True Memories and Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Research and Common Sense Prove the Existence of Repressed Memories

“I was never prodded or poked by someone else’s agenda to remember. It just came, as if I gave birth to three whales.”

~Lori Cardille, incest survivor

Lately I have been reading a significant amount of disinformation and misinformation about dissociation of trauma, (known as repressed memory or dissociative amnesia).

Due to media and special interest groups pushing the myth that all, or most, of repression and dissociation is based in “junk science” or that it has been “disproved,”  I thought it might be time to enlighten…

There are Holocaust survivors, who have repressed all of their trauma from the war. One example is the war survivor, referred to as “O.K,” who suffered total amnesia for her childhood and all of her experiences in the war, including the Germans taking her mother and father. She also repressed the memory of herself sitting near her dead grandmother.  The subject, “O.K.” had built a superficial “good world” in order to separate herself from, and to fill in for, the reality she faced as a child.

One study suggests that about sixteen percent of people, who have suffered severe inter-familial sexual abuse as a child, will repress the memories completely. This study was documented and corroborated with records from social services which were logged at the time the child had been removed from the home.

Close to twenty percent of the 330 victims of Father James Porter said they completely dissociated from their abuse memories.

The Leadership Council has found more than sixty-eight studies in which trauma, previously unaware to the conscious mind, was remembered later in life, and research studies proving the existence of dissociative amnesia can be found in respected Journals of psychology and law.

Charles Whitfield M.D. estimates that about ninety-two to ninety-nine percent of those with delayed memories of child sexual abuse have recalled true events. Whitfield bases his conclusion on his clinical experience, along with the findings of other experts on child sexual abuse.

“Truth will always be truth, regardless of lack of understanding, disbelief or ignorance.”

~ W. Clement Stone

According to the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, seventy-one percent of siblings do not believe the accusations of abuse made and reported to the FMSF.

Proponents of the so-called “False Memory Syndrome” want to know how the incest could have taken place without the other siblings corroborating the assaults.

Judith Lewis Herman interviewed forty Caucasian women who have always remembered having incestuous relationships with their fathers.  The average number of children in the family was 3.6. Three families had eight, nine, and ten children.

Incest is usually found in families where the entire household conforms to the rule of silence, regardless of whether the family member is a participant or observer. Disbelieving siblings don’t prove that accusations are false, nor does it mean they didn’t know about the abuse. The most likely scenario is that siblings may still be adhering to the family code of silence and they often have several reasons to reject that incest took place:

  • An emotional need to remain attached to the parents.
  • A financial need to retain ties with the parents (such as an inheritance or the parents pay their bills).
  • They do not want to admit or face that they were victims too.
  • Guilt over not protecting a younger sibling, or because they did not expose the abuse when they moved away.
  • Anger that the accuser is daring to air the family’s dirty laundry.
  • The siblings also have dissociative amnesia for the abuse.
  • A sibling may have abused the child as well.

An excellent source for corroborated cases of repressed memory is Ross Cheit’s The Recovered Memory Project. The Website provides details of documented cases which have been corroborated via the justice system or through scientific, clinical, and academic avenues. The project cites research verifying delayed memory of childhood sexual trauma, and provides peer-reviewed studies about amnesia and child abuse. The Recovered Memory Project also furnishes other related resources and full text articles, abstracts, data tables, research, and other material about dissociative amnesia.

Corroborated cases of memory repression also appear from time to time in major newspapers. In the summer of 2001, a man was sentenced to four years in prison and made to pay $20,000 in restitution for therapy bills to two women he had sexually abused. The man admitted that in 1964 he molested the women in his home when they were children.

The two victims had been neighbors of the perpetrator and both had repressed the sexual assaults. Almost four decades after they had been abused, both women were suffering from depression and were in therapy. One of the women said that one day “something just clicked” which caused her to look in the phone book for the name of the man, but she had no idea why she was doing it. When she saw his name she began to remember. The other victim started to experience memories of the horrifying abuse after having electroshock therapy.

In one study, three out of four people found some kind of substantiation for their memories of abuse. Those who found corroboration obtained it from the abuser, someone else in the family, from diaries, through statements from others, or by learning that another child had also been abused.

“Therapy Induced Delusions”

Several rebuttal studies show that memories of child sexual abuse are usually not brought on by therapy and the majority of memories are recalled outside of therapy. The Elliot study reveals that those who suffered full memory loss of their traumatic experiences reported that psychotherapy had been the least common trigger for the memories to return.

In one study, 108 therapists reported on 690 clients who had experienced repressed abuse or other traumatic memories. Thirty-two percent of the clients began to remember their history of trauma before they began therapy. Thirty-five percent remembered traumas other than sexual abuse, and sixty-five percent had repressed sexual abuse. Seventy-eight percent of the recollections started before any memory work began or before the person sought therapy at all.

Leavitt found that hypnosis played a significant part in remembering child sexual abuse in only four percent of therapy patients.  

Another study done in 1999 revealed that forty-five percent of participants, who experienced total repression for sexual abuse, and forty-eight percent for physical abuse, “were not involved” in therapy or under any psychological care when they first began to remember the abuse. Out of twenty-five percent of the participants in the category of having sexual abuse memories, twenty-one said no suggestion had been made to them or played a role in their memories.

Out of the twenty who had remembered physical abuse, seventeen said no one brought up abuse prior to their remembering it. Twelve out of twenty-five people who had reported sexual abuse memories had remembered for the first time while at home. One had been at work, one did not remember when they began the recall, and nine were placed in a category of “other.” Only two were in therapy when the recall occurred. Thirteen of the twenty-five were alone when the memories came back. One participant had a dream that was considered a memory and one had been under hypnosis.

Mary R. Williams, a California attorney who has represented well over one hundred cases of adult survivors of child sexual abuse, says that most of her clients who dissociated from the memories (about twenty-five percent), began to recall the abuse before they sought therapy.

People can remember child sexual abuse during a period of time in which they have been a therapy patient, but the therapy itself does not always bring up the memories. Psychotherapy may have merely been the vehicle to give the survivor the strength to finally face their buried childhood pain.

People who reject, deny, and scoff at repressed memories of childhood trauma and abuse, need to look themselves in the mirror. They need to honestly ask themselves why they have a deep personal need to ignore the ample amount of cases, research, and the logical reasoning for the mind blocking out trauma and shame.

Is it because they are very closed-minded?

Do they have a financial interest in denying the documented evidence?

Do they know someone who was falsely accused and cannot get past their bias?

Is it because they believe the U.S. media is highly responsible, truthful, and educated in its reporting –and cannot possibly have its own agenda to mislead the American public?

Have they sexually abused a child and don’t want to deal with it?

Have they been sexually abused and don’t want to believe it?

Are they currently sexually abusing a child and wish to suppress anything that might help convict them when their victim ultimately remembers the abuse?



I’m Gonna Tell, Lori Cardille, page 54

Holocaust Survivor’s Mental Health, T.L. Brink Ph.D. Editor, pages 67-71             [Also published as Clinical Gerontologist, Volume 14, Number 3 1994], 1994       Haworth Press, Inc. Birmingham NY

Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice, and the Media, Aug 15  02,       Recovered Memories: True or False?

Leadership Council for Mental Health, Justice, and the Media, Aug 15 02, Recovered Memories: True or False?

Andrews, B., Brewin, C., Ochera, J., Morton, J., Bekerian, D.,  Davies, G., and Mollon, P. (1999). Characteristics, context and consequences of memory recovery among adults in therapy. Brit J Psychiatry 175:141-146.; Bagley, C. (1995). The prevalence and mental health sequels of child sexual abuse in community sample of women aged 18 to 27.  Child sexual abuse and mental health in adolescents and adults. Aldershot: Avebury; Bull, D. (1999). A verified case of recovered memories of sexual abuse.  American Journal of Psychotherapy, 53(2), 221-224; Chu JA, Frey LM, Ganzel BL, Matthews JA. (1999). Memories of childhood abuse: Dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration. Am J Psychiatry 156(5):749-755; Corwin, D. & Olafson, E. (1997). Videotaped discovery of a reportedly unrecallable memory of child sexual abuse: Comparison with a childhood interview taped 11 years before. Child Maltreatment, 2(2), 91-112; Dahlenberg, C. (1996, Summer) Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of abuse.  The Journal of Psychiatry and Law ; Duggal, S., & Sroufe, L. A. (1998). Recovered memory of childhood sexual trauma: A documented case from a longitudinal study. Journal of Trauma Stress,11(2), 301-321 ; Feldman-Summers, S., & Pope, K. S. (1994). The experience of forgetting childhood abuse: A national survey of psychologists.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 636-639; Herman, J. L., & Harvey, M. R. (1997). Adult memories of childhood trauma: A naturalistic clinical study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10, 557-571; Herman, J. L., & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1-14 ; Kluft, R. (1995). The confirmation and disconfirmation of memories of abuse in DID patients: A naturalistic clinical study.   Dissociation: Progress in the Dissociative Disorders, 8(4), 253-258; Lewis, D., Yeager, C., Swica, Y., Pincus,  J. and Lewis, M.  (1997). Objective documentation of child abuse and dissociation in 12 murderers with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Am J Psychiatry, 154(12):1703-10; Martinez-Taboas, A. (1996). Repressed memories: Some clinical data contributing toward its elucidation. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 50(2), 217-30; van der Kolk, BA, & Fisler, R. (1995). Dissociation and the fragmentary nature of traumatic memories: Overview and exploratory study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 505-525 ; Westerhof, Y., Woertman, L. Van der Hart, O., & Nijenhuis, E.R.S. (2000). Forgetting child abuse: Feldman-Summers and Pope’s (1994) study replicated among Dutch psychologists. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 7, 220-229; Widom, C. and Shepard, R. (1997).   Accuracy of adult recollections of childhood victimization. Part 2. Childhood sexual abuse.  Psychological Assessment 9: 34-46; Williams, L. M. (1995, October). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories.  Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8(4)] [see and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic memories: Overview and Exploratory Study. Bessel A. van der Kolk & Rita Fisler HRI Trauma Center 227 Babcock Street Brookline, MA 02146 and Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry

Memory and Abuse: Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma, Charles L. Whitfield M.D., Health Communications Inc., 1995 page 77

Bagley, C. (1995). The prevalence and mental health sequels of child sexual        abuse in community sample of women aged 18 to 27.  Child sexual abuse and    mental health in adolescents and adults. Aldershot: Avebury

FMSF online, Frequently Asked Questions

Father Daughter Incest, Judith Lewis Herman with Lisa Hirschman Harvard University Press Cambridge Massachusetts 1981

Recovered Memory Project Archive Overview: Annotated List of Corroborated Cases of Recovered Memory #47, Ross Cheit

Fairfax Defendant Also Ordered to Pay $20,000 Toward Victims’ Future Therapy, Tom Jackman, Washington Post Staff Writer, Wednesday, August 29, 2001; Page B02

Herman, J. L., & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1-14

Traumatic Events: Prevalence and Delayed Recall in the General Population, Diana M. Elliot, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Philip C. Kendall Editor, Volume 65 No. 4, August 1997, page 815, Published by the American Psychological Association

Andrews, B., Brewin, C., Ochera, J., Morton, J., Bekerian, D.,  Davies, G., and Mollon, P. (1999). Characteristics, context and consequences of memory recovery among adults in therapy. Brit J Psychiatry 175:141-146.

Leavitt, F. (2001). Iatrogenic memory change. Examining the empirical evidence. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, Vo. 19, Issue 2, 21-32

Memories of Childhood Abuse: Dissociation, Amnesia, and Corroboration, James A. Chu, M.D., Lisa M. Frey, Psy.D., Barbara L. Ganzel, Ed.M., M.A., and Julia A. Matthews, Ph.D., M.D. American Journal of Psychiatry 156:749-755, May 1999

Legal Issues for Psychotherapists, Mary R. Williams Historical and Legal Background, Civil Lawsuits by Adults Who Were Sexually Abused in Childhood, Printed in Construction and Reconstruction of Memory: Dilemmas of Childhood Sexual Abuse, edited by Charlotte Prozan, Jason Aronson Inc., 1997

About the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, Pamela Freyd, Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse: Psychological, Social, and Legal Perspectives on a Contemporary Mental Health Controversy, Edited by Sheila Taub, Charles C Thomas Publisher,1999 page 33

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10 Responses to True Memories and Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse: Research and Common Sense Prove the Existence of Repressed Memories

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Although their numbers tend to be exaggerated, there are many PhD psychologists who don’t believe in repression. I find this to be absolutely amazing. Freud, Jung, and others must be rolling in their graves. Mostly the doubters come from academia and are involved in research fueled in part by wide-spread interest in the false memory controversy. Some researchers are so focused on the scientific method that they ignore reality, i.e. the real life evidence of repression. If it is not a part of a controlled group study, apparently they see no need to consider it. They will point to anecdotal evidence but only when it involves verified instances of false memory. Yes, it is true that false memories are sometimes constructed, with and without help from therapist. So what? How does looking at cases where repression has not occurred somehow disprove the validity of repression. Look instead at the overwelming number of instances where the repression of memories have been witnessed and where the recovered memories have been verified. I speak from personal experience. 34 years ago I witnessed what I thought might be the planning of a gang rape. Uncertainty and fear of ridicule prevented me from taking action. The next day I was struck with PTSD when I overheard a couple of the perpetrators carrying on in a way that told me my suspicions were correct. I frantically went looking for the girl. I was told she was sick. I got word to her that I had to see her. The signs of trauma were obvious to me, both physical and mental, and so was the repression. I was told by mental health professionals that she was “stuffing it” and that was an acceptable way of coping. One of the dumbest things I ever did was becoming complicit in her denial. I “played along” to help her repress. She repressed for the next 24 years.

    • Alethea says:

      “Yes, it is true that false memories are sometimes constructed, with and without help from therapist. So what? How does looking at cases where repression has not occurred somehow disprove the validity of repression.”

      Like Jennifer Freyd pointed out, ‘all the false claims of rape do not invalidate any single case of rape.’

      Don’t be hard on yourself Anonymous. You might have helped that girl survive. Repression is a blessing for a while. It does become a prison, but it is for a good reason; self-survival. She may have killed herself had she not repressed.

  2. Robert Ong says:

    Dear M, well done! You have made a huge step. Writing your letter above must have been one of the most difficult things you have ever attempted. Thank you for allowing me to read it. I believe every word!

  3. m says:

    I would like to add something please. When I was a 6 year old little girl I was seen by several family members doing “things” that a 6 year old should not do. When ask why I was doing this and who taught me, I without a seconds hesitation said “BOB” does it all the time. “Bob” was and still is my sisters husband of nearly 30 years now, when I was 6 they had been married just a few short years. I should say that I was adopted so my sister was actually my cousin. My sister was 14 when I was born and married to “Bob” by the time I was 2. Our mother worked full time and was studying full time for her Nurseing degree so I stayed at my sisters house a lot. I loved it, she always played with me and treated me more like her little daughter and not just a little sister. Well at 6 when I told the truth, the only truth, because there is only one, My eldest brothers’ wife went on a gossip tour and told the whole family, neighborhood, (very blue collar) and any one else who would listen. I am not sure exactly when and who went to my sister and said that I had said “Bob” was touching me like I was touching myself. I remember very clearly my sister sitting me on a bench in a beautiful park, sun shinning, birds singing, and telling me that I was about to ruin her life and that “Bob” could go to prison because people were starting to ask questions. (I assume because my brothers wife had told anyone who would listen) She said, now tell me its not true, not like she just knew it wasnt true but tell me it isnt true so I dont have to go through this. I told my sister what she wanted to hear and was forced to say that I was lying for attention. This made no sense to me at the time I had a wonderful mother (She worked hard but she was there.) and father and lots of friends and a good, no, a great life up until this moment. Why would I lie? Well, I did what I thought was best for my sister and my whole life changed. Every male in my life except my dad started to stay away from me. I had three older brothers and had been very close with each of them even with the youngest being 8 years older and the eldest being 12 years older than me. They watched me, they played with me, my middle brother trained me in Karate. When I lied and said that I had made up what Bob had done they all kept there distance afraid that I would “lie” on them to. Understandable I guess. Then I felt all alone beceause I always felt that mother knew I was not making up stories, I had no need to. She had to make a choice between her daughter and the orphan that she had taken in so to speak. My world had been a wonderful one full of country summers and lightening bugs and big handsome brothers showing me off to their highschool girlfriends and taking me with them for icecream. Within days of making the comment “Bob does it all the time!” my whole life changed. This is the beginning of constructing my wall. The difference in my story and the ones mentioned above is that I knew what happened and I told. I didnt put it away and it come back later. I had to put it away so that I still had some semblance of a life. As I look back my mother tried to spoil the memories away, she also never sent me to stay with my sister when Bob was not at work. My mother bought me any and everything that a 7-10 year old could ever want. As I was becoming a teenager I was fussed over and had the best of everything a blue collar highschool girl needed and most of what I wanted, car, clothes and lots of shoes!!! I am now 28 and for 10 yeasr I have wanted to take my sister and shake her because I think that over the 20 years since the time I have told that she may have seen other thimgs in bob that might have given her a second thought on what i tried to tell them a 6. This is the forst time that i have spoken of this to anyone since I was 7. It may be a little scattered. For the last 10 years I have come close many many times to bringing it all up again and saying you know what ya’ll, I was telling the truth. My sister and Bob have tried for nearly 25 years to have a baby and have yet to succeed. Their marriage has had many problems from both having affairs to physical and mental abuse in the beginning, the affairs have been more recent. I have never forgotten nor have I forgave anyone. Not bob not my sister, not my brothers now ex wife and not myself. Because my sister said this was gonna be bad for her I have fucked myself up. I am not sure why I wrote this today i have been following your blog for over a month now. I am tired of smiling at theem and i am sick of only cussing at myself. There are more details but this is the story of a child conciously putting up a wall instead of the wall forming to protect myself without knowing it was under construction. I knew I was drew the blueprints and picked out the decor. I dont know what i am looking for you to say but please respond. M Watts

    • Alethea says:

      Dear “M”,

      I have a had a long day, but I wanted to give your comment the courtesy of being read. Please know that I feel deeply for you, and that I can sense how much pain this has caused you.

      I want to respond, but I am too tired right now. I want to give you the time you deserve.

      I will respond tomorrow, becasue you deserve to be heard and validated.

      Thank you for trusting my Blog to open up. I think it was probably liberating for you to have done so.

      Until tomorrow…..

      all my best wishes,

    • Alethea says:

      Dear M,

      First of all, I want to tell you that I BELIEVE you.

      You have several betrayals here. Bob, your sister, your mother, your brothers, Your eldest brothers’ wife, and your own body betrayed you when it felt good.

      I am beyond words about your sister saying that YOU were about to ruin HER life. I am well aware of all the women out there in this world who defend, guard, and facilitate the perpetrator…but every time I hear about another one, I still feel a pang of why? why? why?

      Telling your sister what she wanted to hear was totally understandable at age six. No one in the world can judge you for that. Being forced to say that you were lying for attention probably damaged you very much inside. You have been forced to live a lie for all these years, and that is a heavy burden to carry.

      I think your mother probably knew the truth too, and that is a double whammy. Two women betraying you like that (three if you count the sister in-law) is very very hard on a person.

      You mentioned forgiveness. I don’t think you can truly ever forgive, even if you wanted to, without letting it out.

      You are tired of lying to yourself inside. The little one inside of you, who knows the truth, is the one who is so angry and who is knocking at your door to say something. It is the six year-old little girl inside of you who is angry and wants the truth told.

      If I were you (I am not, so you have to make your own decision), I would begin the process of getting this out with them. I have written an entire chapter in my book on this subject. Tomorrow I will try and re-word it, and cut it down so that I don’t publish the whole thing, but I think that you should seriously consider writing them all a letter, or confronting them in person. But do not do anything now. Wait until you have thought about it for a few days and wait until I can gather my notes on ways to approach those who have harmed us, and what to expect.

      Give me a day or so.

      • Alethea says:

        Dear “M,”

        I have not gathered my notes on ways to approach the people who have harmed us, and what to expect, for two reasons:

        First, life is stopping me from getting to it! I am so sorry. I need a half a day to do this, and I cannot seem to find more than a few minutes here and there.

        I am also hesitating a little because you haven’t responded, so I don’t want to spend the time unless you really want me to, and if you are still reading these comments.

        Please let me know if you have any interest in my notes on how to talk to family about these things, and what to expect. If you aren’t interested, no problem. Just be honest with me. I don’t want to waste my time if you don’t have any interest.

        Thanks. I hope you are doing better.

        All my best,

    • little nel says:

      Hi M,

      I am so sorry for what you had to endure in childhood to keep yourself from being an outcast. No child should ever have to put in that situation.

      You told the truth about Bob when you were asked as a child, but the adults didn’t want to acknowledge that Bob was a perp.

      I know how it feels to be forced to live a lie in childhood because an adult broke the law and did not want to suffer the consequences.

      Bob is one who is responsible for abusing you and lying to your sister to save his sorry ass from the consequences of his behavior towards you. She betrayed you so that she could keep Bob in her life. I’m sure that she felt justified because “ruin” was the only other option.

      Too bad the women in your family did not have backbones. It sounds like they all paid a dear price for their lack of accepting the fact that Bob was a pervert who molests little girls when no one else is around.

  4. Helen says:

    When I started to remember, I thought there was something wrong with me. My first thought was, “Why am I thinking of my father like that?” I had no clue, then, that I was having memories of incest.

    • little nel says:

      I have clear and cogent memories of things that frightened me in childhood except what transpired at the county home where I was molested by the matron. Those memories are like flashbacks of scenes from a movie.

      I have a clear memory of my brother being dragged by a car when I was 5 and he was 3. I ran after the car and tried to stop it. I succeeded and it saved his life. My efforts produced positive results that day.

      In contrast, my efforts to save myself from sexual abuse failed. I used to think that maybe I wasn’t worth saving.

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