Recently I ran a conference about abuse within the church. In these kinds of venues (this blog and conferences) I am asked about a couple of related problems—the problem of false memories of abuse and the reliability of recovered memories of abuse.
While I intend to address these matters here (and in future blogs), I want to reiterate something that I think gets lost in most conversations about recovered and/or false memories.
Sexual abuse is real. The vast majority of adult reporters of abuse during childhood never forgot the details.
Why say this first? Discussions of rare and extreme cases (i.e., repressed memories, recovered memories, and false memories) tends to create undue suspicion for all adults who choose to reveal their child abuse later in life. It is my experiences that conversations about false memories or recovered memories lead many to assume that a report of extensive or horrific abuse is probably false. So, let us remember that as we take up the matter of fully repressed memories of abuse, we are talking about a very small percentage of people.
But, the issue of repressed and/or recovered memories and the construction of false memories is indeed worthy of a careful review given the strong feelings on both sides of the recovered memory debate. In order to be as careful as possible, I want to consider a few topics that may help us understand the issue. First, I will explore foundational topics (memory, forgetting, repression, and dissociation). Then, I’ll explore the how trauma is known to create confusion, self-doubt, and “motivated” forgetting. Finally, we’ll take up the practice of counseling victims of sexual abuse and the particular matter of dealing with memory retrieval in counseling. Strap in!
Just in case you NEED to know my opinion at the outset…
I find Partlett and Nurcombe’s 1998 summary of an APA report on the topic to be fairly comprehensive,
The plain point here is the consensus set forth by the Working Group:
1. Controversies regarding adult recollections should not be allowed to obscure the fact that child sexual abuse is a complex and pervasive problem in America that has historically gone unacknowledged.
2. Most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them.
3. It is possible for memories of abuse that have been forgotten for a long time to be remembered.
4. It is also possible to construct convincing pseudomemories for events that never occurred.
5. There are gaps in our knowledge about the processes that lead to accurate and inaccurate recollections of childhood abuse.
I would add one more point: most people (myself included) in this debate are motivated by strong feelings as well as “facts.” These feelings may be the result of experiences with those who appear to be abused or appear to be falsely accused.
Issue one: Memory and Memory Retrieval
Let me start by stating the obvious: this isn’t a neuropsychology primer on memory and I am not an expert in memory. However, there are a few things on which I think we can agree:
- memory is a whole brain biochemical process. While structures like the hippocampus are clearly involved in memory storage, no one structure handles all aspects of memory storage or recall.
- memory is multi-faceted. Researchers differentiate between recognition and recall memory, explicit and implicit memory, short-term, long-term, and working memories…and much more.
- memory-making is a process. The formation of memory requires attention, perception, encoding, storage, and retrieval. Thomas Insel calls it a 5 act play. A person moves from perception to long-term encoding to retrieval and finally, expression of memory.
- relational and affective context influences memory formation and memory retrieval
- the act of recall may change memory,
The concept is simple: memories are not fixed; they are periodically retrieved, and modified each time they are retrieved. This process of strengthening a memory by retrieval is called reconsolidation. One profound implication of this concept is that what you recall is not only a reflection of what you first learned, but also a product of each time you have recalled the original information.
How does this relate to our issue of recall of abuse?
- memories are both fragile and yet not so. You recall what the house you grew up in looks like, even if you haven’t seen it in 30 years. And yet, your recall may or may not be particularly accurate. You may remember a large house even when it is much smaller to your adult eyes.
- repetitive recall along with high levels of emotion may solidify memory. Most of us know exactly where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001. You remember this because you talked about it, played it over in your mind, and because of the powerful biochemical process kicked off when you heard of the first plane crashing into the twin towers.
- Most child sexual abuse has little corroborating evidence, especially when revealed decades later. This leaves victims by themselves to sort through the narratives they and others tell about their history. The result? Ample opportunities for both denials of actual abuse as well as false memory.
Return with me to my first point. Most child sexual abuse is never fully forgotten. Some memories may be lost, others distorted, still others intentionally forgotten. Memory, as we have seen here is not a structure but a narrative. In most cases, the story being told has much merit, even if some important details are perceived rightly. Thus memory retrieval during therapy (something that WILL happen whether therapist or client wants it) plays a powerful role in the re-storying work of therapy.
In my next post on this topic, I will make some comments about forgetting, motivated forgetting, dissociation, and repression.
 Partlett, DF & Nurcombe, B (1998). Recovered memories of child sexual abuse and liability: Society, science, and the law in comparative study. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 4, p. 1273
 “Rememberings—whether valid or invalid—are communicated by means of narratives.” Sarbin, TR (1998). The social construction of truth. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 18, p. 145.