Thursday, June 4, 2015

Do People Repress Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse?

From 62 Journal of Counseling & Clincal Psychology 1167 (1994):

A survey of 129 women “with previously documented histories of sexual victimization in childhood were interviewed and asked detailed questions about their abuse histories to answer the question ‘Do people actually forget traumatic events such as child sexual abuse, and if so, how common is such forgetting?’  A large proportion of the women (38%) did not recall the abuse that had been reported 17 years earlier.  Women who were younger at the time of the abuse and those who were molested by someone they knew were more likely to have no recall of the abuse.”


  1. I have heard people claim that child sex abuse causes a lifetime of psychological problems and neuroses, 100% of the time. If this study is right, then at least 38% of the victims have no long term damage.

    1. Or perhaps they have serious problems and have no idea why.

  2. So the question is: was the abuse imagined in the first place, and thus easy to forget, or did they later forget it.

    I suspect the former, since the latter requires accepting the pretty much discredited theory of repressed memory of child sexual abuse.

    1. The study was attempting to figure out if people repress memories. I know people who have done so with evidence it haopened.

  3. The original idea of repressed memory was based on Freudian theory, which has long been known to be total bunk. Studies of "repressed" memory have found none, as far as I know. That doesn't rule out a few random cases.

    What we do know is that people can have memories with strong certainties that turn out out to be wrong, and we also know that people can be fed false memories, as was done in such travesties as the McMartin pre-school case. This research suggests that memories are plastic - which supports the ideas that many memories in disturbed people are false, but also that some could be forgotten.

    However, it runs against reason that people will forget something that was so powerful as to cause serious psychological problems. There is probably a very young age where that happens, but beyond that... who forgets the really bad stuff? A long established psychological/neurological finding is that we remember bad things much better than we remember good things - an idea that has obvious survival value.

  4. These incidents of aqbuse were determined based on E/R visits and police reports, so they did happen. Traumatic amnesia is well established in adults.

  5. Let me mention when I was about 4v I was in a bad car accident, when my parents were rearended on the I-5. I have no memory of it, but I did have horrifying nightmares for many years based on it, even with no conscious memory.

  6. Yes, traumatic amnesia is well established, but less so if the causes are psychological rather than physical. Per your childhood experience, we all probably carry consequences from miscellaneous childhood events - but how many of us *recover* the memory of them? In other words, neural pathways may be changed as a result of events, but that's different from memory of specific events.

    Do you know of a significant number of actually repressed memories = memories that were too awful to be remembered so they were repressed psychologically? While I'm sure that, given human variability, a few of those probably happen, everything I've read suggests that it is very rare.

    The reason I looked at this at all was the hysteria about child sexual abuse from a couple of decades ago, where innocent people were imprisoned (some are still imprisoned) based on totally bogus "recovered memories." My suspicion is deepened by the very poor performance of the psychological community in the US for so long, where it was more of a cult than a scientifically based profession - and much of that cultish nature continues to this day.

    There is some good science in the world of psychology, but there's also a whole lot of rubbish. You've seen it in the nonsense that gets published in the gun control realm. In the past, at least, it was even worse in the child sexual abuse realm.

  7. I would argue that my dreams based on that event show the memory was there, although deeply buried from my conscious mind.

    I had a neighbor in California who had gone to a psychiatrist to seek help in figuring out why she kept picking loser guys, including the ex-husband who sodomized their son (physical damage, so it really happened). Under hypnosis she could recall a stepfather approaching her at age 3 then darkness. Her older sister then confirmed that the stepfather molested her also.

    This study involved incidents well-documented from hospital records. A lot of recovered memories turned out to be bogus, because kids are very suggestible, but there is an epidemic of child sexual abuse going on out there. In some cultures, it is widely acc3epted (a friend returned from several years service with JAG in Iraq, and told me that a common expression he heard there was, "Women are for children, boys are for pleasure, and goats are for emergencies").

  8. I know that there is an epidemic of government minions invading families in the name of children. There are also strong forces that have an interest in perpetuating a war on child sexual (and other) abuse. I don't know that child sexual abuse is any worse than in the past, except perhaps among certain immigrant populations.

    I fear the warriors more than the abuse. Both are problems, but the warriors are gaining the power, and in fact already have the power, to destroy families and otherwise move parenting power to the government. Those warriors in the past callously used bogus "recovered memories" to persecute people in horrible ways. Every conservative needs to be constantly aware of this dangerous increase in governmental power.

    Beyond that, I have grown deeply suspicious of clinical studies, because the error rate is so high, and the fraud rate is growing. The social "sciences" have the greatest rate of error and also the greatest rate of ideologically driven results. If recommend William Briggs' blog as a source of sanity in that regard - he's a professor of statistics, among other things:

    I can't speak to the study you quote, however.

  9. It may not be getting worse, but it was already very bad. Some of the warriors were fighting their own demons, like the D.A. in Minnesota who had not come to grips with her own abuse as a child. But the damage is very real, and homosexuality is one of the symptoms along with widespread depression and substance abuse.

  10. I just went back and read the cited study. I found it to be both tendentious and not terribly convincing. Of course, it really is difficult to do good research in this field, so perhaps my physical science based view is a bit harsh. The authors intent appears to be to resurrect recovered memory theories from their grave, as is suggested by the way they take a study of people who do not remember childhood abuse as somehow showing that therefore people may recover that memory. That is not a valid conclusion (anecdotal cases aside, of course).

    There is a simple explanation that is not included in the questions the authors ask: was the failure to remember due to the individual simply not experiencing the sexual abuse as a unique trauma suitable to remember?

    I realize that this is a very politically correct question to even ask, but I do question the supposition that all child sexual abuse is horribly traumatic and results in life long issues. I know people for whom it was not. In a subject this important, and so fraught with potential for misuse by government or anti-family forces, it is necessary to ask hard questions.

    This is not to say that the behavior (abusing children) is okay - far from it - and it is not to say that some people are not horribly affected by it. But in today's world, there is an implicit assumption (as shown by the study's failure to address it) that all child sexual abuse is terribly traumatizing and has lifelong consequences.

    I would say that failure to remember in the study cohort is especially non-surprising - I suspect that many of these women had very traumatic childhoods, even without the abuse. Being beaten by a drunken mother might take greater importance than an event of sexual abuse.

    I am loathe to concede that there is an epidemic of child abuse. There is certainly child abuse, and its prevalence and character may have changed due to social changes such as immigration, family disintegration, social values changes, etc.

    An "epidemic" implies an emergent phenomenon which requires urgent intervention. That plays so nicely into the agendas of those who make their money off of psychological trauma, and into the agendas of those who want the government more deeply into peoples' lives, that I think it requires strict scrutiny, rather than being casually accepted.