Lost and Found Memories of Trauma

How, why, and where we store memories are complex processes only partially understood. We briefly discussed the types and stages of memory, what normal forgetting is, the types of amnesias and how tv and books get it wrong , and the most feared type of forgetting—dementias . But there’s another type of forgetting we have not yet discussed. The complex issue of lost and found memories of trauma, better known as repressed memories or recovered memories, has been fraught with bitter controversy. Relatively recent research and discoveries shed some light on what happens.

Trigger Warning: This article does not go into descriptions, but topics discussed include abuse, sexual abuse, childhood traumas and childhood sexual abuse. If those are trigger issues for you, give this article a pass.

image of five polaroid pictures with without images. The black squares represent the lost portion of lost and found memories of trauma

The Definition

Although courts and legislatures use the term repressed memory, the proper term is dissociative amnesia. This is the definition that appears in the DSM-IV, section 300.12: “Dissociative amnesia is characterized by an inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature, that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.”

Alan W. Scheflin Psychiatric Times

Repressed Memory vs False Memory

Since the late 1980s there have been huge questions and bitter debate between believers and deniers. And very little proof existed for either side.

Academics and therapists and psychiatrists lined up on both sides. The courts were told by many “experts” that hypnosis and other therapies contaminated memories. Then in the 1990s the courts were told that repressed memory does not exist. Experts claimed that “false memories” could be created accidentally or maliciously. They testified that memory is untrustworthy. That lost and found memories must be false.

The False Memory Syndrome Foundation

In 1992 Pamela and Peter Freyd became strong proponents of the deniers side. Their adult daughter accused Peter of childhood sexual abuse. He denied it. They founded the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. It provided support for family members “falsely” accused of abuse. It also highlighted memory research that “proved” they could create false memories. One such researcher was Elizabeth Loftus.

Elizabeth Loftus

Loftus “is best known for her ground-breaking work on the misinformation effect and eyewitness memory, and the creation and nature of false memories.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Loftus Her initial research focused on the reliability of eyewitness memory. Her research and laboratory experiments determined that leading questions might alter people’s memories of events. She appeared in hundreds of courts and gave expert testimony about the unreliablity of memory in violent crimes.

In the 1990s she shifted her research to recovered memories of sexual abuse. But ethically, she could not “create” memories of major trauma (such as child sexual abuse) in volunteers.

One of her students developed the “Lost in the Mall” test. This test attempted to introduce “memories” in adult volunteers of being lost in the mall as a child. Twenty-nine percent of their volunteers developed a memory of being lost in the mall as a child. Loftus called this false memory.

Do Recovered Memories Exist?

image of trees in a fog when the fog represents the lost and found memories of trauma

Those who believe repressed memories do not exist argue that memory is inaccurate and that most people don’t forget traumatic memories. This is true as far as it goes. But it doesn’t address pertinent questions: do recovered memories exist and are repressed memories always false?

In 1995 a pair of scientists, Pope and Hudson, proposed that “to reject the null hypothesis and demonstrate ‘repression,’ one need only exhibit a series of individuals who display clear and lasting amnesia for known experiences too traumatic to normally forgettable.” 

Research studies by Brown and colleagues (1999) met the Pope and Hudson criteria and found repressed memories exist. However, critics argued that the studies were faulty. So they redid the studies multiple times, following more and more rigorous study protocols. Each study concluded that recovered memories exist. Further, they showed that many of the studies done to disprove the existence of repressed memories do not address the issue of amnesia and some reveal dissociative amnesia in their volunteers.

Other studies tested the accuracy of recovered memories. These studies found the accuracy to be no more and no less than normal memory. In other words, all memories are subject to an individual’s personal knowledge, experience, and emotional understanding.

The Case of Jane Doe

In 1997, David L. Corwin published a paper, Videotaped Discovery of a Reportedly Unrecallable Memory of Child Sexual Abuse: Comparison with a Childhood Interview Videotaped 11 Years Before. 

In his paper he reports that during her parents’ divorce a four-year-old girl accused her mother of sexual abuse. Two years later, the now six-year-old underwent a forensic exam. Corwin, as per the law, videotaped her interview and detailed description of the abuse. 

The girl’s mother lost custody. The child lived with her father until he had a stroke and had to be in long-term care. At that point, the girl went into foster care. She longed for her real family. At 17 she remembered being told that she was in a videotaped interview that had to do with her custody case but had forgotten what she’d said on the tape. She contacted Corwin. She wanted to watch the tape. When she arrived, she agreed to a videotaped interview. Her sudden recovery of her memory happened on tape.

In 2017, Jane Doe revealed herself and talked about her experience of repressed memory in The Guardian. In that article, she also discusses how Elizabeth Loftus uncovered her identity and adversely affected her life.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

Recently, when Dr Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist, testified against Judge Brett Kavanaugh she was questioned and doubted about her incomplete memory. She was asked how she could be sure. She responded:

It’s just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain that … encodes memories into the hippocampus so that trauma-related experience is locked there [while] other memories just drift

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford

The Argument Continues

The Association for Psychological Science published an article in December 2013 that showed the subject of repressed memories remained a topic of controversy.

“Roughly 60-80% of clinicians, psychoanalysts, and therapists surveyed agreed to some extent that traumatic memories are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy, compared to less than 30% of research-oriented psychologists.”

Scientists and Practitioners Don’t See Eye to Eye on Repressed Memory

Splitting Hairs?

Most clinicians and memory researchers believe most survivors of child sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them, although “they may not fully understand or disclose it.

They believe it’s rare, but that a spontaneous recovery of these memories can happen. However, they also agree that convincing “pseudo-memories” for events that never happened are real.

Addendum

Despite the efforts of researchers and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, false memory syndrome is not now and has never been a diagnosis accepted by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

In 2019, the FMSF put an announcement in the footer of their website. The announcement? They planned to close the foundation down as of December 31, 2019. “The need for the FMS Foundation diminished dramatically over the years. The FMSF website and Archives will continue to be available.”

Get Help

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Opinion

Image of a skeleton key with a tag labeling it memories, lost and found memories of trauma are like lost or misplaced keys.

If you’ve read my dystopian suspense story, My Soul to Keep, you know I believe repressed memories are real and valid. I believe the “proof” of false memories based on the “Mall Test” are invalid. It fails because children are “lost” in the mall or while shopping daily. The period of being lost usually is only a moment or two but, the study does not consider this.  

Have you ever “lost” your keys? You thought you remembered where you put them, but they aren’t there. When you do find them you remember, yes that was where you put them. That, folks, is a recovered memory. If we can forget and recover memories over a brief period of time, it certainly can happen over longer periods of time.

Conclusion

Do lost and found memories (recovered) exist? Science seems to prove it does and it doesn’t. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

We’ve learned a lot about memory in this series of blog posts. And we’ve only covered a simplified explanation of these things. Scientists do not understand recovered memory, aka dissociative amnesia, well. Clearly more research is needed. But the opportunity for the study of recovered memories of child sexual abuse are rare. And the ability to prove or disprove the abuse is even rarer.

Most attempts to prove or disprove recovered memories end up in a “he said-she said” argument. The lost and found memory of trauma continues to defy survivors, clinicians, the courts, and memory researchers. What do you think?

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