Why childhood sex abuse may cause repressed memories in adulthood, and why victims may take years to come forward.
The human brain is a complex organ. It has nearly full control over the functioning of both the body and the mind. However, a traumatic event can deeply change the way a victim’s brain processes and interprets information. Any profoundly horrifying or life-threatening occurrence – a natural disaster, a battle, or a physical or sexual assault – can scar the mind and alter the operation and structure of the victim’s brain.
The Science Behind Memory Repression and Retrieval
Jim Hopper, PhD, is a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard Medical School and nationally recognized expert on psychological trauma. In this article, he writes that the memories of sexual assault victims are similar to the memories of soldiers and police officers.
It's a common defense mechanism for victims of sexual abuse, of childhood sexual abuse to disassociate, to block out the memories and not think about it. And because of that, it's not till 10 or 20 or 30 years later that something in their own lives, maybe seeing somebody on the street that looks like the perpetrator or hearing a story on the news, sparked something in them. And it comes all back up to the surface. I represented a woman who was sexually abused by her teacher in high school. And it wasn't until she was in her late 20s after suffering from years and years and years of drug abuse, alcohol addiction, having been homeless, living on the street, that she became pregnant with her son and decided that she was going to get sober. She was going to turn her life around, and that she was going to be a good mom and be there for her son. And she went through detox. And when she started to get sober for the first time after many, many years, she had this moment of clarity. And for the first time in her life, she realized that she had been sexually abused by her teacher. She she never thought about it as sexual abuse before that. But because she was having her own child and because she had come out of this fog that she was living in for so long, those memories all came back to the surface.
Child Sex Abuse Repressed Memory Research
Research proves that victims of sexual abuse, particularly childhood molestation, may develop PTSD, guilt, anxiety, depression, and phobias. These can, in turn, lead to relationship and work problems, irrational fears of people, places, or things, or even thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Physical diseases like diabetes and heart disease are also a possible side effect of PTSD. Therefore, as a defense mechanism against these effects, the brain tends to create repressed memories of the occurrence. Therefore, the victim can't consciously remember, preventing any negative effects for as long as the brain can block the memories.
If the sexual abuse victim is a young child at the time, studies have shown that the resultant stress can alter the physical structure of the brain. Researchers note that children physically abused at a young age tend to have smaller amygdala and hippocampi. The amygdala controls a person’s emotions and decision-making; a smaller amygdala means less resistance to emotions like anger or aggression. The hippocampus also controls emotions as well as memory formation. A child with a smaller hippocampus may have learning problems in school, lack control over their emotions, or have memory impairments.
Many sex abuse victims claim to have repressed memories of their traumatic experiences, with only bits and pieces filtering through years later – if at all. Psychologists call this “dissociative amnesia”. Repression is a well-documented defense mechanism. Survivors of sexual abuse sometimes use it as a anti-stress mechanism. The experience is so traumatic that the victim cannot bear to remember it without experiencing a similar stress response. Therefore, the brain forcibly makes all memories of the experience repressed memories, preventing the victim from consciously remembering the event, leading the victim to forget it partially or completely.
Danielle Bostick's Story
In November 2014, the Washington Post published a moving essay by Danielle Bostick, whose swim coach, Christopher Huott, sexually abused her from the ages of 7 to 12. Soon after, she had repressed memories of the event, feeling – as a majority of sex assault victims do – that it was safer to downplay, minimize, and ultimately forget the damage she had suffered. It was only the vaguest stirrings of her memory – a “gut feeling,” as Bostick described it – which led her to report the crime to police in March 2014. Huott is now serving a ten year prison sentence.
In another, and even more remarkable story, a 46-year-old Florida woman had repressed memories of being sexually abused as a child when, purely by chance, she moved in next door to her old abuser. When Donald Truluck was in his twenties, he began to rape a six-year-old girl left in his care by her mother and aunt. The abuse continued for six years, sometimes aided by drugs Truluck would administer to the girl. The woman’s brain repressed the horrible memories, but the psychological damage lingered. After she and her husband moved onto Truluck’s property some years ago, she began to have uncomfortable flashbacks. She saw a therapist after developing suicidal feelings. That’s when the memories came flooding back. Authorities arrested Truluck in September 2015.
What you can do about repressed memories
There remains much research to be done. Without a doubt, the battle between skeptics and believers of dissociative amnesia will continue to play out. What is clear, however, is that sexual abuse is highly traumatizing, and each individual reacts differently to it. It is also true that a majority of sexual abuse goes unreported; perhaps due to the way it makes the human mind dissociate itself, and repress its own memories.
I've learned that these types of injuries cannot be suppressed. That the effects of the abuse will eventually percolate at some point in time in the child's life, if not in their adolescence, in their early adulthood or maybe even their middle aged years. So while the first reaction is to not want to talk about it, to avoid the topic entirely, and those are all very plausible and rational reactions to it all, I have found that by talking about it, by bringing it out in the open and by holding the persons responsible for the abuse, the child is in a much better position to deal with the years to come.
If you or a loved one has been sexually abused, even if you have only the vaguest memory of the incident, there are two things you should immediately do; report the incident to police with as specific details possible; and see a counselor or therapist to make your peace with what took place. Sex abuse can be damaging to both yourself and society as a whole. Reporting it to the authorities and seeking mental healthcare will minimize the damage in both arenas.
Contact Us for Help
If or when you are ready to move forward with a lawsuit against the institution that covered up or enabled the predatory behavior of your abuser, we stand ready to help. Call our San Jose office at 408-289-1417 or contact us online for a free confidential consultation.