Tag Archives: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

The Jodi Arias Trial & Dissociative Amnesia for Sex – the Intersection of PTSD & Dissociation with Child Abuse, Rape and the Carrying out of Crimes

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”

 

Zero Dark Thirty – And the Real World of Torture, Enhanced Interrogation, Rendition and Prolonged Detention

The disturbing torture scenes depicted in the recent film Zero Dark Thirty along with President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act allowing for Americans on U.S. soil to be subject to indefinite detention and torture have once again brought the questions relating to the usefulness of rendition, indefinite imprisonments and torture (both lite and hard) back into the public consciousness.  With media depictions increasingly glorifying the roles of military and civilian intelligence officers—even those who rely on torture—surveys of U.S. citizens have shown an alarming increase of Americans who embrace the idea of torture.   Of course one must understand that people—on both sides of the “war on terrorism” —are increasingly likely to embrace violent and extremist measures in direct proportion to the more they feel threatened.

That being said, however, the thoughtful individual needs to examine some core questions—the first being—does torture in any of it’s forms, including “torture lite” work?  The answer appears to be a resounding no.  Torture for the most part fails as a tactic because it does not leads to credible information, is problematic later for anyone we wish to prosecute, and may actually contribute far more to terrorism recruitment rather than to curbing terrorism.  When dealing with al Qaeda for instance we must understand that most hardened terrorists who have blood on their hands have committed themselves to the idea of “martyrdom” and may be adept at misleading us when we believe they have cracked under torture. And when we resort to anything that is morally bankrupt they will later use it against us to show their constituents and potential recruits our “true colors”.

By contrast, interrogation that relies on rapport building has shown itself to yield positive results.  When I worked in Iraq helping to build the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the 20,000+ detainees held there at that time by U.S. forces, three high value AQ operatives had been turned to our side as a result of a skilled and kind interrogator.  The simple act of sensitively inquiring about a head wound that needed treatment versus days of holding a person in stress positions, while denying him the ability to use the toilet as needed, and other abuses was much more effective in getting one of these operatives to switch sides, talk and to offer to assist us in our efforts to fight AQ in Iraq. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan agrees, stating that we have been very successful in getting even hardened terrorists with blood on their hands to talk by using old fashioned methods of building rapport.  Interrogation and building rapport are actually acutely honed skills that rely on a high level of emotional intelligence and that should be carefully taught and used in place of brute force.

I also found in Iraq that many of the lower value detainees expressed genuine amazement that they had been humanely treated and not tortured while in U.S. detention facilities.  They as a result also became much more positive about the U.S. and had little to go home to tell their families and tribes against us.

Whereas when pictures of our misdeeds in Abu Ghraib circulated, they became a powerful propaganda tool for AQ recruitment, fueling claims we are not who we say we are.  Indeed when I interviewed an Iraqi sheik who had been held in Abu Ghraib he was three years onward still suffering from the shame and humiliation of the way he had been forced to strip naked and be photographed while his genitals were mocked in the presence of female soldiers in the room.  And this Sheik’s outrage did not end with him—it extended to his entire family and tribe who are all responsible to revenge for him.

 And if we combine his outrage with that of our already too high collateral damage tolls from drone attacks, the fear and anger in civilian populations engendered by our drones, our renditions, prolonged detentions and our use of hooding, darkness, cold, loud and disturbing music, small cells, solitary confinement, stress positions, water boarding and all the other permutations of “torture lite” that we have recently resorted to—our actions become profound and powerful recruiting tools for al Qaeda.  And whatever gains made are severely outweighed by the loss of the moral high ground that occurs when we are lowered to the level of our enemies and we ourselves make a mockery of our once highly cherished principles of human rights.

That power corrupts is a well-known adage.  The famous Zimbardo prison experiments demonstrated how role-playing students when placed in positions of prison authority over others quickly transformed into cruel guards.  In real life the UK learned this lesson as well.  When their forces were allowed to use highly coercive interrogation techniques against IRA prisoners they found that it quickly advanced to cruel threats and the actual use of violence.  The progression in Abu Ghraib similarly moved quickly from prisoner physical to sexual abuse. When oversight and limits are missing in prison situations, cruelty can quickly abound with serious repercussions for all. 

And neither the UK or the U.S. claimed any significant actionable Intel as a result of these two shameful situations.

While “torture lite” may leave no lasting physical scars, the psychological scars of arrest, prolonged detention without due process, rendition and “torture lite” all leave long lasting psychological scars.  Indeed, imprisonment itself can be traumatic when it occurs without due process.  Who among us would do well with being put in a cage with little to no outside contact whilst having their records and computers suddenly and completely impounded? Relationships, employment, businesses, marriage plans—entire lives go off track in such instances.

When I made interviews of Palestinians during the second Intifada who had been put in administrative detention I found many youth who emerged from not knowing why or how long they would be held were deeply traumatized.  Even hardened terrorist leader Zakaria Zubeidi, leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin and sender of suicide terrorists, told me he’d rather “martyr” himself than ever again return to a prison cell.  Chechens who faced serious torture echoed similar sentiments. This tells me that our use of administrative detention and “torture lite” may actually contribute to the hardening of many terrorists who fear imprisonment more than “martyrdom”.

So as we debate once again our methods of choice in the fight against terrorism I suggest we back off of secretive decisions in behalf of proxy torture, secret detentions, coercive interrogations and the use of torture of any type.  Instead we should once again become a society that publically debates these issues and wisely decides to uphold the fundamental human rights of all persons—even those of unlawful enemy combatants.  And when those times come when we have no choice but to detain terrorism suspects we must learn from our mistakes and know that mistreating them nearly always carries too high a price and leads to less positive results than treating humans with the dignity and care that is necessary to build real rapport that can yield real results.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”