Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force On Violence And The Family

ISSUES AND DILEMMAS IN FAMILY VIOLENCE


Issue 6

Issue 6

IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE DELAYED MEMORIES OF BEING SEXUALLY ABUSED AS A CHILD?

Clinical reports suggest that sexual abuse victims may forget the abusive experiences, then remember them later in their lives, but empirical research findings cannot explain this phenomenon by anything we currently know about memory.

Controversy about adult recollections should not be used to obscure the reality and prevalence of child sexual abuse. Data from a variety of sources provide evidence that as many as 20 percent of American women and 5 to 10 percent of American men experienced some form of sexual abuse as children. Most adults retain conscious memory (whether total, partial, or with fluctuating accessibility) of the abuse, although they may not fully understand it or disclose it. Some sexual abuse victims, however, do appear to have total memory loss for the experience; this phenomenon has been noted even in cases where the abuse was reported to authorities at the time of its occurrence. In either case, delayed recall or delayed disclosure may result.

Some professionals assert that delayed memories of abuse are essentially inaccurate and constitute 'false memories.' They cite the variable, inaccurate, and reconstructive nature of memory, and they do not believe that memories of trauma are significantly different from memories of nontraumatic events. Some also charge that delayed memories recovered while an adult is in therapy may have been suggested or implanted by the therapist.

Recently the media have widely reported stories of adults who seem to have forgotten incidents of sexual abuse from childhood and then remember the experiences, either spontaneously or in the course of receiving mental health care. Often these stories are reported in such a way that there appears to be a great likelihood that the recollected memories are of events that did not, in fact, happen at all. As a result, many people are confused about whether childhood sexual abuse is common and if it is, about the reasons it may go undetected or unreported until the victim reaches adulthood.

Delayed recall should not automatically be assumed to be a false or implanted memory. On the other hand, the memory should not automatically be interpreted as a literal, historical reality.

Having reviewed the research literature on trauma and on memory, the APA Working Group on the Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse issued an Interim Report that reached these conclusions:

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