Traumatic Childhood Memories

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Most people are well aware of the concept of repression before ever stepping foot into a psychology class. The notion that a memory can be recalled after years of ignorance is a commonplace assumption, bringing with it the further assumption that it is a well-proven theory with the backing of researchers of psychology. Upon closer scrutiny, both the definition of and support for repression are seen as they truly are—complicated and controversial. The theory of repression originated with Jean-Martin Charcot in the 19th century and his belief that “the patient is entirely ignorant of the trauma that caused his symptoms.

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” He predicted that his patients had experienced trauma they were not currently aware of, and suffered psychologically as a result. He relayed this hypothesis onto them during hypnosis, which resulted in these patients recalling “repressed memories.” However, it is Freud whose speculation on memory repression most directly influenced the current understanding of repression. He believed that repressed memories, especially of childhood sexual abuse, could be retrieved and dealt with. If these memories were left repressed, the person would later on experience severe distress as a result. Freud failed in his attempts to recover and work through repressed trauma with his patients, and thus abandoned his theory (McNally, 2012b). Nevertheless, countless articles and research papers into the theory of repression cite Freud and his work on repression as proof of its existence (McNally, 2012b; Loftus, and Davis, 2006; Piper et al., 2008). The definition of repression is fairly elusive, but for this paper, I will attempt to define repression to fit not what I believe it could be, but instead what the general consensus among those who support repression believe possible. Memory researchers Brown, Scheflin, and Hammond describe repression as the mechanism that occurs when an event is too traumatic for a person to process. The brain would subconsciously repress the memory, and the victim would be unable to recall it for some unknown length of time. This meaning is not the same as a person consciously choosing to try and suppress a memory by avoiding thinking about it. A conscious choice would not require any mechanism in the brain that actively works to support repression as a defense against trauma. This proposed unconscious repression system, as Psychiatrist John Clive Spiegel goes so far as to say: “is not subject to the same rules of ordinary forgetting; it is more, rather than less, common after repeated episodes; involves strong affect; and is resistant to retrieval through salient cues.” Indeed, these traumatic memories are something that the “conscious mind” simply cannot handle (Brandon, et al., 1998). This theory of repression lacks the support of scientific studies that have sound procedures. Furthermore, recovering forgotten memories can be attributed to multiple alternate explanations, the foremost being childhood amnesia, the trauma not being seen as traumatic when it occurred, or the remembered trauma actually being false.

A lack of consensus over a theory has rarely had as much of an impact outside the scientific community as repression. This is because, repression, and the subsequent recalling of traumatic memories, has profound legal ramifications. In the 1990s, there was an outbreak of young adults, particularly women, who claimed to have remembered previously repressed abuse from their childhood (Brandon, et al., 1998). These memories were usually recovered in therapy under suggestive procedures such as hypnosis and guided imagery walkthroughs (McNally, 2017). To admit evidence, such as a recovered memory testimony, into court, there must be a general consensus of support of that evidence from the scientific community. Courts vary on whether or not they believe that the scientific community supports the idea of repressed memories. Abuse allegations are serious and alter lives and families forever. Although the frenzy of child abuse allegations reached its height in the 1990s, accusations of repressed and recovered abuse are still happening. In 2017, famous Belgian writer Griet op de Beeck said that through therapy she uncovered memories of being sexually abused by her father. She said that it was her therapist that suggested the root cause of her depression could have come from being sexually abused as a child (Shaw and Vredeveldt, 2018). In a 2014 study, Patihis et al. questioned psychotherapists in the Netherlands and found that 96% of them believed in repression. This percentage carries wide implications. Psychotherapists are the ones trying to coax these repressed memories out. If these psychotherapists are conducting sessions believing that repression exists, and the patients are people who believe that they can recall previously unrecallable events, there is a possibility that false memories of abuse will be constructed. Elizabeth Loftus, a leading researcher on memory, believes that when a therapist thinks that a person is a victim of abuse, the therapist will conduct sessions in a biased way. A therapist suggesting to a patient that he or she has been abused plants the idea in the patient’s head. These patients, already suffering from psychological illnesses that they are now at therapy for, are eager to find an explanation for their illnesses to make sense of their current mental state (Brewin, 1996). Some people, as researcher Richard McNally discovered, believe they were sexually abused even if they don’t have memories of it. These people, who suffer from sexual dysfunction, nightmares, and other troubling symptoms, know the layperson’s idea of repression and assume that some deeply repressed memories must be at fault for what is happening to them (McNally, 2012a). On the contrary, researchers like Brown, Scheflin, and Hammond, who believe that hypnosis is essential in recovering deeply repressed memories, go so far as to say that “hypnosis may provide the only avenue to the repressed memories” (McNally, 2012b). Repression demands a scientific consensus, but despite the outburst of childhood sexual abuse allegations happening over 20 years ago, members of the psychology field are still debating whether or not repression can occur.

A theory, especially one as contentious as repression, requires study and research in order to provide sufficient support to provide the claim academic standing. However, a major contributing factor to the contentious nature of the repression debate is how difficult it is to conduct a sound study on repression. Factors must be implemented, such as verifying that the trauma happened, that the person truly could not remember it, and that the trauma can be accurately recalled. For ethical reasons, researchers cannot inflict actual trauma on test subjects, so participants need to be those who have already experienced trauma. This trauma would have to be proven and not be merely self-reported. In 1997, D. M. Elliot conducted a survey in which he sent a random sample of 724 Americans a questionnaire. 72% of respondents claimed that they had suffered some kind of abuse, and 32% of those who had suffered trauma reported that there was a time in which they could not recall the event. (Elliott and Kendall, 1997). The validity of these results can quickly be called into question, as these participants were not required to provide proof of their trauma. The severity and validity of the trauma these results are based on is widely unknown, stripping the study of any merit. Another flaw in many repression studies is that they equate a withholding of information to not remembering that the abuse occurred. There could be many reasons a participant would choose not to disclose abuse other than actually not remembering the event. In 1990, researchers Femina, Yeager, and Lewis did a follow-up interview with those who in a prior study did not admit to knowing they were abused. In the follow-up study, the participants were asked about the inconsistency between known abuse and their admission of it, resulting in all of them admitting that they knew the abuse occurred. For studies in which people claim to newly recall confirmed abuse, the researchers would further need to confirm that the recalled abuse is accurate to the original event. Accuracy is essential in order for these testimonials to be allowed admittance in court. If a person actually experienced trauma, but could not remember it, any suggestive questioning could help them construct a misconstrued understanding of the event (Piper et al., 2008). This is not to say that researchers of repression studies do not try their best to conduct fair studies, but that, in their desire to see a specific conclusion, they are not as critical of their methods as skeptics of repression most certainly are after their publication.

Studies on repression can be conducted in one of two ways: prospectively and retrospectively. A prospective study would be one in which a person who had experienced trauma sometime prior was asked whether or not they remembered said trauma. A retrospective study would be one in which a person was first asked if they had experienced trauma, and then asked if there had ever been a time in which they could not recall said trauma. In 1993, in an early attempt to prove the existence of repression, researchers Briere and Conte conducted a retrospective study. In the study, they questioned adults who had been abused as children and asked them if there was ever a time in which they could not remember their abuse—59% said yes (McNally, 2012b). Retrospective studies, like the one Briere and Conte administered, are logically unsound, as knowledge of an inability to remember a memory would require one to try to remember the memory and be unable to. However, if the person does not remember the event at the time, there would be no way for that person to think to recall it. Someone could accurately say that she or he did not think about the event, but it would be impossible to judge whether or not that memory was accessible at that time. This period of repression would more likely mean that at the time you were trying not to remember the abuse, not that you were repressing it (Piper et al., 2008).

When the aforementioned flaws are controlled for, supportive results for repression diminish. A 2002 study by Bonanno et al. interviewed 67 people of severe documented childhood abuse. After the study, clarification interviews were conducted, where the interviewers asked the participants about the abuse and any points of time at which they failed to recall it. All but two of these people admitted to knowing that the abuse occurred. (The investigators suspected that the two participants who did not admit to knowing had other reasons for not disclosing their abuse, having to do with family and legal cases.) Goodman et al. conducted a study in 2003 of 180 people who experienced child abuse. Only 8% did not admit to being abused, which Goodman later concluded was attributable to childhood transience and also an unwillingness to disclose abuse history. A comprehensive study on abuse by Pope, Oliva, and Hudson in 1999 analyzed over 10,000 documented cases of extreme trauma. 0% of the victims had repressed or lost the memory (Piper et al., 2008). When the variables in a repression study are controlled for, the rates of repression lower considerably. This calls into question the widespread understanding amongst therapists that repression is commonplace for sufferers of trauma, particularly those of sexual abuse. Credible studies indicate that most often, traumatic events are not forgotten by their victims. Moreover, there exist reasons other than repression that would explain why someone would forget abuse he or she truly did experience.

A lack of evidence supporting repression does not mean that there is no possible way a person could forget real trauma that was inflicted upon them. This can be seen in prospective studies in which previous abuse is confirmed and people still claim to have no memory of their abuse. In a 1994 Williams study, Williams followed up in the 1990s with women who in the 1970s had been identified as victims of childhood abuse. 38% claimed to have no memory of that abuse. The study further found that the younger the victim was at the time of the crime, the less likely they were to remember the trauma, and that those who lost and then recalled the memory were not more prone to distortion than those who had the memories all along (Elliott and Kendall, 1997). At the time, this study was seen as a huge step toward proving the existence of repression, but upon further scrutiny, one can see multiple reasons why these women could have forgotten their abuse. Childhood amnesia is an inability as an adult to remember memories earlier than when one was four or five years old. If abuse occurred at this young of an age, a failure to remember would not be repression, but the normal inability to not remember experiences from this age (McNally, 2012b). Furthermore, two-thirds of the women who were questioned in Williams’s study did not have “genital mutilation,” meaning that the abuse was not physically violent. At such a young age, the trauma may not have been seen as traumatic at the time, as the child did not realize what was happening was wrong. This would result in the memory being encoded like a normal event, later to be lost to the same transience that many other memories are prone to. It is not until survivors are triggered by a reminder of the event as an adult that they are able to see the event as what is was—violating and traumatic. Even largely important events that are considered non-traumatic are prone to the same “repression” that other, more traumatic memories fall victim to. In a 2000 Read and Lindsay study, people were asked to recall non-traumatic events from childhood, such as graduation or summer camps. They found that 16% of events had people experience periods of “partial amnesia” and 5% had complete amnesia of an event (Piper et al., 2008). This could not be repression, as these events are harmless and even enjoyable to remember. Normal transience causes memories, even important ones, to weaken with the passage of time, losing detail and eventually maybe even being forgotten completely. Repression studies often compare forgetting of a traumatic event to the notion that non-traumatic major events are never forgotten in their entirety. This study suggests otherwise and shows that any major event can fall victim to the passage of time and transience. Considering that adults recollecting on child abuse are being asked to go back decades in their life, it is understandable that they would struggle to remember parts or even all of it.

Contrasting the notion of repression with persistence casts the concept into even further doubt. Often, when a traumatic or otherwise negative event occurs, the memory is remembered persistently. While this can have negative consequences, it overall facilitates the rememberer coming to terms and dealing with the trauma. From an evolutionary standpoint, one can see why this mechanism would exist. If a negative event is constantly brought back into a person’s consciousness, that danger would never be forgotten. Therefore, one would be better able to avoid recurrence of the same event (Schacter, 2001). Repression would be counterproductive to this, because if one couldn’t remember danger, there would be no way to learn from it, placing one at a disadvantage. It thus calls into question how a mechanism for repression could have evolved in humans (Piper et al, 2008). In actuality, negative events are often remembered more often and with more detail. Emotional stimuli, like that of trauma, activate the amygdala more, increasing memory for that event (McGaugh, 2004). For example, 88% of those who survived the collapse of the skywalks in the Hyatt Regency Hotel had repeated recollection of the event (McNally, 2012b). If someone is claiming that he or she did repress a certain aspect of a traumatic event, he or she might actually be referring to an initial failure to encode that aspect of the event. For example, weapon focus is a phenomenon that occurs if the perpetrator of a crime has a weapon. The victim is more likely to focus on the weapon instead of the perpetrator’s face. This would result in no memory of the perpetrator’s face, attributable not to a failure to recall it, but a failure to initially encode the face itself (Kramer et al., 1990). Traumatic and negative events, once properly encoded, are often more resistant to transience, and are remembered with greater detail than neutral ones. It then stands to reason that most often, a trauma that is realized as traumatic at the time would result in persistent memories of the event.

There is no scientific evidence supporting the existence of an ability for people to unconsciously repress trauma that they have experienced. The studies that do support this notion often fall victim to faulty procedural methods. Rather, the explanation for actual abuse that was forgotten or later recalled can be attributed to childhood transience or, if the abuse was not processed as traumatic at the time, normal transience. Nevertheless, repression will remain controversial until steps are made toward educating the general public and aspiring therapists on credible research that proves repression ill-founded. Despite the multitude of scientific evidence concluding that there is no actual proof of repression, what is on the other side of the debate is extremely emotional and persuasive. It is difficult to hear adults come forward with child abuse claims and not feel sympathy toward them, especially realizing that they are so sure that they have experienced abuse. Most people are inclined to believe victims of heinous crimes, especially people, like therapists, who have heard the victims recount their recalled memories in a personal environment. Researcher Elizabeth Loftus is an outspoken skeptic of recalled trauma. She has faced the backlash of a society that, having only the pop culture understanding of repression, believed she was trying to discredit sexual abuse survivors. She has received enormous amounts of hate mail, including death threats, and was once attacked by another passenger on an airplane (Neimark, 1996). Furthermore, therapists who use suggestive techniques would be reluctant to admit they are wrong. They genuinely believe they can help people find the root of their symptoms and work through their trauma to have a more fulfilling and less tormented life. Those who believe in repression do not want to believe that they have contributed to a culture of misunderstanding and caused needless trauma and pain. There is an immense emotional burden in knowing that your suggestive therapy might have given someone a false memory of abuse, and most are not prepared to carry that. The primary issue lies in a lack of education. Therapists, when in school, should be required to take a class in which the evidence debunking repression, as well as alternative explanations for forgotten or later recalled abuse, is explained. There is hope for a more logical and clear understanding of trauma, and how survivors of it process and remember the pain.

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Traumatic Childhood Memories. (2021, Oct 18). Retrieved from