Amnesia For Child Sexual Abuse, a Frequent Phenomenon

From Peer-Reviewed Studies:

“The findings suggest that recovery from total amnesia of past traumatic material involving both child sexual abuse and non sexual abuse experiences is by no means an uncommon feature of clinical practice among our highly trained professional members.” “. . .our large-scale survey confirms and extends previous research. . . . Memory recovery appears to be a robust and frequent phenomenon.”

450 adults in clinical study reported sexual abuse histories regarding their repression of sexual abuse incidents. 267 of participants identified some period in their lives, before 18 yrs of age, when they had no memory of their abuse. Variables most predictive of abuse-related amnesia were greater current psychological symptoms, molestation at an early age, extended abuse, and variables reflecting especially violent abuse (e.g., victimization by multiple perpetrators, having been physically injured as a result of the abuse, victim fears of death if she or he disclosed the abuse to others).

memoryQuestions are continually raised about the accuracy and validity of very young children’s memories of traumatic events. Out of 19 children, where the median age was 2 1/2 at time of disclosure, 11 had full verbal memory, five had fragmented verbal memory traces, and three had no memory 5 to 10 years following day care sexual abuse. Data from this clinical study suggest the nature of children’s memory is four-dimensional: somatic, behavioral, verbal, and visual. Efforts need to continue to document the nonverbal components for assessment and treatment purposes.

The accuracy of recovered and continuous memories was investigated in 17 women (average age 29.5 yrs) who had recovered memories of physical or sexual abuse by their fathers while in therapy. Subjects, and their 43-72 yr old fathers, cooperated in gathering physical evidence confirming or refuting these memories. This evidence was analyzed and rated by 6 independent judges recruited for the purpose.

Memories of abuse were found to be equally accurate whether recovered or continuously remembered.

Predictors of number of memory units for which evidence was uncovered included several measures of memory and perceptual accuracy. Recovered memories that were later supported arose in psychotherapy more typically during periods of positive rather than negative feeling toward the therapist, and they were more likely to be held with confidence by the abuse victim.

Delayed recall of childhood sexual abuse was studied in 505 subjects, who completed the Traumatic Events Survey, Trauma Symptom Inventory, Impact of Event Scale, and the Symptom Checklist. Of subjects who reported a history of sexual abuse, 42% described some period of time when they had less memory of the abuse than they did at the time of data collection. No demographic differences were found between subjects with continuous recall and those who reported delayed recall.

memory-laneHowever, delayed recall was associated with the use of threats at the time of the abuse. Subjects who had recently recalled aspects of their abuse reported particularly high levels of post-traumatic symptomatology and self difficulties at the time of data collection compared to other subjects.

A random sample of 724 individuals from across the United States were mailed a questionnaire containing demographic information, an abridged version of the Traumatic Events Survey (DM Elliott, 1992), and questions regarding memory for traumatic events. Of these, 505 (70%) completed the survey. Among respondents who reported some form of trauma (72%), delayed recall of the event was reported by 32%. This phenomenon was most common among individuals who observed the murder or suicide of a family member, sexual abuse survivors, and combat veterans. The severity of the trauma was predictive of memory status, but demographic variables were not.

The most commonly reported trigger to recall of the trauma was some form of media presentation (i.e., television show, movie), whereas psychotherapy was the least commonly reported trigger.

Childhood sexual abuse memories of 52 women was studied in 21-55 year-olds,  who had been hospitalized for treatment of sexual trauma, been sexually abused prior to age 18, and reported a period of amnesia before recalling abuse memories. Subjects completed a questionnaire about their first suspicions of having been sexually abused, their first memories of sexual abuse, other memories of abuse, and details of their abuse history. Subjects were more likely to recall part of an abuse episode, as opposed to an entire abuse episode, following a period of no memory of the abuse. Additionally, first memories tended to be described as vivid rather that vague.

A questionnaire survey of 755 adults sexually abused as children, asking about the circumstances of their disclosure to the first person they told, resulted in 286 responses (228 from female victims of incest). Subjects were asked basic demographic information, details about their abuse, who they told first, the reaction of the first person told, and reasons why they delayed telling or finally did tell. The women telling their parents first were likely to tell in childhood. Those telling friends, other family members, or partners were more likely to tell in early adulthood. Survivors telling therapists revealed the abuse at a later age. Those revealing the incest to parents in childhood received a worse reaction than did those waiting until adulthood. When women disclosed to parents prior to age 18, the incest continued for more than 1 yr after the disclosure in 52% of the cases. Women who disclosed as children were more often met with disbelief or blame.

One hundred twenty-nine 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. The implications for research and practice are discussed.

Long periods with no memory of abuse should not be regarded as evidence that the abuse did not occur.



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Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of abuse. Dalenberg, Constance J. CSPP, Trauma Research Inst, San Diego, CA, US
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Posttraumatic stress associated with delayed recall of sexual abuse: A general population study. Special Issue: Research on traumatic memory. Elliott, Diana M.; Briere, John U California-Los Angeles Medical Ctr, Child Abuse Crisis Ctr, Harbor
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Traumatic events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population Elliott, Diana M. U California-Los Angeles Medical Ctr, Child Abuse Crisis Ctr, Harbor
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Characteristics of previously forgotten memories of sexual abuse: A descriptive study. Roe, Catherine M.; Schwartz, Mark F. Journal of Psychiatry & Law
1996 Sum Vol 24(2) 189-206]
Telling the secret: Adult women describe their disclosures of incest. Roesler, Thomas A.; Wind, Tiffany Weissmann National Jewish Ctr for Immunology & Respiratory Medicine, Denver, CO, US
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Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women’s memories of child sexual abuse. Williams, Linda Meyer U New Hampshire, Family Research Lab, Durham, US
Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology
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The recovery of memories in clinical practice: Experiences and beliefs of British Psychological Society practitioners Andrews, Bernice; Morton, John; Bekerian, Debra A.; Brewin, Chris R.; Davis, Graham M.; Mollon, Phil The Psychologist
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6 Responses to Amnesia For Child Sexual Abuse, a Frequent Phenomenon

  1. Meg LuvsJC says:

    This was a great blog. Helped me a lot. It’s true for me about media triggering or revealing a memory via a very sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Happened while watching Dolores Claiborne, and just last week a movie called The Kid. The rage and pain come flowing out, and the grief. A little bit of that pain is gone after that..

    • Alethea says:

      I’ve never seen The Kid. Dolores Claiborne is not only a brilliant film, it triggers me every time. The scene where the child plays Jennifer Jason Leigh, stabs herself with broken glass in her neck when her mother is confronting her always hits home. It’s a fabulous depiction of how a victim can feel about herself with regards to her relationship with her father sexually.

      The moment Jennifer jason Leigh’s character begins to get her memory back on the ferry, in the bathroom mirror is great too. It really shows how it can feel to remember incest. I think Jennifer jason leigh was probably sexually abused in her childhood by someone. She takes on those roles as an actress, does great at it, and she also plays a tragic victim in other non-sexual abuse films.

  2. I have had abuse and trauma-related amnesia in association with being drugged at various times in my life as a young teen, early 20s, and late 20s. Now as a 50+-year-old man I remember so many awful things, including the horror and overwhelm of the situations. I have been a known survivor of CSA since my 30s, but again I am still getting memories back in association with when I was drugged during these earlier times in my life. For those who believe that mankind is good, you need to realize just how dark it is out there. I am embarrassed to be a human being, and I find myself constantly asking God why he allowed these horrors in my life.

    • Alethea says:

      Hello. I am so sorry about what you have endured.

      Human beings are neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad.’ Every human being has God’s light inside them, as well as self (darkness). It is the battle between the two which creates either a demon, or an angel in the person. We humans have all been given free will to choose which part of us to feed –the self, or love. God is Love, and Love has loved us so much, that Love gave us free-will. The earth is the imperfect realm, the realm of purging and cleansing, pain, and suffering. God allowed free will so we can all choose to unite with Love, or unite with darkness. Free will allowed those things to happen to you –the free will of your abusers, not God.

  3. PDD says:

    My personal story is in alignment w these data. In particular the denial and repudiation when a child discloses, and the continuation of abuse. I first disclosed to my father in elementary school; of course I was disbelieved, and my mother’s abuses continued well into high school with my father’s knowledge (and enablement via his non-action)

    • Alethea says:

      Yep, once the perp sees that no one will believe the child, they have a green light to continue to abuse, and to do even worse things.

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