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Corroboration of Child Abuse Memories

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Updated February 21, 2006

The December 1996 issue of the journal Dissociation (which was actually published in March of 1998) contains three articles exploring the parameters of recovered memories. An earlier feature summarized a Dutch study of recovered memory in abuse survivors. In the same issue of Dissociation Elizabeth Bowman, M.D. has written an excellent two-part article summarizing the current state of the research literature concerning delayed memories of child abuse.

Bowman notes that cognitive psychologists who have not studied traumatized individuals have contributed much of the research literature on memory. Her contribution is to pull together the well-designed studies which have used trauma survivors in order to study traumatic memory. In this week's feature I will summarize the Bowman's first article entitled "Delayed Memories of Child Abuse: Part I: An Overview of Research Findings on Forgetting, Remembering, and Corroborating Trauma."

Her first article goes about attempting to answer several questions. I will summarize her questions and the conclusions which she draws from the research literature:

1. Does amnesia exist for traumas other than child abuse?

She concludes that amnesia in response to extreme emotional arousal has been documented as far back as 1904, when Janet reported amnesia in response to bereavement. Amnesia has also been reported in combat, for crimes, and for concentration camp experiences and torture.

2. How often, if at all, do people report forgetting child abuse?

Studies vary in frequency. Between 31 and 64 percent of abuse survivors in six major studies reported that they forgot "some of the abuse." Numbers reporting severe amnesia ranged from under 12% to 59%.

3. Are there any factors associated with forgetting child abuse?

The factors positively associated with forgetting abuse include:

  • Children abused at a younger age were more likely to have forgotten the abuse.
  • Persons reporting more than one type of abuse were more likely to report forgetting the abuse.
  • Abuse which included threats to safety and intense emotions was more likely to be forgotten.

Other factors emerged in some studies but not in other studies.

4. Is the return of delayed abuse memories solely due to psychotherapy?

Studies often mention psychotherapy as one factor which can trigger delayed memories to emerge. Bowman concludes that "the majority of memories are recovered outside of therapy sessions and occur in response to a variety of triggers that do not involve intervention by a therapist."

5. Is there corroboration for returned memories of abuse?

Studies report 50-75% of abuse survivors corroborating the facts of their abuse through an outside source. Corroboration of ritual abuse was lower. One study of ritual abuse found 3% corroboration in delayed memory patients and 20% corroboration in patients with continuous memories of ritual abuse. Another study put the numbers between 14% and 37%.

6. Do trauma or emotional arousal affect the availability and accuracy of memory?

This is a more difficult area to study. Laboratory researchers are limited by ethical concerns. They cannot ethically traumatize a subject in a way which duplicates the impact of severe child abuse. Laboratory research on mild trauma is only partially applicable to abuse survivors.

The discussion in this section of the paper is complex. Some research suggests that later recall is most impaired for both emotionless events and events evoking extreme levels of emotions. Violent crimes are remembered in more detail than non-violent crimes. Some events seem to be burned-into memory with a "flashbulb effect." Extreme trauma has also been proven to disturb memory. More will need to be written in this area.

Bowman concludes by reminding therapists that corroboration is the only way to tell accurate memories from inaccurate ones. She recommends that the patient take the lead in seeking this corroboration. She warns therapists to "be cautious about uncorroborated reports of Satanic abuse until further research provides clarification of their historical accuracy."

Reference: Bowman, Elizabeth. Delayed Memories of Child Abuse: Part I: An Overview of Research Findings on Forgetting, Remembering, and Corroborating Trauma. Dissociation, IX (4) pp. 221-231.

Last updated 2/20/06

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