Tag Archives: sexual abuse

Forgetting Abuse? Some thoughts on motivated forgetting


Could someone really forget something as horrifying as a rape or sexual abuse? How come some people say they never stop reliving a bad experience while others say they have forgotten and cannot remember what happened? How do we best understand these two, seemingly, opposing reactions?

In a previous post I began a short series on the controversies of repressed and recovered memories. In that post I made a few general comments about the nature of memory. It isn’t a particular structure or substance or even stored as one discrete movie but rather is a whole brain process connected to context, mood, and self/other-perception. Memories do not exist outside of narrative or story (unfortunately for those with traumatic histories, these narratives are usually quite jumbled up making it difficult to tell the story well). In general, stories help us remember and remembering tells a story.

In this post I want to address the matter of forgetting abuse. Is it possible? The short answer is yes. Common to forget all of it? No. Common to forget portions? Yes. And even more common to have the experience of a new memory even without ever having forgotten the abuse (this I will address in the next post). It is possible to forget, to no longer have access to one’s own history. But, the bigger question is “how” and “why” rather than “if”.

Complicating factors

Laboratory studies re: memory cannot replicate the experience of sexual abuse or trauma. Thus, we have some rather weak experiments or post hoc, retrospective studies. What these studies point to is that (a) most people don’t forget entire episodes, (b) some forgetting does happen, and (c) some confabulation or memory error also happens (e.g., eye-witness accounts are more frail than we imagine them to be). But even when we get a good study, we find it hard to apply the information to real life. For example, one retrospective study located a number of child abuse victims decades after their ER visit to a hospital. A goodly number denied ever having been abused. While the study could reveal some form of forgetting, we might also be witnessing lying and/or alternative interpretations.

So, we have to admit at the outset we have a large supply of anecdotes of full forgetting, partial forgetting, and no forgetting, and an equally large supply theories and explanations based in part on experience and low power correlational studies. Now, anecdotes and poorly supported theories aren’t reasons to doubt the reality of forgetting trauma (or the reality of false recovered memories). They are, however, good reminders to be wary of applying some general knowledge as complete answer to any specific case. Each case of forgetting trauma needs to be evaluated on its own merits (more on this when I get to a post on clinical/practical interventions).

One more complication. Adults who reveal child sexual abuse experiences rarely have any corroborating witnesses or forensic evidence. They have their memories and that is about it. Families, offenders, and communities have much to lose to admit such abuse could have happened. Thus, outside therapeutic environments, adults have few opportunities to be heard or believed.

By what mechanism do we forget traumatic experiences

“Normal” forgetting happens in a variety of ways. Each of these may be a partial answer as to why someone might forget something very powerful.

  1. Distraction leading to failure to encode. If you are introduced to someone and immediately forget their name (happens to me ALL the time), it is because the information never got encoded (too distracted by preparing to say my own name??). Distractions may come in the form of attending to something very specific or not attending to anything at all. Some victims of abuse report that their memories are fuzzy because they could only focus on the flower pattern on the wall during the actual abuse.
  2. Other memory intrusion. A previous memory may interfere with the clear encoding of a new memory or a new memory may interfere with the recall of an old memory. Victims of extended abuse often report difficulty in remembering when it started and stopped, who was present, etc., especially when  the perpetrator also provided more normal love and attention. The memories (and their competing narratives) make it hard to remember.
  3. Motivated Forgetting. I like but hesitate to use this term. “Motivated” could sound like “willful” or “intentional.” And while some motivated forgetting is intentional, most just happens outside the conscious experience of the one doing the forgetting. If I have a conflict with my wife and I spend the next 5 hours rehearsing her supposed sins against me, I may have difficulty recalling my own misuse of words. I may not consciously say to myself, “I am going to do this so I won’t be able to remember my angry words to her,” but I am engaging in what I call “motivated forgetting.” Obviously, abuse victims would rather NOT remember what happened to them and would rather maintain a positive view of a loved one who did the abuse. Victims may encourage motivated forgetting through several means (again, without conscious decision): repeating a false narrative (“He didn’t mean to do that and I am at fault.”) created by themselves or others, using conscious decision not to think about an event, dissociating during abuse and then dissociating when not being abused, focusing on another possible threat.

Now, these forms of forgetting may not sound like they would lead to the complete forgetting of an event. And that would be true for the vast majority of abuse victims. But, I think we need to remember that it is possible given enough anecdotes of some who recover memories (apart from suggestion by therapist or others) on their own and that do get corroborated by others. Is it common? No. Can mental health professionals cause false memories? Yes (but that is for another post in this series!).

So, why do some remember minute details of trauma? They rehearse them (whether they want to or not). Why do some forget them? Their memories degrade due to forms of memory loss discussed above. Other factors are also likely: natural capacity to dissociate, age/development of victim, culture where abuse took place (e.g., a one-time event in a rather safe environment will have a different impact than repeated experiences where safety has never been present).

In my next post I want to take a few minutes to discuss dissociation, repression, and the experience of re-remembering child abuse later in life.

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Of Babies and Bath Water: Navigating the Controversies of Repressed and Recovered Memory


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.[1]

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. relational and affective context influences memory formation and memory retrieval
  5. 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.[2] 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.


[1] 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

[2] “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.

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5 Top Abuse Prevention Actions for Churches


Over at Biblical’s faculty blog I have a new post discussing top abuse prevention and response strategies. These are the most common strategies found in my students’ papers. There are certainly many more strategies and more detail to be had for each item, but for any church looking to review its preparation for an allegation, these five make a great place to start.

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Reflections of the Conference at biblical.edu


I’ve posted over at www.biblical.edu some reflections and encouraging thoughts (at least to me) from our recent conference/course on the issue of abuse in the church. Direct link is here: http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/faculty-blog/96-regular-content/561-stopping-abuse-is-like-encouraging-reflections-from-the-weekend-conference.

Let me take my supposition in that post just a bit further. If our conference protected 500 children from being sexually victimized (just 10 (or 10% of the churches represented) were able to have robust child abuse prevention programs and thus could deny a predator access to their 50 plus victims) then such a conference might in fact save millions of dollars in therapy (assuming 20k in therapy over a lifetime).

Okay, I know, my numbers assume a predator in every one of these churches, that all victims were in the church and that every victim would get therapy. Not likely. But just sayin’…that just one safe church can have an outrageously positive impact on an individual and community in regards to unity, flourishing, and finances!

Yes, the sins of “fathers” travel down generations. So too, the righteous acts of fathers and mothers will bless future generations in some very tangible ways.

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Abuse in the Church Course/Conference Begins Tonight!


At 6 pm, our class/conference kicks off at BranchCreek church (Harleysville, PA) and runs through tomorrow afternoon. Boz Tchividjian of GRACE and myself will be providing plenary and breakouts on a variety of topics designed to help church leaders and counselors prevent and respond well to abuse within the church family. We are expecting a good crowd of pastors, church leaders, mental health workers, and of course, grad students!

Still want to come?

It is not too late. Information here. Bring payment (CC or cash/check) to the door. We’ll fit you in!

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Psychology and the Sandusky trial: Assessing Histrionic Personality Disorder


A short news article (found here) tells that Jerry Sandusky is to be evaluated for a personality disorder today by a prosecution psychologist. Jerry is on trial for some 50 counts of child sexual abuse. The article says that the defense team plans to argue that Jerry has Histrionic Personality Disorder and that explains his verbal and written behavior with the boys who are accusing him of abuse–rather than see those same behaviors as attempts to groom the boys.

Just how will a psychologist go about determining the presence of HPD? In a non-forensic setting, a psychologist would attempt to determine the presence of a personality disorder by gathering several kinds of data

However, there is a problem with the forensic (criminal court) setting. The problem is this: if the defense believes such a diagnosis will help their case, it stands to reason that they could easily coach their client to answer questions (whether interview or objective testing) in such a way as to ensure a positive diagnosis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to present or which questions need to be answered in a particular way to meet the criteria for HPD, or any other diagnosis.

So, what is a forensic psychologist to do? Check for malingering. Some who try to fake a particular diagnosis tend to overdo the fake. The MMPI-II, for example, has some capacity to assess for those who answer in a particular way in an attempt to fake mental illness. There are a few other tests that work very hard in assessing malingering. Even so, it will be one psychologist’s clinical judgment against another’s.

Does it matter?

Not really. What is on trial is whether Sandusky committed acts of child sexual abuse. Either he did or didn’t. The only way the HPD diagnosis will work is if the jurors believe that Sandusky is only misunderstood–that he never touched a child in a sexual way but was over-emotional in his attempts to garner the kids attention. It is possible that Sandusky does meet criteria for HPD and abused the boys. The diagnosis will not protect him from the consequences of crimes he may have committed.

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2 Reasons Why Every Church Needs an Abuse Response Plan


We all know that we shouldn’t wait until our house is on fire to purchase insurance on our home. We all know that a will is necessary before we die. But, do you know that most churches do not have any plan to deal with an allegation of child or adult abuse? While no plan is foolproof and almost every abuse allegation contains unique features requiring difficult decision-making, a basic plan usually contains directions for who will make sure plans are carried out and how the church will handle both victim and offender.

Why Don’t Churches Have a Plan?

Maybe one of the reasons many churches fail to have a plan is that they aren’t really convinced a plan is central to the work of the Gospel–as central as a doctrinal statement or the preaching of the Word. Maybe such a plan is seen as a necessary evil like unto car insurance, something you know you should have but are annoyed to pay such a large bill even though you haven’t needed to use the benefit.

2 Better Reasons!

Read my faculty post here  over at www.biblical.edu for 2 Gospel reasons why every Christian organization needs an abuse response plan.

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Why is some trauma complex? A helpful distinction from Judith Herman


Counselors talk about trauma as if all traumas lead to traumatic reactions. They do not. Some people have significant distress from what might be considered slight traumatic experiences (surely an oxymoron!) while others appear not have any negative or ongoing reactions to very large distressing events.

There’s another problem. We sometimes talk as if all traumatic reactions are the same. This is also not the case. While the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are well-known to many (i.e., intrusive re-experiencing of trauma experiences, emotional numbing and other attempts of avoiding memories or triggers, and hypervigilance), you can find counseling students and practitioners who are less aware of a cousin of PTSD: Complex Trauma.

Defining Complex Trauma

I’m reading Treating complex Traumatic Stress Disorders: An Evidence-Based Guide, edited by Christine Courtois and Julian Ford (Guilford Press, 2009). This is an excellent text if you are interested in exploring the symptoms, neurobiology, and treatment protocols for complex trauma. In the foreword, Judith Herman helps the reader clarify the main difference between regular and complex trauma

These days, when I teach about complex PTSD, I always begin with the social ecology of prolonged and repeated interpersonal trauma. There are two main points to grasp here. The first is that such trauma is always embedded in a social structure that permits the abuse and exploitation of a subordinate group… The second point is that such trauma is always relational. It takes place when the victim is in a state of captivity, under the control and domination of the perpetrator. (xiv, emphases mine).

For trauma to become complex one needs to experience the trauma at the hands of those who are most perceived to control a social unit (family, community, etc.). It needs to be repeated and woven into the fabric of distorted relationships. You can see that prolonged abuses experienced as a child prior to development of an understanding of the world and of the self would have more devastating impact than an unfortunate and distressing event that happens as an adult. If I experience a horrific accident and an unexpected attack by a stranger, I would not, usually, begin to feel unsafe amongst friends and family. I would likely continue to trust them even as I might not trust the larger community. However, if I experience repeated abuse by a teacher, a parent, a relative, a church leader as a young child, I do not have the prior experiences of safety to rely on and thus, I am likely to experience all of the symptoms of PTSD and then some more.

What More Symptoms?

Courtois and Ford give a cursory description of complex trauma on the first page of the book,

…involving traumatic stressors that (1) are repetitive or prolonged; (2) involve direct harm and/or neglect and abandonment by caregivers or ostensibly responsible adults; (3) occur at developmentally vulnerable times in the victim’s life, such as early childhood; and (4) have great potential to compromise severely a child’s development.

Adding to the typical symptoms of PTSD, complex trauma victims also struggle to regulate emotions, impulses, somatic experiences, consciousness, and evidence significant distortions in views of the self and others leading to difficulty forming trust relationships and finding meaning in life and faith.

Those interested in learning more about the current thinking on complex trauma conceptualization and treatment may find this book useful. Others may wish to check out the latest articles at www.traumacenter.org, one of the leading centers in the country focused on the problem of trauma.

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3 important goals for trauma recovery


In the last week we have been discussing the best words used to describe the process of trauma recovery (see related post below). While words are important and carry much meaning, it may be more helpful to consider what recovery goals are in order for trauma victims. While we know recovery road can be long and arduous, it helps to know when we make progress and a general sense of the direction we are headed. In the days before GPS, if you went on a long car trip you probably consulted a map on several occasions in order to make sure you were headed in the right direction. So also, when you are working to get better after a traumatic experience, you want some sense you are still working on good goals. This need is especially great if the traumatic symptoms are complex and the treatment not brief (think war, genocide, child sexual abuse, etc.)

What three goals?

Esad Boskailo, as noted on p. 94 in his memoir (written and reported by Julie Lieblich) works toward these three goals that in turn support the ultimate goal: thriving (notice that the goal is not being free of symptoms, free of triggers, or back to life as if the trauma did not happen).

  • Acknowledge losses
  • Foster resiliency (i.e., build the capacity to use current coping resources)
  • Find meaning in life again

I think these do function well as helpful signposts or intermediate goals in the process of recovery from traumatic experiences. Now, I don’t believe these goals are necessarily in sequence. For some clients, they stumble on something that gives new meaning to life and thus are better able to acknowledge losses. Others get to work on building better coping mechanisms (e.g., a vet puts away items that cause him or her to dissociate, an adult victim of CSA stops cutting and develops acceptance strategies, etc.) and then can acknowledge losses.

So, in the murky water of therapy (and it surely is murky!), the trauma victim can find some comfort in activities pointing to these intermediate goals. Each day they reject self-condemnation for not being who they used to be before the trauma, they are moving toward thriving. Each day they embrace available coping resources (e.g., a friend who will call or pray), they are moving toward thriving. Each day they find one meaningful experience, they are moving toward thriving.

the how we meet these goals is, of course, the 64,000 dollar question…and not something we can set in stone. I will write on some general activities that are common in most treatment modalities in the coming days.

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Sexual abuse in the church–post on the Biblical Seminary blog


I have a new post on the faculty blog over at www.biblical.edu. You can read it here. When any church faces the sad and grievous reality of abuse within their own community, leaders must respond. If not prepared, leaders may make decisions based on knee-jerk reactions rather than a set of previously discussed core values.

Check out the tale of two church committees (my original but discarded title of the blog).

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