Q. Something just really weird happened. Neighbors just moved in next door. They immediately raised the house about 5 feet and have dug a huge basement—without any windows. The fascinating thing is that the little five-year-old girl was in the yard yesterday. I greeted her and said, “Wow! That’s a big basement. What are you going to do in the basement?” I swear it was like the proverbial shutters came down behind her eyes. She was standing there but she wasn’t really there, if you know what I mean. After staring at me for a few seconds her little body started to shake and then she turned and ran back into the house. When I mentioned this to my husband he quipped, “Maybe they’re doing rituals in the basement and the little girl had dissociated.” Do you know what this means?

A. That is a tall order because I have no idea what is going on with your neighbors or exactly what your husband meant. I can make a few general comments. The phenomenon of dissociation can be described as a process that alters a person's thoughts, feelings, or actions so that, for a time, specific types of information are not associated or integrated with other information as is normally the case. This process, which manifests along a continuum of severity, produces a range of clinical and behavioral phenomena involving alterations in memory and personal or self-identity.

Dissociation is sometimes seen in children (and later on into adulthood) who have experienced abuse. No doubt you already know that mandated reporting of child abuse in the United States began in the 1960s. Since then, the number of reports to children's protective services (CPS) and law enforcement agencies has steadily increased. Because most abuse cases occur during the preschool years, children may be particularly vulnerable to dissociation during those years.

In 1991, the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System indicated that 24% of 838,232 reports were for physical abuse and that 7% of children who were abused were younger than 1 year, 27% were younger than 4 years, and 28% were aged 4-8 years. Early age at onset was also correlated with a higher degree of dissociation. Exposure to family violence is estimated to impact a significant minority of children (physical abuse ranges from 4% to 16%).

In 1999, a study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry entitledMemories of childhood abuse: dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration. Two of the study conclusions were:

Childhood abuse, particularly chronic abuse beginning at early ages, is related to the development of high levels of dissociative symptoms including amnesia for abuse memories.

This study strongly suggests that psychotherapy usually is not associated with memory recovery and that independent corroboration of recovered memories of abuse is often present.

The results of a study by Eamon McCrory of University College London and his team were published in December 2011 in Current Biology. The study involved the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure blood flows in the brains of 43 children (exposed to violence at home) as they looked at pictures of sad or angry faces. The brains of children raised in violent families resembled the brains of soldiers exposed to combat. The children’s brains appear primed to perceive threat and anticipate pain, adaptations that may be helpful in abusive environments but that produce long-term problems with stress and anxiety.

In terms of ritual abuse, incidents have reportedly occurred for generations, although there are skeptics. If you really want more information, you might refer to the book entitled Ritual Abuse and Mind Control: The Manipulation of Attachment Needs. According to the authors, the younger the child is in age at the time of involvement with forms of ritual abuse, the more likely the child’s brain is to be impacted in major ways. Dissociation is certainly one of those ways.

Recently someone sent me a copy of Bishop Glenn L. Pace’s description of the correlation between child ritual abuse and dissociation. It is as good as any. Ritualistic child abuse is the most hideous of all child abuse. The basic objective is premeditated to systematically and methodically torture and terrorize children until they are forced to dissociate. The torture is not a consequence of the loss of temper, but the execution of well-planned, well-thought out rituals often performed by close relatives. The only escape for the children is to dissociate. They will develop a new personality to enable them to endure various forms of abuse. When the episode is over, the core personality is again in control and the individual is not conscious of what happened. Dissociation also serves the purposes of the occult because the children have no day-to-day memory of the atrocities. They may go through adolescence and early adulthood with no active memory of what is taking place. They may even continue in rituals through their teens and early twenties, unaware (consciously) of their involvement.