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Trusting Memories

“His therapist says he repressed the memories of being abused. How do I know he’s not making them up, especially after saying nothing for so many years?”


“He’s admitted it happened but his version is very different from hers. All the websites say to believe the victim but I know some of the details she remembers cannot be correct. What do I do?”


Several factors combine to make memories of sibling sexual trauma fuzzy or confusing.


Age: Sibling sexual trauma usually starts when the victim is quite young. Usually the child does not have the words or concepts to understand what is happening to them. Without access to words or categories to encode them, the memories may be lost to conscious memory.  


Time Delay: Sexually inappropriate activity is seldom reported soon after it happens. More often than not, years or even decades pass before the survivor speaks of it to anyone else. 


Trauma: People of all ages remember traumatic events in a different way than all other life experiences or learning.  Memories of trauma tend to be:

  • Detached - The memory may emerge in snapshots rather than movies.

  • Sensory-based - The sounds, smells, and touch of the experience loom large, as well as bodily sensations such as nausea, sweaty palms, and even thoughts that entered the mind as it was happening.

  • Random - Some seemingly irrelevant details may be remembered, even if the person cannot remember more basic information. For example, someone may remember what they had to eat just before an episode of abuse, but not where they were at the time.

  • Fragmented - Large parts of the memory may be absent, while other parts are remembered in vivid detail. 

  • Recalled by sensory triggers or later understanding - Memories that have been lost to conscious memory may suddenly emerge in the context of a similar sensory sensation--hearing the sound of a similar door closing, or touch that feels the same. Memories may also be recalled when the ability to understand and code them emerges--for example, in a dream, or when they see a movie depicting sexual foreplay.  


Dissociation:  Sexual trauma is so overwhelming, and children are so powerless to escape physically, that many children survive by escaping mentally. Dissociation is a powerful coping mechanism, but it sometimes causes dissociative amnesia. It is a normal reaction for traumatic memories to be stored only in the subconscious part of the brain for long periods of time. Based on current research, it is estimated that at least 10% of child sexual abuse survivors will experience periods of failing to recall their abuse, followed by delayed recall. However, it is rare that an individual will recall sexual abuse that never happened.   


Sometimes it is true that the story that the survivor is telling doesn’t add up 100%. Times and places may not match, for example. This often happens for memories of traumatic events, especially childhood sexual abuse. It does not mean the abuse did not take place, or that the survivor is lying. It does not mean the survivor is crazy. Their own memories may be fuzzy and details may emerge over time, especially when the survivor begins to tell their story and/or goes through the therapy process. 


Memories and Parents’ Dilemma:  Parents understandably want to know what happened, to guide them in responding appropriately to both children. Unfortunately, it may be impossible to get a clear picture of the situation. Parents may have to make decisions and take action based only on a general idea of what happened. The picture may become more clear over time. In many cases, parents will have to learn to live with a lot of unknowns. 


Can all memories be trusted? We know that survivors typically wait years before telling anyone about sexual trauma. We know that people accused of sexually improper behavior often initially deny it. We know that it is devastating for a survivor to be disbelieved, after summoning the courage to tell their story. We know that false memories or false accusations of childhood sexual trauma are possible, but rare.


The person reporting sexual harm may struggle with addiction, deception, violence, anger, or other sexual acting out. Childhood sexual trauma raises the risk of all these consequences. They should not be seen as a reason to disbelieve the survivor’s story. Revealing the abuse, along with the family’s belief and support, may actually be a critical step in overcoming unhealthy behaviors that began in a desperate attempt to cope with abuse.


Parents’ own memory after disclosure: If you are a parent who just learned of sexual trauma between your children, your own memory of what is happening right now will likely be affected by stress, emotional trauma, and depression. For these reasons, it is important to take notes of important information, conversations, actions you take, etc, so that you will have an accurate record if needed later on. Record it in a reliable and confidential place, such as a personal phone or computer file with a unique password, or a private notebook. For example, if you have a significant conversation with one of your children, note some of the most important thoughts and the date.  If you meet with a lawyer, therapist, victim advocate, or social worker, take notes during the appointment.


Memories and healing: A large part of therapy for survivors is creating a safe space where memories can be recalled, faced, and re-filed in ways that allow the survivor to move forward in a mentally healthy way. Therapists’ opinions differ on how much memory is necessary or even advisable in this process. However, there is general agreement that significant progress can be made even if memories remain incomplete and unfocused.  


Memories and legal action: Law enforcement, including both human services and criminal justice authorities, base their actions on legal evidence. Often there is little evidence available in child sexual abuse cases besides the testimony of the person who has reported the harm. Legal authorities must view the reported memories of all parties involved through the lens of potential evidence. This may be in direct conflict with the way therapists treat memories to maximize the potential for healing. This is one reason it is helpful to have the support of a therapist or advocate when dealing with the criminal justice system

The following quote is from a guide for lawyers who are prosecuting sex crimes against children. It is describing myths that members of a jury may believe and that the prosecutor would need to address in the course of making their case. It is from Appendix C of the Code for Crown Prosecutors in the UK, a public document: 

Myth: A victim who has been sexually assaulted will remember events consistently

[This myth] implies the victim is not telling the truth and invalidates the experience of the victim. It also fails to take account of how children and young people do not have the same standards of logic, understanding and consistency as adults do. They will not have the same experience of life as adults and are less sophisticated in their understanding of what has happened. A child may not fully understand the significance of activity which is sexual and this may be reflected in how they remember or describe it. A child is very likely to have a different perception of time to that of an adult. Also the process by which memories are laid down during a traumatic event may impact on issues such as consistency. A child's memory can fade and their recall of when and in what order events took place may not be accurate. A child may not be able to speak of the context in which the events took place, and this may include having particular difficulty with conceptual questions as to how they felt some time ago, or why they did or did not take a particular course of action.


Additional Resources

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