Up To 20% of Child Sexual Abuse Victims Completely Repress All Memory Of Having Been Abused

“Ann M. McCarron never forgot being sexually abused by her pediatrician from the time she was 7 until she was 12 years old, but she never told anyone about it until she was in her 30s, after years of therapy.

Believing that she would go to jail if she spoke out, she tucked it in the back of her mind and followed a path of self-destructive behavior, including drinking vodka until she passed out.

“I was scared silent and I was numb,” said Ms. McCarron, who is now 49 and the associate athletic director at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

David K. O’Regan, 62, of Spencer, also blocked out for 40 years detailed memories of being abused at age 11 by a priest, until the bombardment of media reports surrounding the Boston clergy scandal forced him to face his past. He opened up for the first time, at age 52, to his wife.

“I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I didn’t believe it,” said Mr. O’Regan, who is a victim’s advocate for the Worcester chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “

This shows that even those who have retained some memory of having been sexually abused as a child, will question their own experience as being real. Think how much harder it is for those of us who completely blocked out every single memory and all knowledge of having been sexually abused as a child by an adult we trusted.

“Although Ms. McCarron and Mr. O’Regan were aware of at least parts of their abuse, a number of victims suffer from what psychologists call recovered memory following dissociative amnesia. The victim doesn’t remember the trauma at all until something triggers recollection such as related news stories or returning to the place where the abuse occurred.

“If there’s one commonality here, it’s really painful and not something they want to do (talk about their abuse),” said Boston lawyer Carmen L. Durso, who has represented scores of abuse victims.

“People come forward when the pain of not talking about it becomes greater than the pain of talking about it.”

Very true!

“Mr. Durso estimated that about 20 percent of his clients have recovered memories, in which they didn’t remember the abuse for several years, and the others locked the awareness in their minds and stayed silent. They’re both normal reactions, he said, and are reasons why it can take decades before a victim seeks justice. “

Twenty percent is a good amount of people.

Studies show that fifty-nine percent of women who suffered childhood abuse will experience dissociative amnesia (also known as repressed memories) for all or portions of the trauma and for various periods of time. Other studies found that ten percent of victims are repressing all memory of having been abused. 1 

“The issue of recovered memories in child sexual abuse cases has been controversial since it became prevalent in legal circles during the last 20 years. “

The only people who have made it controversial, are pedophiles, child sexual abusers, attorneys who defend perpetrators, people in the field of mental health who make big bucks testifying for perpetrators, the ignorant media, and a small number of people who are so closed-minded that they require absolute scientific evidence for every human experience.

‘Skeptics say people don’t forget trauma and argue that false memories can be suggested by psychotherapists.

But others, such as Ross Cheit, professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, have documented more than 100 cases in which recovered memories were corroborated by witnesses, physical evidence or confessions. Mr. Cheit also compiled extensive summaries of cognitive research on post-traumatic recovered memories.

One of the most famous cases involving recovered memories took place in 2005, when defrocked Catholic priest Paul R. Shanley was convicted and sentenced to 12 to 15 years in prison for raping a boy during the late 1970s in the Newton church where he served.

Last week in U.S. District Court in Worcester, Florida plastic surgeon Richard B. Edison settled with 48-year-old Timothy Clark of Charlton, who recovered memories in 2008 of abuse that allegedly took place beginning in 1974, when Dr. Edison was a medical student and Mr. Clark was a 10-year-old in Shrewsbury.

Ann Hagan Webb, a Wellesley psychologist and SNAP New England coordinator, first remembered her own years of childhood abuse by a priest in Rhode Island when she was 40 years old. She said the memories were triggered by her children becoming the same age she was during the abuse, 5 to 12 years old. “

Interesting. I was just explaining this very thing to one of my readers.

“It comes back in bits and pieces — it’s not complete,” Ms. Webb said. “But when it comes back, it’s vivid.”

She said people often think they’re going crazy when the memories come flooding back, not believing it themselves at first. This initial turmoil is often used by defense lawyers to question the validity of the memories.

Ms. Webb explained that victims who have recovered memories actually dissociated, that is separated their emotional and physical pain, when they were being sexually abused by someone they were supposed to trust.

“For some reason, it seems like sexual abuse is extremely difficult to process. Especially in younger children, it seems like (dissociating is) the only defense mechanism available to them,” she said. Sexual abuse is also different from witnessing a robbery, for example, because, “It’s one of the few crimes where the victims feel shame, intense shame.”

It’s also a personal shame and a personal crime. Witnessing a crime is one thing, but being the victim of a sex crime as a child, and by someone the child loved or trusted, is a deeply personal trauma.

“Mr. Durso said the research supporting the existence and reliability of recovered or delayed memories is “very solid.”

But convincing the public or a jury based on years-old memories is difficult. “People are very resistant to the idea that otherwise normal-appearing people among us are bad people and perpetrators,” he said.

Mr. Cheit said, “I think there’s a lot of uncertainty and disagreement about how often it does happen and why,” but it’s an extreme position to deny recovered memories completely.

He disagreed with Harrison G. Pope, a clinical psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, who testified last week on behalf of Dr. Edison that “there is no satisfactory scientific evidence that you could lock up a memory of a major traumatic event.”

Mr. Cheit contrasted skepticism of recovered memories of sexual abuse to the public’s more ready acceptance of post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks among war veterans, which share some psychological processes.

He also noted that traumatic memories reported by adult men tend to be believed more than those reported by women or children.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of four girls and one out of six boys experiences sexual abuse as a child.

Advocates for victims of sexual abuse are hoping the Massachusetts Legislature acts on House bill 469 before the session ends July 31. The bill would eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for indecent assault and battery and rape for all minors and eliminate civil statutes of limitation for past and future child sexual abuse claims, among other provisions.

Supporters, including Mr. Durso and SNAP, say that too many victims are shut out by statutes of limitations by the time they come to terms with their memories.

The current limits are 27 years for criminal prosecution and three years for civil lawsuits starting from either the victim’s 18th birthday or discovery of the abuse.

According to Yeshiva University in New York’s Cardozo School of Law professor Marci A. Hamilton, who wrote about the legislative proposal in her blog, “The Catholic Bishops have made the defeat of child sex abuse SOL (statute of limitations) reform a top priority in every state where it has been introduced, and particularly the window.”

James F. Driscoll, executive director of the Massachusetts Catholics Conference, did not return telephone calls to confirm his organization’s position on House bill 469.

Ms. McCarron eventually coped with her painful memories by being active in sports and in 1998, when she was recreational sports director at Assumption College, she founded Voices for Children — Bike Across America to raise awareness of child sexual abuse.

“I want victims to go from being a victim to a victor,” she said.

Mr. O’Regan coordinates monthly support meetings in the Worcester area. He said victims are amazed to hear others tell their stories, often for the first time.

“I carried the guilt and I carried the shame because I allowed that to happen to me,” he said.

Finally, he feels he’s made it through to the other side.”



1. Recovered Memories, Linda Stoler, Kat Quina, Anne P. De Prince, Jennifer J. Freud, 2001, Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Volume Two, pages 905-917, Academic Press, The Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, Jim Hopper, PhD

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29 Responses to Up To 20% of Child Sexual Abuse Victims Completely Repress All Memory Of Having Been Abused

  1. little nel says:

    “Believing that she would go to jail if she spoke out”

    I can tell you from first hand experience that children were jailed, in 1959, because of the behavior of the adults in their lives.

    My mother used to remind me that nothing would happen to her if I complained to “the law” about her behavior. “They will take you away, not me, just like they did before, and when they do, I’ll let them keep you.”

    She never took responsibility for her neglect. “If you hadn’t asked the neighbors for food, this would have never happened.”
    “The reason there is no food in the house is because you will just eat it.”

  2. little nel says:

    Good News….the 7′ statue of Joe Paterno was removed from Penn State.

    I hope they erect a memorial for all the victims of sexual abuse, especially the ones who were murdered to ensure that they remained silent about the abuse so the perps would not suffer the consequences of their offenses.

  3. little nel says:

    The only memories that I repressed were those concerning the county home. My repression was so complete that couldn’t even remember the nightmares about it when I was awakened by my own screams.

    • Alethea says:

      I wonder if this has to do with it being sexual abuse by a woman? Same-sex child sexual abuse often invokes repression. Death threats do too, but you were also threatened by your father, as well as the matron at the home right?

      • little nel says:

        Yes, I went from the frying pan into the fire, although, my father’s death threats began when I was 14.

        My father never dragged me out of my cell in the middle of the night by my feet and/or hair like the night matron did. (I tried to pretend that I was asleep and would not get up off my mattress.)

        My mattress was soaked with tears and urine because I was locked in and could not us the bathroom when needed. I was ashamed of it because I did not wet the bed until I was “housed” in that county home.

        I was locked in a utility closet in the county home because there were no beds available anywhere else, I was told. All I had was a mattress (crib size) on the floor and a thin cotton hospital blanket.

        The trauma was so severe that could not look at food without nausea so I didn’t eat. I got so skinny that I was force fed alone in a room. My throat would lock up and as hard as tried to eat, I could not swallow the food. I was told that I would not be allowed to sleep until I ate “my food” so I cried and could not stop crying even when I tried to please my captors.

        • little nel says:

          I just remembered that the offending matron had some kind of issue about my underwear. She said that I didn’t need underwear so she took my “government issued” underwear from me.

          When the day matrons noticed that I didn’t have any underwear on, they asked me what I did with them. I said that the night matron took them. They looked at each other kinda puzzled and gave me another pair. The next day that pair disappeared and they asked me again. “Where is your underwear?” I told you, the night matron took them from me.

          “No, you are lying! The night matron did not take them.” But the look on the day matron’s face looked upset like she believed me.

          I never understood why the night matron made it a point to take my underwear away from me.

          Also, I remember when I was released that my underwear that I had on when I arrived was missing from my civilian clothes. My mother scolded me because she thought that I did not have underwear on when I arrived at the county home, but I know that I had underwear on when I arrive.

          • Alethea says:

            Little Nel, you were tortured in that county home. TORTURED. I hope to God they were held criminally accountable.

            • little nel says:

              Yes, I was tortured. It was a place of chaos, confusion, and pain.

              Try to find any information about Julia Laythrope Hall in Los Angeles. It has all vanished like the place never existed.

              How can a “county home” on the campus of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall just disappear from history?

        • Alethea says:

          I get it now Little Nel.

          Death threats after age 13 would mean less of a chance to block them out. But the severe trauma you suffered in the county home was bad enough to have caused repression. Wow. I am so sorry. Di you ever sue that place or were those assholes ever held criminally accountable?

    • PDD says:

      A few years ago, I realized it wasn’t memories that I had repressed necessarily, but it was more of how I was interpreting these memories: I was still interpreting these memories at the age I was when I made them. For example, I was blaming myself for a reaction my father gave me when I was 7-8 yrs old, rather than examining this memory through the eyes of an adult. That was quite an eye opener for me. Understanding my father’s reactions (who would have been in his early 30s back then) from the perspective of an 8yr old versus a 40 yr old’s perspective, was tremendously illuminating. This was a leap I only recently made.

      Many of my memories I have of my mother’s abuse is in the form of “dreams” or “snapshot” images. Looking at them with adult perspective, I know they are true, not the ephemeral/dreamlike quality my 8-12 yr old self gave to them.

      • little nel says:

        I can relate. It wasn’t until I got into therapy that I realized that my perspective and memories of the abuse was that of a 9 year old child.

        Alethea, states that we have a memories of abuse that are the recalled and felt the same as when they happened.

        • Alethea says:

          It’s true Little Nel. Sometimes when memories return, or when they are triggered, they are experienced at the exact same level as they were felt as a child. The exact thoughts as a child come back, as well as the feelings in the body the child might have experienced, and the emotional level is that of the child.

  4. PM Stefan says:

    Another good source of information on repressed memories is a book called Unchained Memories by Lenore Terr, MD. On a support forum for survivors of abuse, someone suggested it because of my difficulty with my previously dissociated and now emerging repressed memories of my father’s heinous abuse and criminal acts.

    I started to remember what my father did after my mother died. That was my trigger. As the memories flooded back to me, I began to have increased symptoms of PTSD and life threatening atrial fibrillations due to the terrifying nature of those memories. I finally had to see a cardiologist because my heart was racing up to 194 beats per minute.

    Twenty-two years before the memories came back, I entered therapy due to sudden phobias to boats and water in boats. All I had to do was look at a boat and I suffered debilitating panic and anxiety attacks. I kept detailed journals in which I wrote about disconnected memories of my father’s criminal acts. Though at the time, I failed to understand what I was remembering.

    Now with all my current memories and those from 22 years ago, I have begun to put the pieces together, and they point to one summer of horrifying events where my father perpetrated numerous criminal acts on 9 and 10 year old children while I was forced to watch.

    When I reread my old journals, I discovered that I mentioned something horrific must have occurred when I was 9 to 10 years old. I was right.

    • little nel says:

      It is amazing to me that as a child, when I witnessed abuse, that I felt terror, so I wanted to erase the memories of watching the abuse.

      I think that watching another child being abused and having no power to stop it was more traumatic for me than being abused myself, at least that’ how it felt as a child.

      Many times when I related to my brothers what I witnessed as my father battered them without mercy, the black eyes, the bloody faces, the bruises left from being kicked, and the cuts and scrapes from being knocked off of chairs and steps, I cringe, pull back and freeze from fear.

    • Alethea says:

      PM Stefan,

      I read Unchained Memories when I first remembered that I was a victim of incest (I also read all the books on the subject of repression). I used some material from that book for part of my manuscripts in order to document research.

      I was sort of shocked to read you comment because I too suffered from a serious rapid heart rate and from all kinds of heart flutters for years. I saw one of the best cardiologists in Los Angeles and had to go to an emergency room one night for chest pains and an ‘electrode’ feeling in my chest. The cardiologist and the emergency room physicians never found anything wrong with me. I suffered from that rapid heart rate for years. There were times when I was so scared I thought my heart would explode or just simply stop. The triggers were things like picking up a telephone, eating food, expressing myself, or even seeing an advertisement for a grocery store. The thumping in my chest even woke me up in the middle of the night on many many occasions.

      Your story reminds me of the story of the brother and sister who repressed their memories of their military father’s murder of children, and of sexual abuse of the brother and sister. I saw their story on 48 Hours or Dateline NBC many years ago.

      Were you threatened with death by your father? Maybe with a weapon? My rapid heart rate disappeared with therapy. It was rooted in my father’s death threats with a knife. My mother’s too.

      • PDD says:

        I wasn’t overtly threatened with death by my father (maybe not, see below), but I believe on numerous occasions he (consciously or subconsciously) placed me in positions of such profound negligence that severe injury or death could have resulted. I believe he felt he needed to protect his wife, the Perfect Mother, and the Perfect Family, at all costs.

        Actually, there were two times I thought he was capable of lethal violence: a) on a mtn climbing trip with him; b) when I confronted him regarding my mother’s abuses immediately after her death. In a) our relationship was severely tensed due to Mother’s lies, but of course he only believed her, and I thought he might let me fall to my death during our climb; in b) I thought maybe he found Mother’s hidden .357 magnum and would shoot me in the back.

        Man, tense memories. 😦

        • little nel says:

          “Man, tense memories.”

          I remember feeling faint when I started to remember, and I got so scared that I tried to stop remembering again but I couldn’t stop it.

          I cramped up, couldn’t talk or move, at first, and wanted to hide. I hid under my bed covers and tried to be invisible, hoping the tension would pass quickly and I could feel safe again.

        • Alethea says:

          My father was a police officer so I can relate to the fear of the gun. As a child, I felt that he could kill me at any moment and would get away with it because he was a police officer. I felt that he and my mother could make up any story they wanted about me being gone, and they would be fully believed.

          I lived every day of my childhood fearing that I would be murdered by one or both of my parents.

          • little nel says:

            Alethea, I felt the same about my father. He had guns. He could make up any story and get away with it. His father was a deputy, all our uncles were lawyers with powerful friends. I saw what they did to my mother.

            My father said many times that he gave me the “breath of life” and he could destroy my life any time that he wanted to because it was his god-given (lower case “g” intentional) right.

      • PM Stefan says:

        Yes, it was with a knife. He was an expert with knives of all kinds. The worst, he made a noose for my neck and made me put it around my neck while he held a knife at my throat. Then he pressed an old milk crate under my feet and made me teeter back and forth on that while I was forced to watch him rape, torture, and murder children.

        The only way I got diagnosed with PAF was being placed on an event monitor for the heart rather than a 24 hour heart monitor. My events are/were two months apart coinciding with my new memories. Now I have them whenever a new memory is about to emerge.

        My normal heart rate is 53 so my heart racing to 194 was quite serious and scary.

        I wonder which show that was, which year. My father was military too and murdered children. Although, he also murdered adults and I saw my first murder at age 3.

        • little nel says:

          OMG, Stefan, you are a courageous soul!

          You have my heartfelt compassion.

          “Now I have them whenever a new memory is about to emerge.”

          That has to be really scary for you and life threatening.

          • PM Stefan says:

            little nel,
            My cardiologist prescribed what is called a pill-in-the-pocket approach to my PAF where I take medicine when I have the heart palpitations and racing heart. They are both irregular and racing beats. Yes, quite scary and life threatening.

            I told my cardiologist why I think I have the irregular and racing beats, my father being a serial killer, and he said that would cause those symptoms.

            • little nel says:

              I’m so glad that you know how to take care of yourself and that you have a good cardiologist.

              Being good to ourselves is our number one priority after all that we were exposed to in childhood.

              Walt Disney said, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

              I believe that.

        • Alethea says:

          You were tortured PM. I am so sorry that you experienced such trauma.

          • PM Stefan says:

            Yes, Alethea, many times my father tortured me.

            Before the first time he made me put the noose around my neck, he took me to a marine supply store to purchase the rope which was used for tying boats to docks. I remember the rope was white and smooth and thick. I was not allowed to speak his name in public even if I had to refer to him. And I did need to while I asked the clerk to give me the rope. My father was specific too, a length twice my height. I was 9 years old at the time. After I brought the rope over to my father he was livid that I spoke his name in public. [He made me call him so many different names, I never knew which one to use and where.]

            He paid for the rope and took me out to his step van. I remember that step van as if it was yesterday. It smelled awful in the back of it. A combination of fish and blood. I got inside and stepped into the box part of the van and my father followed me. He threw the rope at my feet and yelled at me about repeating his name in public. I kept saying I needed to say a name. In the next few minutes, my father flipped me around and forced me back hard against his body knocking the breath out of me. He grabbed my left forearm with both hands and told me I would never again speak his name in public. In the next moment, he broke my arm. I fell to the floor shrieking and holding my arm.

            I went from being left handed to right handed because of my broken arm. I have never eaten normal nor held a pen/pencil normal with my right hand. Because of my father breaking my arm for speaking his name in public, I cannot remember his last name. I remember his first name and yet at times I still question whether that was his first name. My FOO repeated that first name with two children from two different families, very odd and not a custom of my FOO’s heritage.

            The purchased rope was made into the noose which my father forced me to wear at knife point each time he killed. And that first time, my arm was not casted and my father did not care if I was in pain. It was a scene I played out in my head again and again in my adolescence and throughout my adult life, yet I did not know why I repeated the scene.

  5. Beverley says:

    For the most part I have my memories, but did not realise I only have the visual and not the emotional. And no one could tell me how devestating re membering the emotions that went with the visual. I used to minimise what happened to me because it did not feel bad. I said to the first therapist I went to my child hood was not that bad, and she said yes It was a lot worse. So I can feel for those just remembering memories that they did not even remember. It is a wonder that most of us sexual abuse victims even make it to be grown up. Beverley perth Western Australia.

    • little nel says:

      “I used to minimize what happened to me…etc.”

      I did the same thing. I did not want my parents to be so cruel, but facing the reality of their behavior gave me a freedom and a knowledge that I didn’t cause their behavior even though they said that I deserved it.

      They were wrong and they did not want to take responsibility for being abusers. “I didn’t hurt you, stop acting like a baby,” was the command that allowed me to minimize the abuse.

    • PM Stefan says:

      For me, the visual portions of the memories came 22 years before the emotional portion of the memories. I had a complete disconnect and did not know what I was remembering until 2011/2012 when things finally made sense. Luckily, I had kept detailed journals of those visual memories and reread them. Everything made perfect sense.

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