by Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D.

For the last several years there has been quite a debate going on about the validity of repressed memories, especially memories of childhood sexual abuse. The idea of repressed memory has been around for the last hundred years, but hasn't been so deeply questioned and fought against until recent years. The reason lies in the social context of the times, and a bit of history serves well in understanding where we are now.

The concept of repressed memory was developed by Sigmund Freud as an unconscious mechanism whereby the memory of painful or threatening events becomes inaccessible to the conscious mind, as a way of providing relief from the traumatic event(s). Notable in the course of Freud's theory development is that early on in his psychoanalytic work, he accepted the truthfulness of patients who either presented clear memories of childhood sexual abuse, or who recovered such memories during the course of their work with him.

Freud's writing and speaking about the effects of childhood sexual abuse, and most especially what he was coming to see as the prevalence of incest (as distinct from extra-familial abuse), resulted in a professional backlash. It also quite likely resulted in an internal conflict of major proportions.

What Freud's work was suggesting was that there were great numbers of otherwise well-respected men--essentially his peers--who were sexually assaulting their children. It was not something the professional world was ready to accept; and, given the lack of professional support, Freud later retracted his original position and theorized that the greatest numbers of memories of childhood sexual abuse being reported were, instead, representative of the patient's childhood fantasy of with the parent.

This latter position became institutionalized in Western culture, not just within psychiatric and psychological circles, but in the law and courts as well. The result was that until fairly recently, hardly anyone would believe the truthfulness of a report of incest, whether coming from a child or an adult reporting on childhood events. The standard response was, "S/he must have fantasized it."

All that has changed in the last twenty years or so, beginning with large numbers of women speaking out publicly as to what happened to them when they were children. More men then began to speak out as well, and both were supported by the undeniable burgeoning of the ography industry.

As more people have come to believe the truthfulness of childhood victims speaking out, the laws of the land have also changed. It is much more likely now than twenty years ago that an individual will be charged, tried, and convicted of sexual assault of a child, with little more (and sometimes no more) evidence than the child's word. Moreover, it is now possible through much of the country for adult children to bring civil suit against parents for events that lie outside the range of criminal statutes of limitations.

This, essentially, is why there is now a debate about repressed memory. There was no debate about it when the repressed memories involved only, say, memories of natural disasters, or automobile accidents and the like. The debate about repressed memories has developed precisely because now, the outcomes of both criminal and civil law suits depend on the court's acceptance or rejection of reported memories. In other words, a lot of people now have a lose, and those with the most to lose are fueling the debate the most.

Now for the state of knowledge concerning memory. There is research that strongly supports the existence of repressed memories. For instance, people interviewed immediately after a natural disaster tend to give very detailed accounts of the events. Those same people, interviewed many months later, and asked the same questions, remember events much less clearly than when first interviewed. Such data indicate a real human phenomenon of painful memories being repressed.

There is also research that strongly supports the idea of false memories. Most people have the capacity, especially when they believe their survival is at stake in some way or other, of truthfully believing a "memory" of something that never happened. It may be a case of the reported memory being a psychological representation of something else that yet remains unconscious, or something the person never experienced, but heard from others and has come to believe s/he experienced it directly.

Beyond situations in which one's literal survival is at stake are occasions of coming to believe a particular thing because of group pressure. "If everyone else believes that 'A' is true, then 'A' is probably true." To muddy the waters even further, there is also research that indicates that many people witnessing the same event can remember very different things.

Can a child falsely "remember" abuse under the influence of a parent, child protection worker, police officer, doctor, nurse, or therapist? Of course. Might a child also have recounted truthfully objective abuse to such a person or persons? Of course. Can an adult be influenced by a therapist to falsely "remember" abuse? Yes. Might an adult also recover through therapy memories of childhood abuse that had been repressed for years? Yes. And one more consideration: can a perpetrator of sexual abuse of a child truly have no memory of having done so, and sincerely believe s/he never did it? Yes.

So both of these things are true: there are repressed memories, and there are false memories. Knowing this certainly does not make the human experience any easier in the short-term, whether one is trying to evaluate one's own memories or another's. What serves best in the long run is the application of as much compassion as possible to as many people as possible, including oneself, since in any case where one must raise the question, there, certainly, pain is also.


Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D., is a private practice psychologist who lives in Plainfield, Vermont--a transplanted Southerner who still can't say "cows" the way real Vermonters do. She has spent the last twelve years working mostly with children, adolescents, and adults recovering from sexual abuse and domestic violence.


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