Can Recovered Memories Be Trusted? (Svali Blog Post)

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There is an open debate in therapeutic circles today, one that has members lined up on both sides, with those undecided waiting for the jury to come in. The topic of debate? Whether memories recovered in therapy can be trusted as valid. There are many sides to this argument, but one jury, at least, has delivered its verdict: a resounding “yes!”. The decision of Judge Edward F. Harrington, in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts,( ruled that the recovered memories of a survivor of childhood sexual abuse were valid testimony in the court.

There is other evidence that recovered memories can be valid, and accurate. Dr. Jim Hopper, a practicing psychologist, in his article Child Abuse Memories: Empirical Evidence, Psychological Constructs & Scientific Progress discusses the fact that in some cases, there is empirical data (verifiable data) that directly corrobates recovered memories that occur in adulthood. He also discusses the fact that amnesia and delayed memory recovery for childhood sexual abuse is NOT rare; and that we often try to categorize this forgetting with psychological terms: amnesia, repression, or dissociation.

A study by D.M. Elliot in 1997 (Traumatic Events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the General Population) and published in the Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychiatry (, 65, 811-820. ) demonstrated that in a study base of 505 individuals, 72 % reported some form of childhood trauma. Of those 72 %, one third (32%) reported delayed memory retrieval. The more severe the trauma (such as witnessing the murder or suicide of a family member, sexual abuse, or being a combat veteran), the more likely that recall of the events would be delayed (ie there would be a period of no recall of the event at some point in the person’s life). Interestingly enough, the main triggers for recall of the event later in life was NOT therapy, but a media event, such as a television show or movie, or an event in the person’s life that resembled the original trauma. In fact, both therapy and sexual intercourse were the LEAST likely to stimulate memory retrieval according to the study. 1

Judith Hermann, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of Trauma and Recovery, also believes in the validity of recovered memory based on her research. In a study of 53 women engaged in outpatient therapy who recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse, 75 % were able to obtain outside corroborating data from other sources that the memories were true. Hermann also describes the fact that adult recall of traumatic events can vary from continuous recall, to a mixture of recall interspersed with periods of amnesia, to more extensive amnesia for events. The amnesi appears to be overcome by environmental triggers that recall the event. She also notes that many survivors also had corroborating evidence which they offered during the interviews.

Dr Bessel van der Kolk, a specialist in trauma and memory retrieval, has postulated that dissociated memories have four different phenomena occurring: the sensory and emotional fragmentation of the experience; the feeling of depersonalization during the experience (feeling “unreal” or “far away” from the event); ongoing depersonalization (spacing out in daily life), and finally, containing the traumatic material within fragmented ego states (dissociative disorder). He also notes that not all individuals who undergo trauma will develop chronic dissociation in response, and that individual responses will vary greatly.

Professor Ross Cheit at Brown University certainly believes in the validity of recovered memory, and at his web site The Recovered Memory Project, he includes archives of 80 cases of corroborated recovery memories. Many of these cases have evidence such as the guilty party ADMITTING to having sexually abused or otherwise victimized others who recovered memories later in life.

What about those who retract their stories? This has been used and reused in the media to show that recovered memories must be “false”. But in an interesting study by Gonzalez, Waterman, et al at UCLA (1993), it was shown that that retracting did NOT prove that the abuse hadn’t occurred. They studied a group of preschool children in which the children were absolutely confirmed and documented victims of sexual abuse. The perpetrator had confessed, and their was substantial physical evidence as well. In 25 % of these cases, the children later RECANTED their allegations, although 2/3 of these later redisclosed again. The researchers postulated that the recanting may have been a method of attempting to numb or escape from the psychological pain caused by acknowledging the trauma. This was in the context of support, loving parents, and caring concern. How much more difficult it can be for an adult survivor, who often faces familial hostility, denial, or shunning, to not want at times to swing into denial or recant allegations? The fact that recanting occurs does not invalidate the recovered memories, though, according to research.

Memory retrieval is a complex subject, and studies are still ongoing. But on one thing, the jury is in and decided: retrieved memories of abuse can be believed. The evidence, based on objective studies, over and over verifies this fact.


1) Elliot, D.M. (1997)Traumatic Events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the General Population) and published in the Journal of Clinical and Consulting Psychiatry , 65, 811-820.2)Herman, J. L., & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1-14. 3) van der Kolk, B. A. (1994). The body keeps the score: Memory and the evolving psychobiology of posttraumatic stress. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 1, 253-265.