April 6, 1998
Several articles on this site focus on the issues surrounding recovered memories. This article summarizes recent research explores these memories in survivors of childhood abuse.
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. Albach, Moorman, & Bermond from The Netherlands studied 97 adult victims of extreme sexual abuse who ranged in age from 18 to 56% of the subjects had been abused for one year or longer. A control group of 65 women, matched for age and education, was studied as well. The control group reported on their memories of "ordinary unpleasant childhood experiences." The abuse survivors were broken into two groups. One group had participated in psychotherapy while the other group had not. This clever design allowed the authors to look carefully at whether psychotherapy had influenced the memory recovery process.
34% of the abuse survivors who had been in therapy reported an inability to recall the abuse at some point, while 33% of survivors who had not been in therapy reported such amnesia. Only 1% of the control group reported an inability to recall the unpleasant event. Similar patterns were found on other questions asked. The authors noted that Dutch therapists tend to focus much less on the importance of memory recovery than therapists in some other countries.
They then studied what events seemed to be responsible for triggering the later recall of abuse. Subjects reported recovering memories after they discovered their own daughter had been abused, after another trauma occurred, and when confronted with specific sensory triggers during a time when they were "physically and emotionally exhausted." Triggers mentioned included being touched on the back, the smell of alcohol or tobacco on a man's breath, male sweat, men smelling of specific soap or after-shave, and semen. They also included hearing panting noises or footsteps on the stairs; and seeing things such as an erect penis, dirty hands, specific masculine pajamas, a handkerchief, and white liquids. Articles and television programs about incest were also mentioned as triggers. They reported that verbal cues were not as significant as olfactory, sensorimotor, auditory, and visual cues.
The authors concluded that therapy was not a significant contributor to the recall of abuse in a majority of their Dutch patients. They found no significant differences in amnesia, memory recovery, or other memory phenomena between the survivors who participated in psychotherapy and those who did not. Their study supports earlier studies which have found that some amount of amnesia and later "recovered memory" often accompanies severe child abuse.
Reference:Albach, F., Moormann, P. & Bermond, B., 1996. Memory Recovery of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Dissociation, IX (4) pp261-273.