Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse
on this page
- Overview and Introduction
- Introduction to Traumatic Memories
- Normal Questions and Doubts
- Memory Is Not Like an Unedited Video
- There Is No One Thing That is ‘Memory’
- Fragmentary Memories May Be It
- Final Introductory Thoughts
As a clinical psychologist with expertise in psychological trauma, including due to child abuse and sexual assault, I have studied traumatic memories, including recovered memories of sexual abuse, for over 20 years.
This section of my site has six pages: an overview and introduction (this page); a page that speaks directly to those with personal questions and concerns about their own memories; one with scientific and scholarly resources; one on how the media deals (mostly poorly) with this issue; and one with additional resources (e.g., books, websites, etc.).
Overview and Introduction
In 1995 I began offering web resources on recovered memories of sexual abuse, primarily to direct people to quality scientific and scholarly work on traumatic and recovered memories, especially:
- Research evidence showing that it is not rare for people who were sexually abused in childhood to go for many years, even decades, without having (recognizable or explicit) memories of the abuse. (People almost always have implicit memories of the abuse, that is, memories they did not realize were memories, for example physiological or emotional responses triggered by encountering things associated with the abuse, like being touched in a certain way). This body of work shows that claims to the contrary are contradicted by lots of scientific evidence.
- Research and theoretical writings by qualified specialists who agree that: a) traumatic and nontraumatic memories have some different characteristics; b) the construct of ‘dissociation’ better explains many traumatic memories, e.g., those involving fragmentary sensations and feelings which are disconnected from verbal narratives, and associated with amnesia and delayed recall. These works show that making claims about traumatic memory solely based on generalizations from research on nontraumatic memory, and focusing on the constructs of ‘repression’ and ‘repressed memory,’ can often be confusing distractions and misleading tactics.
To accomplish these two goals, this section need not be comprehensive or up-to-date on the latest research – though I occasionally make additions and am always open to suggestions.
I also created this resource to provide helpful information for people struggling with their own traumatic memories, including the inability to remember abuse experiences they have strong evidence actually occurred, and doubts about fragmentary memories they have always had or recently begun to recall.
Importantly, I want to acknowledge some critical issues that this section of my site, with its limited goals, does not address except in passing:
- Every instance of recall is a process of reconstruction, and therefore involves some degree of distortion.
- This process of reconstruction is never random, and is always influenced by factors internal and external to the person attempting accurate recall. For example, loss of information and other distortions during recall are much more likely for ‘peripheral details,’ or aspects of the experience that the brain gave little attention or significance at the time, than for ‘central details’ that were given significant attention and emotional significance during the event, or for aspects of repeated experiences that were present every or almost every time it happened.
- There is strong evidence that people can sincerely believe they have recovered a memory or memories of abuse by a particular person, but actually be mistaken.
- There is strong evidence that such memories have led to accusations about particular events that never happened and accusations of people who never committed such acts.
- In some cases mistaken memories and accusations have caused extraordinary pain and damage to individuals and families.
- One of the preventable causes of these tragedies is incompetence by therapists, who sometimes contribute to the creation of false memories and/or believe them without good reason.
- There are still no reliable statistics on the occurrences listed as numbers 3 through 6 above. See two articles by Dr. Kenneth Pope: ‘Questioning Claims About the False Memory Syndrome Epidemic,’ and ‘Science as Careful Questioning: Are Claims of a False Memory Syndrome Epidemic Based on Empirical Evidence?’
- Some of these issues are addressed at the website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. I do not endorse that organization, their website, nor their treatment of these issues, which is clearly biased and extreme in many ways. But I do encourage you to consider all positions, to contrast what you learn here with the materials presented at the FMSF site, and to come to your own conclusions.
Finally, I encourage you to read some of the scholarly works cited on the Scientific Research page of this section. These will help you to make your own judgments rather than rely on what you hear or read in the popular media, or what is available on the net – including this section of my site. It is my aim and hope, however, that what I provide will give you powerful knowledge and tools for thinking more critically about whatever else you hear and read on this topic.
Introduction to Traumatic Memories
Traumatic memories, including of childhood sexual abuse, can be confusing. They can cause lots of doubts. They can trip you up. But they can be sorted out too – certainly enough to heal and have the life you want.
Normal Questions and Doubts
You may be wondering:
- Can I believe my memories?
- What if I’m not sure what happened?
- How do I deal with the memories I do have?
Such questions and doubts about one’s memories can get in the way of understanding what happened, how it’s affected you, and how to achieve the life you want.
To help clear things up, here’s some basic information about human memory and memories of stressful or traumatic experiences.
Memory Is Not Like an Unedited Video
Our brains do not simply record and ‘play back’ events exactly as they happened in the past. Instead, almost every instance of recall involves some processes of reconstruction by the brain, which means it involves some distortion too.
Yet this does not mean that memories are ‘only constructions’ and can’t be trusted at all.
Research suggests that some brain systems record what actually happened and another system is responsible for how someone makes sense or meaning of what happened. Research also shows that usually people accurately recall the ‘gist’ and ‘central details’ of highly stressful experiences. For example, someone may remember who the other person was and the nature of the most disturbing sexual act or acts, and whatever it was that got their attention as it happened (i.e., the central details), but not all of the furniture in a room where it happened, nor all the details of each act, especially those that they did not notice or pay attention to (i.e., ‘peripheral details’).
The fact that human memory is not like an unedited video does mean that memories may not be completely accurate, and that any particular memory could involve a mixture of actual and imagined events (or parts of events).
Memory is complicated. That can’t be avoided. But memory can be understood.
Of course, the picture is more complex: Someone may block out or ‘edit out’ some disturbing emotions and sensations. Children or adults may focus their attention on a spot on the ceiling or the wall, or imagine themselves in a completely different place altogether. In those cases, the ‘central details’ of the experience, for that person at that time (e.g., that spot on the ceiling), are things that would typically be peripheral details or not even part of the memory at all. Thus what would otherwise be considered the ‘main’ or ‘most important’ details of the sexual acts may not be encoded into memory, or only minimally so. (See also the second half of my YouTube talk, Neurobiology of Trauma & Sexual Assault, where I focus on memory encoding, including of central vs. peripheral details.)
There Is No One Thing That is ‘Memory’
Researchers distinguish a variety of different types of memory. When it comes to memories of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences, three types are key: episodic, implicit, and procedural.
Episodic memories are what we typically have in mind when we think about remembering something that happened in our past. They are memories of specific events, times, and places, and typically include the emotions associated with them. These are memories that we recognize as memories of events in our past, as in, “I remember the time I rode that huge roller coaster at Great America.”
Episodic memories can be partial or fragmentary. Someone may remember only snapshots or brief ‘clips’ of an event. Or someone may remember visual images and sounds but not feelings, or feelings and sounds but not images, etc.
It is not uncommon to have such fragmentary memories of unwanted or abusive childhood sexual experiences (or physical or emotional ones). Such memories can be quite confusing, and can lead one to wonder what – if anything – might really have happened. Such fragmentary memories can lead people to wonder whether their memories can be trusted at all.
But as explained above, just because a memory is fragmentary does not necessarily mean that the fragments are not memories of real experiences. Sorting things out can take time, however, and can require help from a therapist who understands how to avoid distorting memories when you do recall them.
Implicit memories are memories that contain information about a past event or experience but are not recognized as being about that event or experience. (‘Implicit memory’ is the opposite of ‘explicit memory,’ in which one recognizes that what they’re experiencing is a memory.)
These implicit memories are typically fragmentary sensations or emotions that get triggered by current experiences that the brain associates with past experiences but – again, here’s the rub – the connection is not recognized.
That is, one is remembering part of an experience (e.g., of sexual abuse), but not realizing that’s what’s happening, not even realizing that one is remembering anything, and thus not seeing any connection between one’s current experience and an event or events in one’s past.
For example, someone might become afraid or angry when touched by an older man or woman, but not realize that’s because they were sexually abused by an older person as a child. Or someone could have sudden disturbing images of rape when being sexual in a loving way, but have no idea that the images are connected to a rape that happened to them in the past. Or the smell of beer or a certain kind of liquor may trigger feelings of terror or disgust, but the person is baffled about why.
When such experiences happen, they can be very strange and upsetting, and can seem ‘irrational’ to the person having them (and others who are told about such experiences). He or she may think, “What’s wrong with me?” or “Am I crazy?”
But if such experiences are actually implicit memories of past abuse, then what’s happening makes complete sense and is definitely not a sign of insanity. It’s just how the brain works sometimes.
Eventually, such experiences may be recognized as fragmentary memories that are connected to past unwanted or abusive sexual experiences. But not always: sometimes its impossible to know whether a disturbing experience or reaction in the present is actually an implicit memory.
Implicit memories can be very disturbing. Again, sometimes it’s just not possible to know, for sure, whether or not such experiences are implicit memories of actual past experiences. But it’s certainly possible to manage such experiences more effectively and to accept that such uncertainties sometimes just can’t be avoided.
Memories can be seemingly ‘crazy’ responses, or habitual ones.
Procedural memories are memories of how to do something. You may know how to ride a bike, in the sense of being able to do it, but that doesn’t mean you can consciously recall, let alone explain, exactly what you do with your legs and the rest of your body (i.e. those procedural memories) during every stage of each rotation of the pedals.
Importantly, it is possible to have procedural memories based on experiences for which one has no episodic memories. For example, a child may know how to perform a sexual act without (consciously) remembering having performed it in the past. Indeed, it is not uncommon for teenagers who were sexually abused as young children to discover that they ‘already knew’ how to engage in sexual behaviors despite having ‘no memories’ (that is, no episodic memories) of ever having engaged in them before. (And this can be very disturbing, of course.)
Most procedural memories connected to unwanted or abusive childhood experiences, however, are habitual responses to feelings of being harmed or betrayed (all over again). Many of the self-defense and self-blaming behaviors and thoughts that people have – retreating in fear, striking out in anger, criticizing themselves – are repetitions of childhood responses to being exploited or harmed by others (not only in sexual ways but in physical and emotional ways too).
These kinds of procedural memories cause many (probably most) of the problems we have in our relationships. They are ‘conditioned responses’ that are deeply etched into our brains. They arise automatically when we get ‘triggered,’ and are particularly likely to come out when we’re feeling stressed or vulnerable. Learning how to recognize such behaviors and nip them in the bud is one of the biggest challenges to becoming a healthy, happy and mature adult.
Fragmentary Memories May Be It
Some people will primarily ‘remember’ what happened with thoughts and behaviors that involve re-living responses to experiences that they cannot (fully) remember as episodic memories. Some will only suspect that they had such experiences because they are having what may be fragmentary episodic, implicit, and procedural memories.
Such confusing memories are more likely if the experiences happened when one was very young (before age 5), drugged in some way, in a state of intense fear, emotionally numb or ‘dissociated.’ Each of these can prevent experiences from being fully encoded by the brain systems that support episodic memory.
Understandably, it can be very disturbing to have such limited memories of potentially life-changing experiences in one’s past. And it can be very difficult to accept that one may never know more. However, for a variety of reasons, it is generally not a good idea to seek understanding and healing by ‘recovering’ memories. (For more information, see Personal Questions.)
Final Introductory Thoughts
Human memory is not simple and straightforward. It’s complex and complicated.
There are many ways that memories of unwanted or abusive sexual experiences can be fragmentary, can be unrecognized as memories, and can be causes of confusion, doubt, and problems in current relationships.
There are experienced therapists who can help with sorting out these issues.