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ANALYSIS BY

Elizabeth Eldridge Phd

Clinical Psychology

Augusta University

Augusta, WA

 
Elizabeth Eldridge

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PhD in Clinical Psychology. Currently completing my Fellowship.

 
Joined On:
June 20, 2017
Last Active:
June 22, 2017
 

Writer/Host

Ryan White

Director

Ryan White

PsY Rating

The analyst's overall summary, as applicable, of the accuracy of the psychology and the subject's potential to be psychologically influential or manipulative.

A higher rating means the psychology is more accurate and positive.

06/20/2017

The Keepers: The Psychology of Rape Culture and Chronic Trauma

Have you heard of the new docuseries, The Keepers, recently released on Netflix? Based on a true story, it creates an important dialogue about the psychology of rape culture and the psychological response to sexual trauma. The story is portrayed without minimizing nor sensationalizing details. The result is, at points, hard to watch. The pain of the victims is raw and the accounts expose abuse in a manner that aligns with the very nature of traumatic experiences; vulnerable, unforgiving, and excruciating. But, before I discuss the importance of these women’s stories in more detail, I’ll provide a bit of background (warning: spoilers ahead).

At first glance, The Keepers is a murder mystery about the true, unsolved killing of a nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik, in Baltimore in the late 1960s. However, through seven episodes, the series proposes that she was murdered to silence her knowledge of sexual abuse within the church. What unfolds is exposure of this web of abuse and the all too common psychological pattern of victim blaming and denial that occurs in response to sexual assault.

Story Background

Sister Cathy, 26 years old at the time of her murder, taught English at an all-girls private Catholic high school for four years before leaving to teach at a public school.

On the night of November 7, 1969, she went to buy an engagement present for her sister and never returned home. Her body was found on January 3, 1970, near a garbage dump. Autopsy reports would later reveal that she had sustained blunt force trauma and strangulation. Her murder remains unsolved.

The second and perhaps most disturbing storyline of the series focuses on extensive reports of sexual abuse that occurred at Keough in the 1960s/1970s and the possible cover up of this abuse by state officials and the church. This abuse is the underlying thread that connects the various pieces of the story. A young priest, Joseph Maskell, a chaplain at Keough who had a Master’s in School Psychology and considered himself a counselor to students, was sexually abusing teenage girls.

The show postulates that Maskell, who had deep connections with city authorities and police, including a brother who was a Baltimore police officer, along with the Catholic church, which also has close ties with local officials in Baltimore, covered up Sister Cathy’s murder and the sexual abuse.

Several victims of Maskell’s abuse are interviewed throughout the show. One particularly harrowing account comes from Jean Hargadon Wehner, who began being abused at age 14 by Maskell after seeking spiritual forgiveness for being sexually abused by her uncle as a young child.

Maskell used this knowledge of her former abuse against her and required her to attend special “counseling sessions.” During these “sessions,” he repeatedly raped, degraded, and psychologically tortured her.

Jean and many others have come forward with claims of rape, assault, and abuse at the hands of Maskell over a span of decades. However, Maskell died from natural causes in 2001 with a clean criminal record.

In the show, Jean explains that she repressed memories of the abuse for over 20 years. She avoided thoughts and reminders of high school, associating these years with unpleasantness. While going through an old yearbook to help figure out her adverse reaction, she spotted a picture of Maskell. “My whole body shook…I knew,” she stated. In the years that followed, she tried to file charges, but was told there was insufficient evidence. She and another victim tried to file a civil suit to hold Maskell and the church accountable, but she lost. Instead, she endured hours of intrusive questioning by skeptical lawyers. In the center of the doubt and denial was a prominent psychiatrist and member of the Catholic church, who discredited the very existence of repressed memories.

Ryan White, the series creator, describes Jean as a brave woman “who’s been trying to tell this story for decades and has been silenced.”

Psychological Questions and Considerations Raised by the Show

Disclaimer: The below discussions of trauma and common responses to trauma are based on psychological theories and research that may apply to situations discussed in the show. As I have not met, evaluated, or treated any of the individuals involved in the show, who are real people who experienced real trauma, it should be noted that these discussions are conjecture and should not be interpreted as actual clinical analyses of an individual.

What is rape culture and how does it apply to this story?

Rape culture is the prevailing social attitudes that normalize or trivialize sexual assault and abuse. Rape culture is the uncredited special appearance that can be seen in almost every episode. Victim blaming is part of rape culture. Jean and other former students were subjected to scrutiny and hostility after coming forward, being treated as criminals instead of victims. And, in this blame, comes the notion that victims can somehow prevent their own abuse.

Feminist blogger Melissa McEwan said this about the myth of preventing rape:

Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you're alone, if you're with a stranger, if you're in a group, if you're in a group of strangers, if it's dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you're carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you're wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who's around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who's at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn't follow all the rules it's your fault.

Why would Jean believe she needed forgiveness for being abused by her uncle?

Self-blame is a common result of trauma, particularly chronic trauma, and is a focus of psychotherapy in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. A few different psychological theories can be used to understand why people would blame themselves. One theory is that children, especially in Western societies, are inappropriately taught that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, an assumption known as the “just-world belief.” Children learn the just-world belief through religion, parents, teachers, and children’s stories. If something unexpected occurs that does not align with this belief, discomfort can be experienced due to conflicting attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors, a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance.

The human mind automatically uses several different strategies to alleviate cognitive dissonance in traumatic situations, either changing the pre-existing belief to fit with the event or seemingly changing the event (by altering memories or interpretations of the event) to fit pre-existing beliefs. As a child, if Jean believed she was a good person and something bad happened to her (being sexually molested), she likely experienced cognitive dissonance and may have changed her beliefs about herself to make sense of what happened (i.e., believing she is a “bad” person since something bad happened to her, leading her to feel a need for forgiveness). Later, when Jean again experienced sexual trauma, these changed beliefs about herself were likely reinforced (i.e., confirming feelings of guilt, self-blame, and shame).

How trauma may create memory problems

Many researchers that study memory processes and clinicians that treat trauma agree that memory repression can happen, although this type of amnesia is rare and practices with the sole purpose of recovering memories are generally not used in professional therapy. Highly publicized events in the 1980s involving supposed recovered memories shed light on faulty therapy practices that were suggestive in nature and likely created false memories.

Much more common are memory problems, not total memory loss, related to traumatic events. Memory problems are one of the defining markers of posttraumatic stress disorder. While it may be rare for an entire event or series of events to be blocked from consciousness, people more commonly experience missing pieces in their memories of the trauma or recall that something traumatic occurred but have difficulty remembering specific details. Research suggests several reasons for these trauma-related memory concerns, including dissociation during the trauma (or detachment from the physical and emotional experiences, avoidance of reminders following trauma, and difficulty with memory retrieval. Additionally, over time, memories of the traumatic event can be altered to fit with pre-existing beliefs, another response to cognitive dissonance (explained above). For instance, if Jean began to believe that she may be a good person, which she described experiencing when she met her future husband during her senior year of high school, she would likely have to alter her memories to allow this belief to exist. To change memories of the event to fit beliefs, trauma survivors often “forget” the event or forget the most upsetting parts of the trauma, a common focus of trauma-related treatment.

In Jean’s case, based on the show alone, it is difficult to know if she truly experienced full memory repression or the type of memory impairment that is more common among trauma victims. For instance, she acknowledged that she felt uneasy about her high school experience and avoided thoughts, reminders, and people associated with the school. She may have had some level of conscious awareness of the trauma, but avoided accessing these memories. Sometimes, when people are presented with a reminder of trauma, they may feel as if previously absent memories are flooding back, although what is occurring is just previously missing pieces of memory fitting into an already existing and conscious framework.

Is repeated trauma any different from single episode trauma?

Repeated, prolonged trauma is much more complex, leading psychologists to use the term “complex PTSD” to describe symptoms resulting from chronic trauma. Childhood trauma can create a lasting change on how situations are processed, with some research even providing evidence of physical changes in brain structures when trauma occurs during early developmental periods. For individuals who experience years of abuse, the culmination of experiences can cause character changes, memory impairment, and coping strategies that become less useful in the absence of trauma (i.e., dissociating, avoidance, mistrust of others, pervasive negative beliefs about self).

What’s the likelihood of people making up sexual assault?

A woman lying about experiencing sexual assault is infrequent and difficult to prove. False rape accusation statistics have inherent problems. Numbers may be inflated by women recanting their claims for many reasons, even if the assault did occur. For instance, it is a common practice for police officers to try to bully victims into admitting claims are made up, a strategy that the lawyers used on Jean and was discussed in the show. Overall, while false claims do happen, they are likely far less common than the number of actual sexual assaults that occur.

Why do people tend to blame the victim?

Victim blaming is a well-known phenomenon. Often, society tends to focus on personal responsibility of the target, overlooking or outright dismissing factors outside of the individual’s control. We see this in media coverage, movies, television, and everyday life. A fraternity pledge is bullied and people claim he was too sensitive. A politician is verbally attacked in a debate by an opponent and people state that her cold demeanor incited such behavior. A woman is sexually assaulted at a nightclub and people postulate that the crime may not have happened if she had stayed home or dressed more conservatively (a common thread in rape culture, which encompasses victim blaming tendencies). A man receives government support for a disability and people view him as lazy and deceitful. But why do people default to this pattern of blaming those who are hurt, attacked, targeted, or otherwise impacted by misfortune? Why are we more likely to doubt victims?

Social psychologists believe that victim blaming may not be a tendency with malicious underpinnings. In fact, researchers believe that victim blaming is largely due to people’s desire to make sense of the world and avoid feelings of vulnerability. Victims of senseless, unpredictable, unavoidable misfortune conflict with beliefs of a just-world (explained in more detail above). If bad things happen to good people and there are not necessarily steps that we can take to prevent such bad things from happening, our world seems much more threatening, making us vulnerable. Believing that bad things can be avoided by changing what we wear, acting differently, working hard enough, or having a certain amount of moral decency makes the world seem more safe and logical and allows us to believe we have a certain level of control over what happens to us, which, unfortunately, may not always be the case.

With all the awfulness of the abuse these women experienced, are there any positive take home messages?

While "The Keepers" explores harrowing accounts of murder, sexual abuse, and potential cover ups, one of the resounding messages is hope. Specifically, this show offers a portrait of resiliency, determination, and bravery among women and trauma survivors, in general. The stories of the survivors provide strong examples of living satisfying, fulfilling lives, despite deep human suffering, offering hope to those experiencing trauma, in the past, present, or future. The strength of these women addressing rape culture by persisting in sharing their stories despite being silenced repeatedly for years is a testimony of resiliency.

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