Repressed memory is a complex and controversial phrase that suggests that the memory of an event is kept from conscious awareness because of the overwhelming anxiety associated with the memory. More recently, phrases used to describe the process by which a memory is forgotten are traumatic forgetting or dissociative amnesia, with phrases such as remembering and recovered memory describing the process of the memory returning to awareness. These phrases assume neither a particular theoretical orientation nor underlying mechanisms or motivations. Numerous studies, some of them quite meticulous in their methodology, acknowledge that a substantial minority of adult survivors of childhood abuse report that there was a time in their lives during which they had forgotten some memories of the abuse and later remembered them. They may re-remember abuse memories as knowledge, fragments, or a sensory or emotional state, or they may never remember them. The methodological rigor of these studies makes it clear that memories can indeed be forgotten and later recovered.
Some authors contest these findings, suggesting that most individuals would not forget such evocative abuse or other traumatic memories or that recovered memories are confabulated. These false memories are purported to occur because of suggestive techniques used either knowingly or unknowingly by therapists. Indeed, a knowledge base does acknowledge the possibility that memories can be partially or completely confabulated. These studies often involve experimental conditions in which researchers induce memories for far more benign events than those of sexual abuse. Of concern as well are studies of eyewitness accounts in which individuals are not fully accurate reporters of what they witness or experience. Further, memories of an event may change over time as they are filtered through individuals’ current lives. Thus, research is also clear that memory is imperfect and susceptible to suggestion.
That memory is fallible leaves survivors of abuse and professionals alike in a quandary. How do survivors and those who work with them know if their memories are valid recollections? They cannot, unless they have independent verification. Yet scientists believe that the fallibility of recall is typically in the details of events and that survivors are less likely to confabulate entire histories of abuse. However, the uncertainty of memory only adds fuel to the controversy. For survivors who simply want to know what happened to them, there will always be a level of uncertainty to their memories.
- Courtois, C. A. (1999). Recollections of sexual abuse: Treatment principles and guidelines. New York: W. Norton.
- Freyd, J. J. (2002). Memory and dimensions of trauma: Terror may be “all-too-well-remembered” and betrayal buried. In J. R. Conte (Ed.), Critical issues in child sexual abuse: Historical, legal, and psychological perspectives (pp. 139–174). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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