Research Proves 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

There are still many people who deny that children can, and often do, completely block out incest, child sexual abuse, and trauma. Most of those who deny the existence of repressed memories, are usually one of the following people:

  • Child sexual abusers
  • Pedophiles who have an agenda to legalize and normalize child sexual abuse
  • Psychologists who make money from defending accused perpetrators in civil suits
  • The mother who enabled sexual abuse in her home by not protecting the child
  • Family members of the accused in non-incest cases
  • Siblings, and other family members in cases of incest

I want people to know there is documented evidence and research to fully support and validate that many people have completely blocked out child sexual abuse, and often don’t remember it until they become an adult.

There are even 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 replace- 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.

According to the “False Memory Syndrome” Foundation (there is no such syndrome), seventy-one percent of siblings do not believe the accusations of abuse made and reported to the FMSF.

People who deny repression exists, have asked 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 currently pay their bills or give them money).
  • 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 and deny memories out of self-protection.

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 the man’s name, she began to remember.

His 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”

Countless people have heard these words, or read them on their computer screen, or seen these painful words in a letter from family members who have chosen to deny the sexual abuse that has been revealed.

I have seen these words in a letter from a sibling, and in an email from another sibling. Marilyn van Derbur heard these words from her mother when she revealed the sexual abuse by her prominent father. Her mother told her, “it’s in your fantasy.”

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

One of the hardest parts of my healing, and finding my strength, was to learn to trust myself in spite of the denial, intimidation, lies, threats, and ugliness given to me by my bio-tribe when I dared to write letters to them which exposed family secrets –secrets I was sworn to secrecy about …under penalty of death.

Finding my strength in the midst of all the backlash, was also the most liberating part of my healing journey.

–The day I realized that no threat, loss of inheritance, or being called names and cut out of their life would ever replace my peace, health, personal strength and well-being…I became free.

Crested Butte July Flowers and River033



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
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3 Responses to Research Proves the Existence of Repressed Memories

  1. PDD says:

    I don’t believe I have many repressed memories, most of my abuse memories I have carried all of my life. But something I have noticed, within the last several years, is how I interpret those memories, rather than as a child but as an adult. I wonder if there’s such a thing as a “repressed” interpretation of long stored memories?

    • Alethea says:

      Indeed there is!!!! I have experienced this on several occasions. When a memory first began to come out, I would feel it as the child did, and later, after gaining strength (sometimes many years later) I would go back to that memory and feel it/experience it/observe it as a powerful adult.

      But there are also the kind of memories that when they are first processed, the person feels one way about their perpetrator, and later when they gain strength, they allow themselves to feel additional, or different things about their perpetrator or the incident. The mind only releases what we can handle when we can handle it –be it a repressed memory of trauma or abuse, or the personal feelings about repressed (or always remembered) abuse.

  2. Little Nel says:

    Your last paragraph is so profound.
    I agree!!!!!!

Comments are closed.