Could someone really forget something as horrifying as a rape or sexual abuse? How come some people say they never stop reliving a bad experience while others say they have forgotten and cannot remember what happened? How do we best understand these two, seemingly, opposing reactions?
In a previous post I began a short series on the controversies of repressed and recovered memories. In that post I made a few general comments about the nature of memory. It isn’t a particular structure or substance or even stored as one discrete movie but rather is a whole brain process connected to context, mood, and self/other-perception. Memories do not exist outside of narrative or story (unfortunately for those with traumatic histories, these narratives are usually quite jumbled up making it difficult to tell the story well). In general, stories help us remember and remembering tells a story.
In this post I want to address the matter of forgetting abuse. Is it possible? The short answer is yes. Common to forget all of it? No. Common to forget portions? Yes. And even more common to have the experience of a new memory even without ever having forgotten the abuse (this I will address in the next post). It is possible to forget, to no longer have access to one’s own history. But, the bigger question is “how” and “why” rather than “if”.
Laboratory studies re: memory cannot replicate the experience of sexual abuse or trauma. Thus, we have some rather weak experiments or post hoc, retrospective studies. What these studies point to is that (a) most people don’t forget entire episodes, (b) some forgetting does happen, and (c) some confabulation or memory error also happens (e.g., eye-witness accounts are more frail than we imagine them to be). But even when we get a good study, we find it hard to apply the information to real life. For example, one retrospective study located a number of child abuse victims decades after their ER visit to a hospital. A goodly number denied ever having been abused. While the study could reveal some form of forgetting, we might also be witnessing lying and/or alternative interpretations.
So, we have to admit at the outset we have a large supply of anecdotes of full forgetting, partial forgetting, and no forgetting, and an equally large supply theories and explanations based in part on experience and low power correlational studies. Now, anecdotes and poorly supported theories aren’t reasons to doubt the reality of forgetting trauma (or the reality of false recovered memories). They are, however, good reminders to be wary of applying some general knowledge as complete answer to any specific case. Each case of forgetting trauma needs to be evaluated on its own merits (more on this when I get to a post on clinical/practical interventions).
One more complication. Adults who reveal child sexual abuse experiences rarely have any corroborating witnesses or forensic evidence. They have their memories and that is about it. Families, offenders, and communities have much to lose to admit such abuse could have happened. Thus, outside therapeutic environments, adults have few opportunities to be heard or believed.
By what mechanism do we forget traumatic experiences
“Normal” forgetting happens in a variety of ways. Each of these may be a partial answer as to why someone might forget something very powerful.
- Distraction leading to failure to encode. If you are introduced to someone and immediately forget their name (happens to me ALL the time), it is because the information never got encoded (too distracted by preparing to say my own name??). Distractions may come in the form of attending to something very specific or not attending to anything at all. Some victims of abuse report that their memories are fuzzy because they could only focus on the flower pattern on the wall during the actual abuse.
- Other memory intrusion. A previous memory may interfere with the clear encoding of a new memory or a new memory may interfere with the recall of an old memory. Victims of extended abuse often report difficulty in remembering when it started and stopped, who was present, etc., especially when the perpetrator also provided more normal love and attention. The memories (and their competing narratives) make it hard to remember.
- Motivated Forgetting. I like but hesitate to use this term. “Motivated” could sound like “willful” or “intentional.” And while some motivated forgetting is intentional, most just happens outside the conscious experience of the one doing the forgetting. If I have a conflict with my wife and I spend the next 5 hours rehearsing her supposed sins against me, I may have difficulty recalling my own misuse of words. I may not consciously say to myself, “I am going to do this so I won’t be able to remember my angry words to her,” but I am engaging in what I call “motivated forgetting.” Obviously, abuse victims would rather NOT remember what happened to them and would rather maintain a positive view of a loved one who did the abuse. Victims may encourage motivated forgetting through several means (again, without conscious decision): repeating a false narrative (“He didn’t mean to do that and I am at fault.”) created by themselves or others, using conscious decision not to think about an event, dissociating during abuse and then dissociating when not being abused, focusing on another possible threat.
Now, these forms of forgetting may not sound like they would lead to the complete forgetting of an event. And that would be true for the vast majority of abuse victims. But, I think we need to remember that it is possible given enough anecdotes of some who recover memories (apart from suggestion by therapist or others) on their own and that do get corroborated by others. Is it common? No. Can mental health professionals cause false memories? Yes (but that is for another post in this series!).
So, why do some remember minute details of trauma? They rehearse them (whether they want to or not). Why do some forget them? Their memories degrade due to forms of memory loss discussed above. Other factors are also likely: natural capacity to dissociate, age/development of victim, culture where abuse took place (e.g., a one-time event in a rather safe environment will have a different impact than repeated experiences where safety has never been present).
In my next post I want to take a few minutes to discuss dissociation, repression, and the experience of re-remembering child abuse later in life.