Memories of Abuse

The rise in reports of documented cases of child sexual abuse has been accompanied by a rise in reports of sexual abuse that cannot be documented. Members of the public, as well as members of the mental health and other professions, have debated the validity of some memories of sexual abuse, as well as some of the therapeutic techniques which have been used. The American Psychiatric Association has been concerned that the passionate debates about these issues have obscured the recognition of a body of scientific evidence that underlies widespread agreement among psychiatrists that the public confusion and dismay over this issue and the possibility of false accusations not discredit the reports of patients who have indeed been traumatized by actual previous abuse.[1]

Human memory is a complex process about which there is a substantial base of scientific knowledge. Memory can be divided into four stages: input (encoding), storage, retrieval, and recounting. All of these processes can be influenced by a variety of factors, including developmental stage, expectations and knowledge base prior to an event; stress and bodily sensations experienced during an event; post-event questioning; and the experience and context of the recounting of the event. In addition, the retrieval and recounting of a memory can modify the form of the memory, which may influence the content and the conviction about the veracity of the memory in the future. Scientific knowledge is not yet precise enough to predict how a certain experience or factor will influence a memory in a given person.[2]

Some individuals who have experienced documented traumatic events may nevertheless include some false or inconsistent elements in their reports. In addition, hesitancy in making a report, and recanting following the report can occur in victims of documented abuse. Therefore, these seemingly contradictory findings do not exclude the possibility that the report is based on a true event.[3]

Memories can be significantly influenced by questioning, especially in young children. Memories also can be significantly influenced by a trusted person (e.g., therapist).[4] It has also been shown that repeated questioning may lead individuals to report "memories" of events that never occurred.[5]

Many individuals who recover memories of abuse have been able to find corroborating information about their memories. However, no such information can be found, or is possible to obtain, in some situations.[6] There have been numerous studies that have validated repressed memories when the offenders and other siblings eventually admitted to being a part of acts of abuse.[7] Some victims remember only smells (the sense of smell is closest to the memory areas of the brain so is a very powerful connector to events). Some only remember sounds or feelings,[8] [but] children, not knowing whether their memories are real, grow up unsure and unhappy.[9]

Children and adolescents who have been abused cope with the trauma by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. In some instances, these coping mechanisms result in a lack of conscious awareness of the abuse for varying periods of time. Conscious thoughts and feelings stemming from the abuse may emerge at a later date.[10] Studies report that the average age of remembering childhood incest is between 29 and 49.[11]

Psychiatrists should maintain an empathic, nonjudgmental, neutral stance towards reported memories of sexual abuse.[12] A strong prior belief by the psychiatrist that sexual abuse, or other factors, are or are not the cause of the patient's problems is likely to interfere with appropriate assessment and treatment. Many inidividuals who have experienced sexual abuse have a history of not being believed by their parents, or others in whom they have put their trust. Expression of disbelief is likely to cause the patient further pain.[13]

Interviewing a child involved in a…case requires the knowledge of a trained professional who can elicit true testimony by asking questions that will not influence the child.[13] Using televised testimony can help children avoid the trauma of facing the defendant in court.[15]

Often the alleged victim is the only witness. Should we accept what the child has to say at face value? Some psychologists and children's therapists say we must – that children don't often lie, that their lies can usually be detected, and that the story they tell is generally detailed and explicit enough to make what they say believable. Many defense attorneys say we shouldn't.[16]

Bass and Davis (1987), authors of the book Courage to Heal, which deals with sexual abuse, wrote, "If you are unable to remember any specific instances, but still have a feeling that something happened to you, it probably did." Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, however, believes that for some individuals, the "memory" may be inaccurate and the result of imagination, suggestion, or a means of explaining unhappiness in life (Darnton et al., 1991).[17]

A huge number of people are reporting that they were victims of ritual abuse as children. Some therapists and law enforcement officials believe stories of rape, human sacrifice, torture and incest, while others say it is mass hysteria or 'false memory syndrome.'[18] The False Memory Syndrome Foundation got its start in March 1992 in response to the cries of parents claiming they'd been wrongly accused of sexual abuse.[19]

[1] Statement on memories of sexual abuse (American Psychiatric Association statement), 1995 Information Please (TM) Almanac, Annual 1995, p. 438(1).

[2] Op. cit.

[3] Op. cit.

[4] Op. cit.

[5] Op. cit.

[6] Op. cit

[7] Jennifer James, Confusion continues over repressed memories, The Seattle Times, 22 Oct 1995, p. L2.

[8] Op. cit.

[9] Marla Williams & Dee Norton, The unraveling of a monstrous secret; sex-abuse scandal has Wenatchee reeling, (Part 1 of 2), The Seattle Times, 8 June 1995, p. A1.

[10] Gail S. Goodman, Understanding and improving children's testimony; in child abuse cases, Children Today, Jan-Feb 1993, 22(1), p. 13(4).

[11] FMS Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 8, 1993, at

[12] Statement on memories of sexual abuse (American Psychiatric Association statement), 1995 Information Please (TM) Almanac, Annual 1995, p. 438(1).

[13] Op. cit.

[14] Gail S. Goodman, Understanding and improving children's testimony; in child abuse cases, Children Today, Jan-Feb 1993, 22(1), p. 13(4).

[15] Op. cit.

[16] Alan M. Dershowitz (Professor of Law, Harvard Law School (1988)), Sex abuse: the child as witness (30 Oct 1984), Taking Liberties: A Decade of Hard Cases, Bad Laws, and Bum Raps (Illinois: Contemporary Books, Inc., 1988), p. 52.

[17] David Sue, Derald Sue, & Stanley Sue, Understanding Abnormal Behavior, 4th ed. (Mass: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1994), p. 201.

[18] Leslie Bennetts, Nightmares on Main Street; adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and satanic cults, Vanity Fair, June 1993, 56(6), p. 42(9).

[19] Paul McCarthy, UFO update: are UFO researchers using hypnosis to manufacture memories in abductees?, Omni, Nov 1994, 17(2), p. 85.

See also

Child Sexual Abuse
Traumagenic Dynamics
Freud and Seduction Theory Reconsidered