Memory Wars

Potter, Frank Huddlestone, 1845-1887; Little Dormouse
Little Dormouse by Frank Huddlestone Potter

In the 1990’s there was a lot of press about recovered memories of child sexual abuse (CSA), most suggesting that they were false memories implanted by therapists. I’ve been researching this area for my thesis and was surprised by what I found. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was founded by Peter and Pamela Freyd after their daughter, who is also an academic, accused her father of CSA. The most significant proponent of this theory is Elizabeth Loftus who argued that recovered memories were not reliable or necessarily true. Her research has been used in many criminal cases, including the Cosby trial, to ‘disprove’ claims. This isn’t the first time that memories of abuse have been questioned. Sigmund Freud first concluded that such memories were real before changing his mind and deciding that they were fantasies. You can read all about that here.

In contrast, there is clear evidence that repressed memories are possible. For example, Linda Meyer Williams interviewed 129 women with previous documented experience of CSA and found 38% did not remember. She found it was most common where the child had been very young at the time of the abuse and/or abused by someone they knew. Indeed, in a recent Australian case a perpetrator, convicted of assaulting multiple victims, confessed to abusing a boy and the victim, now older, did not remember although he does have PTSD. Repressed memories have also been demonstrated to be just as accurate as other trauma memories.

It is important to consider why people are making such arguments – in this case a man who was himself accused of abuse. All academics have reasons why we research particular things. I think that we should be open about what they are particularly when our research affects real people especially children.

The idea of false memories are still under debate within the academic and medical community as well as wider society. In general the pendulum has swung from disbelief of memories in the 1990’s to more acceptance now. However, it continues to affect people’s reactions  and should be challenged by highlighting its origins.

References

Loftus, E. (1993) ‘The Reality of Repressed Memories.’, Am Psychol, 48(5), pp. 518–537. doi: 10.1300/J229v03n01_03.

Masson, J. M. (1984) ‘Freud and the Seduction Theory: A challenge to the foundations of psychoanalysis’, The Atlantic, February. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1984/02/freud-and-the-seduction-theory/376313/

Rydberg, J. A. (2017) ‘Research and clinical issues in trauma and dissociation: Ethical and logical fallacies, myths, misreports, and misrepresentations’, European Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. Elsevier Masson SAS, 1(2), pp. 89–99. doi: 10.1016/j.ejtd.2017.03.011

Scheflin, A. W. and Brown, D. (1996) ‘Repressed Memory or Dissociative Amnesia: What the Science Says’, Psychiatry & Law, 24, pp. 143–188.

Williams, L. M. (1994) ‘Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women’s Memories of Child Sexual Abuse’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, pp. 1167–1176. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.62.6.1167.

CSA, Memory and Dissociation

Ibbotson, Karen; Memory I
‘Memory I’ by Karen Ibbotson, Gallery Oldham

During my research it has become clear that people who have experienced CSA do not know about advances in CSA research. This is no fault of theirs but instead reflects how taboo the subject is. Nobody talks about it but lots of people experience it. I want to share up to date information about CSA research and the first topic is memories.

Dissociation

Traumatic experiences are difficult for the person to experience. Animals sometimes freeze when they cannot escape a situation. Humans are no different. It is common for the individual to dissociate and attempt to mentally leave the situation. Dissociation is defined by MIND as ‘an experience where you feel disconnected in some way from the world around you or from yourself.’ During the traumatic incident the person might enter an altered sense of reality, detached from the self and time. Children are more likely to dissociate so people who have experience childhood sexual abuse frequently experience this. What does this mean for them as an adult?

Memory Gaps

Amnesia is common following dissociation, as this state might affect how memory is stored. The person may struggle to recall facts about the incident(s) or even that it took place at all. It does seem however that emotions and sensations around the event(s) are retained, which means that someone can feel fear, for example, without remembering why. Many people find memories returning later, often in adulthood.

PTSD and other Conditions

Dissociation raises the risk of long term conditions such as Complex-PTSD. With C-PTSD things that remind the person of the traumatic experience (triggers) lead to a re-experiencing of that event. This does not necessarily mean a complete flashback but can mean the re-experiencing of emotions as described above. There is further information about C-PTSD here on the NHS site.

There are other dissociative conditions such as Dissociative Identity Disorder, see the MIND link here, that are again tied to early trauma.

To sum up memory gaps and even total amnesia is common in people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. It is a consequence of the body trying to deal with an traumatic experience. C-PTSD is also common and may be, in part, a consequence of that dissociation.

References:

Scaer, R.C., 2001. The Neurophysiology of Dissociation & Chronic Disease. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 26(1), pp.73–91.

Van der Kolk, B., 2014. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, London: Viking.