonates are quite conscious did not impact the medical establishment and birthing processes until clever researchers began to construct ways of objectively demonstrating this fact.

In the legal arena, it looks to me that there is a remarkable lack of clear thinking. Legally, the entire "false memory syndrome" debate is but a red herring: what does it matter whether a memory is accurate if there is no substantiating evidence? In that case you simply have a "he says/she says," standoff. The real issue is not false memory but false accusation. If, on the other hand, a woman remembers, many years later as in the Franklin case, that her father sexually abused and then killed a young girl friend of hers and can lead investigators directly to the skeleton, it looks to me that there is clear evidence that the girl was done in.

We do not, however, have conclusive evidence that it was the father who did it. Why would a court even consider convicting someone of a major crime based upon someone else's memories or perceptions without substantiating evidence? Similarly, since what happens in therapy usually involves only two people, isn't what happens between them one person's word against the other's? If therapists are going to be presumed guilty of "implanting" memories or sexual abuse simply on a client's say-so, therapists are going to be driven out of the profession. Those of us who come from a bodywork-oriented tradition have had to pull way back from the kind of work we did in the 70s. I now do bodywork only with clients who have been in therapy long enough to be clear and to have the capacity to inform me of their limits.

When any of us begins descending into deep feelings, we can symbolize those feelings in mythic forms, such as Satan. We can see things that aren't there. Even a year into my work with another woman who had been sexually abused as a child I intuited that I should never even shake her hand. One day when she was sitting up across the room and avoiding my eyes, I asked her if she was having trouble looking at me. "Yes," she said, clearly ill at ease.

"Do you know why?"

"Because you don't have any clothes on."

You've probably had one of those common dreams in which you show up for work and find people staring at you because you've forgotten to dress. I'll admit I glanced down just to check. Thank goodness, I was quite presentable. We now know that a great many more children are sexually abused than we ever believed was the case. Sadly, most of the perpetrators will escape without ever being called to account for their crimes.

We know that sexual abuse wounds children and usually has significant effects upon the adults they grow - into. We know also that some charges of abuse are false. How are we to deal with these societal problems in a way that is fair and protects both the children and those falsely accused? Using the courts to attempt to achieve justice in these issues looks to me like a crap shoot. But then, as you can probably tell, I am not a great fan of our system of jurisprudence.

I can certainly understand that an incest survivor would wish to manifest his or her new personal power by attempting to bring a perpetrator to justice. Such an action might even be therapeutic. And, although sexual abusers are unlikely to be deterred by the fear of going to court, given the compulsive nature of their aberration, if the threat of legal action makes even one potential abuser think twice I believe it's well worth it. It's worth extraordinary effort to protect our children.

While there are no quick and easy answers to these questions, I am thankful that we are beginning to ask them.

Belden Johnson is a primal therapist, a co-founder of The Primal Center, a poet, a husband and a father. He lives in Nevada City, California, where he is currently enjoying bucking up the downed trees from last Winter and playing softball.

He has also written A Primal Religion.
Also see The Primal Center.

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