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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Unbelievable: Myths and Truths of Complex Trauma

This new show, based on a true story, highlights the shame, stigma and outright harm that comes from the myths of trauma. The biggest win of the show, in my opinion, is in its truth-telling--not just telling the story of survivors of rape, not just in exposing misogynistic culture, but in emphasizing the inherent worth, dignity and agency of survivors of complex trauma.

Netflix has a new, limited series about the investigation and prosecution of a serial rapist, and the harm he--and misogynistic cultural norms—leave behind. In a unique way, the show focuses on the women who were assaulted, and tells the story of one woman in particular. “Marie”, barely an adult, was the first victim/survivor of the rapist. In the face of extreme psychological and physical pain, she reported the assault immediately to the police, recounted the details over and over again-despite the emotional suffering it caused, completed the “rape kit” required of her. Yet even with evidence of physical markings, ultimately, she was dismissed entirely, no one believed her, and she was greatly shamed by almost everyone around her. It really was unbelievable.

Except it isn’t.

Of course, it’s completely believable that a sexual assault against a woman would be dismissed, generally speaking —violence against girls and women is rampant and there is often very little resolution. But what makes it even more believable is the character's background—she was largely dismissed because of who she was, or rather how people saw her—as a young girl with a history of someone who couldn't be someone who didn’t matter.

One of Marie‘s foster mothers was the first to cast doubt, and while she did so, she recalled a memory of Marie dancing on top of a picnic table, swaying her hips, in a way that her foster mom felt was ”inappropriate”. It’s not uncommon in our society for people to come up with ways that victims of rape “deserved it”, by their dress or dance. But there was another layer here: the implication was that Marie acted out in sexually inappropriate ways because she’d experienced trauma, and therefore could not be trusted.

And indeed, the police ran with that. They discovered her ”folder” from the State’s Placement office, and saw years of ongoing trauma—abuse, separations, etc, and with their (mis)understanding of her background, they were convinced that she was lying, easily dismissed, that her truth didn’t matter and, in that context, abused her into recanting her report.

Complex Trauma: A Very Real Stigma

The thing is, the stigma around Complex Trauma is very real. How many times have you heard the phrase "Hurt people hurt people"? The message is quite clear that people who have experienced a trauma are dangerous--that they will bring harm to those around them. And we saw that when Marie's foster father refused to allow her into his--her--home, believing that Marie had made a false rape report, and fearing that she would harm him too. Unfortunately, some of the stigma has grown straight from the fields of Psychology and Public Health. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) is a very well-known study that researched the prevalence of traumatic experiences and connected those experiences to negative outcomes later in life. In this project, the researchers found that people who have early trauma can experience neurological changes that can lead to social and academic difficulty that can then lead to risk-taking behavior, that can ultimately lead to further trauma. And some of that is true, in fact, that's pretty much what happened to Marie...she did engage in risk-taking behavior, getting into a stranger's car and abusing alcohol and drugs...and she was abused again by the police, by her foster mother, by a co-worker.

The "Truths" about Complex Trauma

But here's the important piece: Marie had no consistent parent, guardian. As Marie's therapist noted, Marie had a string of people who loved her less than she deserved, and as a result, carried that enormous burden. It's hard to say whether Marie did in fact, have neurological disruptions due to early trauma that led to social issues, risk-taking behaviors and further trauma. But what does seem apparent is that a bad, horrible thing happened to her--and because of her trauma no one believed her. (Which is often why people with trauma make for an easier target of abuse). It is also obvious that because Marie was denied the experience of unconditional love, of support, of guidance from a consistent, trusted, worthy other, she had "social" disruptions--she didn't know how to navigate the world. Who would, after all? What seems evident to me, a relationally-focused therapist, is that Marie engaged in risk-taking behavior because she was looking to escape her pain and suffering related to the rape, to the abuse, but mostly from the pain of feeling despairingly alone.

Yes, complex trauma--trauma that happens in our closest relationships, trauma that keeps going and going--it's complicated. Often survivors have ways of protecting themselves that aren't in their best interest. And often, a connection with another can bring up all the memories associated with the trauma, leaving survivors to protect themselves, rather than connect in a way that feels good. But in fact, a strong, trustworthy, consistent connection--relationship--is just where the healing happens.

The Take Away

Sometimes, a little bit of information is dangerous. And I think the same is true for our theories and "knowledge" of complex trauma survivors. What we "know" about people who have had trauma can evoke fear. And when we bring fear, when we focus on protecting ourselves, not only can we not connect--but we mirror to the person that there is something scary, something terrible, shameful about them.

If you have experienced Complex Trauma, the critical take away here is that there is nothing scary, terrible or shameful about you. Like Marie, you need a relationship that can help you see and feel that. Marie found that with her court-mandated therapist. And when she was really seen, outside of all that we think we "know", she could genuinely see herself.


At Creating Space and Wellness, I "know" about trauma. I have advanced training in treating people with trauma. But when you work with me, what you will find is a therapist who will offer you a dependable, trustworthy relationship, so that you can be really seen. So that you can see yourself in a reliable, accurate, compassionate way. Not as a cluster of symptoms, not as a danger, but as a human being, with dignity, worth, agency--as you really are. And from this, you will have the confidence to explore and unburden yourself from consistently seeking protection, instead feeling free to engage in authentic, meaningful connections that feel good.

Call to get started today! 856-281-1664


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