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Jean Wehner didn't know she was a victim of child sexual abuse for almost 30 years.

Warning: This post is about sexual assault and may cause distress for some readers. 

Jean Wehner didn’t know she was a victim of child sexual abuse for almost 30 years. Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon.

In the Netflix documentary The Keepers, Wehner talks about how she was repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and emotional abused by Father Joseph Maskell, a Catholic priest who worked at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore in the 1960s.

It wasn’t until 1992, when Wehner received an invitation to her high school reunion, that she started recovering the memories of her sexual assaults and piecing together the harrowing story of her abuse.

After receiving the invitation, Wehner began looking back through her old high school yearbooks, and when she came across a side-by-side photo of Maskell and Father Neil Magnus, she just knew.

“My whole body shook… I knew,” she says in the documentary.

the keepers recovered memories
Image via Netflix.

From that point, the memories of her high school years and the abuse she suffered started flooding back, and Jean began the difficult task of piecing together these fragments of her memories and making sense of them.

Wehner was experiencing recovered memories, a phenomenon not uncommon in child sexual abuse victims.

Dr Cathy Kezelman, the CEO of the Blue Knot Foundation, is also a survivor of sexual and emotional abuse. She too went through the painful process of recovering her memories in the 1990s.

"When I was in my mid-40s and working as a doctor, the death of my niece triggered a breakdown," she told Mamamia. 

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"I started experiencing panic attacks and anxiety, and I would get these flashbacks, and I really didn't know what they were at the time.

"I would get sensations and smells, my senses would be heightened and I would be going through all sorts of movements, reliving something that had been done to me, but without the meaning and without knowing when it happened."

recovered memories
Dr Cathy Kezelman (right). Image via Facebook.

"What was happening was that my memory was starting to unlock," she explained. "I was starting to re-experience elements of what had happened to me - but without the narrative and the chronology"

After months of silently suffering through these flashbacks, Kezelman consulted a therapist who taught her about recovered memories and helped her process them.

"The process of therapy for me was really about having a place where I felt safe," Kezelman explained. "Where I learnt to trust, where I learnt that someone else could keep me in mind, and really, a place where I explored of what came back and we explored that together."

As Kezelman explains, recovered memories occur when a child is at risk of their psyche being destroyed because of overwhelming trauma. If they don't have an adult who can step in, protect them and help them make sense of it, their mind tries to protect itself by storing the memories in their body, rather than their mind.

"They're stored in the body," she explains. "When a child experiences repeated trauma - repeated traumatic stress - there's a release of cortisol and what the cortisol does is affect the area of the brain, the hippocampus, where memories are processed and stored."

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Kezelman says people can become quite dissociated when they're going through the process of recovering their memories as they're being "thrown back into childhood spaces".

"I was quite dissociated. I had some therapy sessions where I would be talking in different voices, and my therapist would say 'who's that?' and I wouldn't know. These parts didn't know each other, and they didn't know each other's experiences," she explains.

"There were parts of me that didn't know other parts of me."

Through therapy, Kezelman discovered she had total amnesia for about 10 years of her childhood.

"I used to get really irate when people were reminiscing about what they had for lunch when they were kids, or where they lived, or where their classroom was, because I couldn't connect into it at all because I had no memory of it.

"I just had a line that I said which was, 'I had a great childhood, my mother told me so'. There was no detail, there no was context, there was nothing around it."

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Before she started having the flashbacks, Kezelman had never allowed herself to question how abnormal that was; she never drilled down into why she couldn't remember a big chunk of her childhood.

Once she began experiencing the flashbacks, she was able to piece together those 10 years through her recovered memories and by researching her own past.

It wasn't an easy road; the memories of the abuse "assaulted" her for years and Kezelman basically had to put her life on hold to process them.

"I was completely living in the past, I had no concept of the present," she says. "I had to give up my job as a doctor. I spent a couple of years virtually in bed, I was very close to the edge for a long time."

There are many similarities between the stories of Kezelman and Wehner, and both women now work tirelessly to support and give a voice to the most vulnerable people in our society.

For Kezelman, recovering the memories profoundly changed her as a person and she now advocates for other survivors of child sexual abuse through the Blue Knot Foundation.

Listen: The Keepers is a must-watch, and this is why. Post continues.

"As I started to make sense of what happened to me, it was actually a bit of a relief," she explains.

"It started to explain many aspects of myself and my emotions and how I engaged and didn't engage.

"And it changed me enormously. It changed my family dynamics enormously. Everyone had to explore it and do some work, and we're now much better connected, it's a much healthier connection."

Like Kezelman, Jean Wehner's life also dramatically changed after she processed her recovered memories. She now works as a life coach and her website reads: “I help people come to know themselves by planting both feet in their heartfelt desires while letting go of old experiences and beliefs".

After years of suffering, Wehner decided to participate in the documentary to “helps others find the courage to face their fears and trust that they are not alone".

If this post brings up any issues for you, you can contact Bravehearts (an organisation providing support to victims of child abuse) or the Blue Knot Foundation

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