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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The folklore of traumatic buried memories
Saturday, Dec 17, 2005
By Richard McNally, Harvard University

How victims remember trauma is the most controversial issue facing psychology and psychiatry today. Many clinical trauma theorists believe that terrifying experiences are seemingly engraved on the mind, never to be forgotten.

Others disagree, arguing that the mind can protect itself by banishing memories of trauma from awareness, making it difficult for victims to remember their most horrific experiences until it is safe to do so many years later. While acknowledging that trauma is often all too memorable, these certain clinical trauma theorists assert that a condition known as "traumatic dissociative amnesia" leaves a large minority of victims unable to recall their trauma, precisely because it was so terrifying.

However, these theorists do not argue that "repressed" or "dissociated" memories of horrific events are either inert or benign but that these buried memories silently poison the lives of victims, causing seemingly inexplicable psychiatric symptoms, and therefore must be exhumed for healing to occur.

This is no ordinary academic debate. The controversy has spilled out of the psychology laboratories and psychiatric clinics, capturing headlines, motivating legislative changes, and affecting outcomes in civil lawsuits and criminal trials.

Whether individuals can repress and recover memories of traumatic sexual abuse has been especially contentious. During the 1990's, many adult psychotherapy patients began to recall having been sexually abused during childhood. Some took legal action against the alleged perpetrators, often their elderly parents. While complaints against parents, based on allegedly repressed and recovered memories of abuse, have declined, those against large institutions, such as the Catholic Church, have increased.

Strikingly, both advocates and skeptics of the concept of traumatic dissociative amnesia adduce the same studies when defending their diametrically opposed views. But it is the advocates who misinterpret the data when attempting to show that victims are often unable to recall their traumatic experiences.

Consider the following. After exposure to extreme stress, some victims report difficulties remembering things in everyday life. Advocates of traumatic amnesia misconstrue these reports as showing that victims are unable to remember the horrific event itself. In reality, this memory problem concerns ordinary absentmindedness that emerges in the wake of trauma; it does not refer to an inability to remember the trauma itself. Ordinary forgetfulness that emerges after a trauma must not be confused with amnesia for the trauma.

Consider, too, that one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is an "inability to recall an important aspect of the trauma." This symptom, however, does not mean that victims are unaware of having been traumatized.

Indeed, the mind does not operate like a video recorder, and thus not every aspect of a traumatic experience gets encoded into memory in the first place. High levels of emotional arousal often result in the victim's attention being drawn to the central features of the event at the expense of other features. Incomplete encoding of a trauma must not be confused with amnesia -- an inability to recall something that did get into memory.

Moreover, a rare syndrome called "psychogenic amnesia" is sometimes confused with traumatic amnesia. Victims of psychogenic amnesia suddenly lose all memory of their previous lives, including their sense of personal identity, occasionally after severe stress, but not invariably. After a few days or weeks, memory abruptly returns. In contrast, the phenomenon of dissociative amnesia supposedly entails victims' inability to remember their traumatic experiences, not an inability to remember their entire lives or who they are.

Several surveys show that adults reporting childhood sexual abuse often say that there was a period of time when they "could not remember" their abuse. Claims of prior inability to remember imply that they had attempted unsuccessfully to recall their abuse, only to remember it much later. Yet if these individuals were unable to remember their abuse, on what basis would they attempt to recall it in the first place?

Most likely, they meant that there was a period of time when they did not think about their abuse. But not thinking about something is not the same thing as being unable to remember it. It is inability to remember that constitutes amnesia.

Research conducted in my laboratory on adults reporting histories of childhood sexual abuse provides a solution to this controversy. Some participants reported having forgotten episodes of non-violent sexual abuse perpetrated by an adult.

They described it as having been upsetting, confusing, and disturbing, but not traumatic in the sense of being overwhelmingly terrifying. Failing to understand what had happened to them, they simply did not think about it for many years.

When reminders prompted recollection many years later, they experienced intense distress, finally understanding their abuse from the perspective of an adult. These cases count as recovered memories of sexual abuse, but not as instances of traumatic dissociative amnesia. There is no evidence that they were inaccessible during the years when they never came to mind.

Richard McNally is a professor of psychology at Harvard University.

See also:

Recovered Memories and "False Memory Syndrome"

Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Searching for the Middle Ground in Clinical Practice
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