The Jodi Arias murder case in which she claims prior abuse and failure to remember crucial aspects of her crime have brought the issues of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dissociation—concepts that are confusing to many—into national attention leaving many bewildered about how traumas, dissociation and crime may all be linked together.
Oftentimes PTSD is thought of as a disorder in which one cannot forget a trauma. And in many cases of PTSD, the trauma—having been burned deeply into memory—is constantly relived in intensely detailed and disturbing traumatic flashbacks. This is the most common manifestation of PTSD and what we have become accustomed to seeing portrayed in movies of trauma victims such as veterans perhaps suffering flashbacks of combat for instance.
There is however, also another side to PTSD and that is when a dissociative amnesia occurs in response to a trauma that is too horrible to make its way into the normal conscious narrative. This often happens for rape victims or others whose bodies were literally penetrated in an assault, accident or crime——they were so overwhelmed in every sense that their mind failed to record all the details of what happened to them, or locked it away so deeply that they are unlikely to get it back except in the safety of treatment—thus they suffer from a dissociative amnesia. They cannot remember everything that happened—the trauma is completely blocked from consciousness and locked away in the mind—in what psychologists label a dissociative amnesia. This is less common than recurring flashbacks but also occurs in those who have been deeply traumatized and suffer from PTSD.
A case of such an effect that comes to mind is Lorena Bobbit whose defense team I served on. After separating from her violently abusive husband who had threatened to continue raping her —into perpetuity—after their divorce she was again raped by him one last time. So horrified by the traumatic experience of rape and the fact that he apparently believed he could do as he liked with her, she stood up from the rape and suddenly experienced a flood of all the other abuse he had subjected her to over a long period of time—all episodes that she normally kept locked up in her mind. And during that overwhelming episode of traumatic recall—seeing a knife on the counter—she took it and removed “his weapon” ensuring he would never rape her again. In those moments she moved into a dissociative amnesia—and drove away from their home in such a state—only gradually “coming to” as she regained safety at which time she recalled both the rape and the crime. In this case a brutal sexual assault—following many others that had happened before it—caused a brief dissociative amnesia in which a chronic abuse victim enacted a crime and fled from it.
In addition to these responses to trauma there is yet another type of dissociation—dissociative identity disorder—that occurs in childhood victims of repetitive and inescapable traumas such as chronic sexual or violent abuse during early development. In these cases the child may create an entire sequestered personality—or personalities—that hold the traumas, with complete or partial amnesias occurring between the personalities. This used to be referred to as multiple personality disorder and is now referred to as dissociative identity disorder, and is believed to be rare.
I witnessed dissociative identity disorder in Annette Morales Rodriguez (and later wrote a book about it—Fetal Abduction) who admitted to me while in jail that she was both a rape and sexual abuse victim and that she had managed until just before her crime to keep all the memories of her rape and sexual abuse separated from her conscious awareness by having two personalities. However later in life when severely triggered by stressful events, her second personality “Lara” emerged with a vengeance and enacted a murder for which she had no conscious recall. Tragically the abuse had gone full circle and an abuse victim had in a severely dissociative state also become a victimizer.
So, is it possible to have a sexual episode engender dissociative responses and amnesia as Jody Arias’ defense team is claiming? Yes—I have seen this many times but only in those who endured rape or chronic sexual abuse.
Once, for instance a victim of childhood sodomy told me that she had complete amnesia and could not believe it had occurred, even when her mother presented her with hospital records of the event. Likewise when I questioned her further she was horrified to realize that she “disappeared” and had no record whatsoever of any sexual act that she had ever taken part in. She could, for instance tell me that she had sex (with her loving husband) a week previously and she could tell me where it started and what happened before and afterward but she was terrified to realize, with my questioning, that she was at a complete loss to recall anything that had happened during the actual sexual encounter. And this was true throughout her life.
Whether Jodi Arias is one of these cases I will refrain from commenting as I have only followed her case peripherally. But is it hypothetically possible that the threat of abuse following chronic abuse, or the act of sex following the experience of abuse or rape, or killing in the act of self-defense could engender a dissociative amnesia? Yes. Is this the case with Jodi Arias? I don’t know but I would comment that her seemingly need to over-kill her claimed abuser disturbs me—it’s almost as if she didn’t believe she could stop his life—and that makes me wonder.
That said I would add that with the societally denied—but sadly true ubiquity of child sexual abuse, rape and violence occurring in our culture—I am never totally surprised to run into persons who have rather severe PTSD, dissociative amnesias and dissociative disorders. Rape and sexual abuse are very terrifying experiences and victims are often silenced by threats and continued abuse. As a result some repeatedly re-experience their traumas as painful flashbacks and bodily arousal with triggers to recalling the trauma; others bury such traumas deeply in their mind with dissociative amnesias that they take many measures to keep buried until they are safe enough to work through them—if that ever occurs—and still others bury childhood traumatic experiences by splitting their consciousness into personality fragments that have strong dissociative and amnestic barriers between them.
What the Jody Arias case should make us all realize is that when rape and child abuse do occur—and they do often occur—the victims can be plagued with traumatic flashbacks, dissociative amnesias and even fragmented personalities and like Lorena Bobbit, Annette Morales Rodriguez and many others—they may commit crimes. Indeed I have even seen the same issues occurring also in individuals who volunteer as terrorists for suicide missions (see Talking to Terrorists). We should all be working to stop rape and child abuse because not only does it create victims but sometimes those victims turn around and commit crimes making our society less safe for all of us.
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Georgetown University Medical School and author of Fetal Abduction: The True Story of Multiple Personalities and Murder and Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”