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The Challenges of Recovering Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse

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By Dr. Jade Pumphrey, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

In cases of childhood sexual abuse, it is common for victims to have trouble recovering memories that have been repressed for long periods of time. The concept of repression is marked by a person’s inability to remember an event because the mind has “unconsciously blocked out any memory of the event” (Bull et al., 2009, p. 186).

[Related: Five Facts about Child Sexual Abuse You Need to Know]

For those looking to investigate and prosecute cases of childhood sexual abuse, the challenge becomes whether victims can recover memories of the abuse and if those recovered memories can stand up to testimonial evidence and garner criminal charges years after the alleged abuse took place (Bull et al., 2009). It is important for investigators to understand some of the psychological elements that affect a person’s ability to remember and recall events.

Understanding Dissociative Amnesia

After a traumatic event, individuals may experience dissociative amnesia, which is a coping mechanism where the person suppresses or blocks out certain memories in an attempt to forget them (Bull et al., 2009). Through this process, a person may be able to successfully split their consciousness, creating a scenario where they can keep the memory of the event out of their own conscious awareness. Through this dissociation process, people can alter their feelings, thoughts, and actions related to certain information.

[Related: Addressing the Lack of Research on Male Childhood Sexual Abuse]

It is important to understand that memories that become disassociated are different from memories that have actually been forgotten. People who disassociate childhood experiences of sexual abuse can sometimes recall those memories, but often not without external assistance. In order to retrieve dissociated memories, an individual often needs to alter their state of consciousness through therapy (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992).

While it is possible to recall dissociated memories, it should be noted that all individuals have difficulty remembering events that occurred before the age of three. Consequently, any event that occurred before the age of three will be extremely difficult to recover due to normal developmental processes (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992).

Recovering Memory Through Therapy

There are several techniques that have been used by therapists to help victims recover memories of sexual abuse including hypnosis, age regression, dream analysis, survivors’ groups, and direct questioning (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992).

Different forms of therapy result in two different ways that suppressed memories can be recovered: gradually or spontaneously. For example, memory therapy can be used to recover memories gradually. During this process, events of abuse and trauma are gradually recalled over time through memory-recovery, therapeutic sessions. However, sexual abuse memories recalled through memory therapy has been cited as being incomplete or false memories (Mcnally & Geraerts, 2009, as cited in Weiten, 1996).

It’s also possible for memories to be recovered spontaneously, sometimes outside the scope of therapy (Geraerts et al., 2008). Spontaneously recovered memories that happen outside of a therapy setting generally are met with feelings of shock and surprise.

The research literature purports that therapists who reinterpret memories may believe they are actually retrieving memories resulting from some type of amnesia, when in actuality they are misappropriating the reinterpretation of recovered memories. These research findings contend that memories recovered during suggestive therapy are less corroborated by collateral evidence than memories recovered outside of a therapeutic context (Raymaekers et al., 2012).

While it is important to help individuals recover and address suppressed memories, there are significant risks associated with recovered memory therapies (Bull et al., 2009). For example, some experts claim that highly suggestive therapeutic techniques may lead to the development of false memories (Geraerts et al., 2008).

Addressing the Issue of False Memories

One main concern for prosecutors and victims is that recovered memories may be labeled or dismissed in court as false memories (Bull et al., 2009). In order to determine the accuracy and reliability of recovered memories, the process behind memory recall must be examined.

[Related: Interview with Empathy: Certified FETI Teaches Officers How to Interview Trauma Victims]

In one study, experts contend that memory is reconstruction rather than recall (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992). In this process, individuals reconstruct information that makes sense in the current context, which raises questions about how accurate memories are to events that occurred years ago.

Moreover, individuals have the ability to make up stories about their reality which, in turn, creates false memories. This is perhaps why, in the reconstruction process, there are incidences where people can firmly believe that events have transpired when they have not (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992). This ties in with additional research that purports that individuals are capable of reporting vivid memories even when no said event actually occurred (Bull et al., 2009). These findings bring into question whether recovered memories may, in fact, be false memories.

One of the questions concerning false memories is whether they can be implanted. There is evidence to suggest that some individuals will embellish suggested false beliefs. Furthermore, it is possible for a therapist’s questions to dictate how a person recalls information during therapy. The research purports that with suggestive interviewing, people will claim to remember events that never occurred, These memories may be compelling and presented with vivid detail, yet be entirely inaccurate (Bull et al., 2009).

There are a few methods whereby psychologists have attempted to examine false memories. These methods include the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) method, the misinformation method, the crashing memories method, and the parental misinformation method (Bull et al., 2009). When individuals verbally describe memories in therapy, it creates difficulty in being able to distinguish real and imagined events (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992).

More Research Needed to Address Repressed Memory

There has been a sharp increase in civil litigation involving repressed memories and recall of traumatic events where the victim has sued the alleged perpetrator many years after the traumatic event (Wakefield & Underwager, 1992). As a result, many states have extended the statute of limitations regarding civil cases involving recovered repressed memories of child sexual abuse.

While therapeutic processes are often necessary to help individuals recall abusive memories, there remains significant skepticism about the methods used and the integrity of the recalled memories. As a result, much more research is needed to address these therapeutic processes, the resulting memories, and how these memories should be used in litigation.

About the Author: Dr. Jade Pumphrey has worked in higher education since 2006 and has taught more than 75 different criminal justice courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. She currently serves as an adjunct faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. Pumphrey obtained an AS in General Science, a BS in Criminal Justice, a MS in Forensic Science Investigations, a MS in Behavior Studies, a MS in Criminal Justice, and a Ph.D. in Public Safety/Criminal Justice. In addition to her work in higher education, Pumphrey volunteers for her local police department as an on-call victim assistant.


Bull, R., Valentine, T., & Williamson, T. (2009). Handbook of psychology of investigative interviewing: Current developments and future directions. Chichester, UK: Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Geraerts, E., McNally, R. J., Jelicic, M., Merckelbach, H., & Raymaekers, L. (2008). Linking thought suppression and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Memory (Hove, England), 16(1), 22-28.

Raymaekers, L., Smeets, T., Peters, M. J., Otgaar, H., & Merckelbach, H. (2012). The classification of recovered memories: a cautionary note. Consciousness and cognition, 21(4), 1640-1643.

Wakefield, H., & Underwager, R. (1992). Recovered memories of alleged sexual abuse: Lawsuits against parents. BSL Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 10(4), 483-507.

Weiten, W. (1996). Psychology: Themes and variations (3rd ed). Brooks-Cole.

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