Accuracy of Returned Memories

Research Examining Accuracy of Returned Memories

Recently there has been considerable controversy about the validity of recovered memories of past traumas. Proponents of false memory syndrome have taken the position that “memories” that surface in the course of psychotherapy are not the product of real traumas, but are instead, “pseudomemories” implanted by therapists. Research examining the accuracy of recovered memories is refutes this position. Although more research is needed in this area, studies comparing continuous and delayed memories have found them to be of similar accuracy. Further support for this conclusion can be found in a number of case reports where trauma, memory loss, and spontaneous recovery of accurate memory were each documented.

With respect to recovered memories, Schooler (1994) noted that the available evidence suggests that:

  1. Although the prior accessibility of a memory may be difficult to determine, recovered memory reports can sometimes be corroborated with respect to their correspondence to actual abuse.
  2. Although individuals often retain memory for trauma, there is evidence for fluctuations in the accessibility of traumatic experiences, particularly for situations that are extremely difficult to talk about.
  3. There is compelling evidence that both recovered and fabricated memories correspond to real phenomena.

After reviewing the literature, cognitive psychologists Lindsay and Read concluded:
“In our reading, scientific evidence has clear implications . . . . there are few grounds to doubt spontaneously recovered memories of common forms of CSA or recovered memories of details of never-forgotten abuse.”

Lindsay, D. S., & Read, J. D. [1995]. “Memory work” and recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse: Scientific evidence and public, professional, and personal Issues. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 1(4), 846-908.

Similar conclusions were formed by Brown and Scheflin (1996). After reviewing 25 studies on amnesia for child sexual abuse, they stated:

“Courts holding a Frye or Daubert evidentiary hearing involving expert or lay testimony on the issue of whether ‘repressed’ memories are reliable must, consistent with the science, hold either that such memories are reliable or that all memory, repressed or otherwise, is unreliable.”

Scheflin, A.W., & Brown, D. [1996]. Repressed memory or dissociative amnesia: What the science says. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24 (2), 143-88.

Overall, current research indicates that stances that are either extremely credulous or extremely skeptical of retrieved recollections are inconsistent with clinical data. In effect, there is no completely accurate way of determining the validity of a specific abuse report without external corroboration. (This does not suggest, however, that an uncorroborated report is just as likely to be false as true. Research has repeatedly shown that when abuse reports are analyzed, false reports are found to be statistically rare. )

Longitudinal studies examining the accuracy of recovered memories of documented childhood trauma

Williams, L. M. (1994). Recall of trauma: A prospective study of women’s memory of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 1167-76. (PDF)

One hundred twenty-nine women with previously documented histories of sexual victimization in childhood were interviewed and asked detailed questions about their abuse histories to answer the question “Do people actually forget traumatic events such as child sexual abuse, and if so, how common is such forgetting?” A large proportion of the women (38%) did not recall the abuse that had been reported 17 years earlier. Women who were younger at the time of the abuse and those who were molested by someone they knew were more likely to have no recall of the abuse. The implications for research and practice are discussed. Long periods with no memory of abuse should not be regarded as evidence that the abuse did not occur.

Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8 , 649-673.

Linda Williams, a researcher at the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire , tracked down and interviewed adult women with medically documented histories of child sexual abuse. To evaluate the accuracy of the memories of sexual abuse, Williams compared the recollections obtained at the follow-up interview with the original medical records. Seventeen years following the initial report of the abuse, 80 of the women recalled the victimization. One in 10 women (16% of those who recalled the abuse) reported that at some time in the past they had forgotten about the abuse. Those with a prior period of forgetting–the women with “recovered memories”–were younger at the time of abuse and were less likely to have received support from their mothers than the women who reported that they had always remembered their victimization. Despite the fact that they were younger when abused, women with recovered memories had no more inconsistencies in their accounts than did the women who had always remembered. Only common dating errors and errors of minor detail were found. Williams concluded that:

“. . . this study does suggest that recovered memories of child sexual abuse reported by adults can be quite consistent with contemporaneous documentation of the abuse and should not be summarily dismissed by therapists, family members, judges, or the women themselves.”

Studies comparing delayed versus continuous memories of abuse with objective measures

Dalenberg, C. J. (1996). Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of recovered and continuous memories of abuse. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24 , 229-275.

While Williams’ 1995 study addresses the accuracy of recovered memory in general, researcher Constance Dalenberg compared the accuracy of continuous and recovered memory within the same subjects. This study examined the memories of 17 women who had recovered memories of childhood physical or sexual abuse by their fathers during therapy with the author. The women cooperated in gathering physical evidence that might confirm or refute these memories and their fathers were included in the study. Both the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator participated in the evidence collection and the evidence was then rated for evidentiary value. All of the women completed a battery of psychological testing prior to and after recovering their memories. Therapy sessions were recorded. The women’s continuous versus recovered memories were analyzed and compared. Evidence was judged by a “jury” of 8 individuals to be supporting, circumstantial, irrelevant or disconfirming.

The 17 women produced 57 recovered memories. When compared with continuous memories, recovered memories were more likely to contain threat, shame, or fear of death and less likely to contain references to sadness. Recovery of abuse memories was associated with an increase in level of symptoms. Resolution of symptoms typically occurred four to six months following recovery. 47.4% of recovered memories were triggered by events external to the therapy process, while 42.1% were found to be triggered by therapy.

Recovered memories that arose in psychotherapy and were later supported, surfaced more typically during periods of positive rather than negative feeling toward the therapist, and they were more likely to be held with confidence by the abuse victim. Women’s average confidence in the truth of their memory before evidence was gathered was significantly lower for recovered than for continuous memories. However, memories of abuse were found to be equally accurate whether recovered or continuously remembered. Of those memories for which some evidence was submitted (70% of all memories), 74.6% of continuous and 74.7% of recovered memories were judged by the full set of raters as having at least one piece of supporting evidence.

Seven (41%) of the fathers admitted to some of the recovered-memory incidents. 16 of the 17 father-daughter pairs reported an improved relationship after participating in the study. No wholly manufactured memories of abuse were found in this study. However, some continuous and recovered memories appeared to be a blend of truth and fiction, incorporating wishes and threats, repeated stories and borrowed scenes, confabulations and correct deductions.

In summary, about 75% of both the recovered and continuous memories were judged by the raters as either very convincing or reasonably certain. In other words, Dalenberg’s research demonstrated that the gist of both the continuous and recovered memories of abuse was generally accurate. More importantly, the accuracy ratings of the continuous memories and the recovered memories were not significantly different.

Orr, S. P., Lasko, N. B., Metzger, L. J., Berry, N. J., Ahern, C. E., & Pitman, R. K. (1997). Psychophysiologic assessment of PTSD in adult females sexually abused during childhood. In R. Yehuda & A.C. McFarlane (Eds.), Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 821. NY: The New York Academy of Sciences, pp. 491-3.

PTSD and physiological responses associated with continuous and recovered memories has also been evaluated and found to be comparable. Orr et al. studied 71 women with a history of two or more episodes of sexual abuse prior to age 13. The women were then evaluated for PTSD and it was determined whether they had experienced any amnesia for the abuse. 17 participants had recovered sexual abuse memories. Sixteen of these women met criteria for PTSD and the magnitudes of their physiologic responses (i.e., heart rate, skin conductance, and electromyograms) during personal abuse imagery did not differ between those who recovered memories and those who had continuous memories.

Sjoberg, R. L., & Lindblad, F. (2002). Limited disclosure of sexual abuse in children whose experiences were documented by videotape. American Journal of Psychiatry, 159 (2), 312-4.

OBJECTIVE: The authors describe obstacles to children’s disclosure of their sexual abuse experiences. METHOD: Ten children’s descriptions of 102 incidents of sexual abuse and the process of disclosing these incidents during police interviews were studied. Children’s self-reports of the abuse were compared to videotapes of the incidents made by the lone perpetrator.

RESULTS: There was a significant tendency among the children to deny or belittle their experiences. Some children simply did not want to disclose their experiences, some had difficulties remembering them, and one child lacked adequate concepts to understand and describe them.

CONCLUSIONS: Failure by children to disclose their experiences of sexual abuse might have diverse explanations. Professionals will most likely never be able to identify all cases of sexual abuse on the basis of children’s narratives. Despite the fact that some of the interviews included leading questions, none of the children embellished their accounts or accused the perpetrator of acts that he hadn’t actually committed.

Case reports where the trauma, memory loss, and spontaneous recovery of accurate memory were each documented.

Bull, D. (1999). A verified case of recovered memories of sexual abuse. American Journal of Psychotherapy , 53 (2), 221-224.

This paper presents the case of Rachel, a 40-year-old woman with no history of mental illness and ten years of exemplary professional work. Rachel recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse by her father after receiving a call from her youth pastor in whom she had confided as an adolescent. This reminder triggered a severe depression, suicidal action, and the need for hospitalization. Rachel’s older sister, herself an abuse victim, corroborated the abuse which she had witnessed. Rachel had no memory of the events until the phone call.

Corwin, D. L., & Olafson, E.. (1997). Videotaped discovery of a reportedly unrecallable memory of child sexual abuse: Comparison with a childhood interview videotaped 11 years before. Child Maltreatment, 2(2), 91-112.

This article presents a unique case involving the recovery of traumatic memory by a 17 year old victim of documented child sexual abuse. By happenstance, both the child’s disclosure at age 6 and the young woman’s sudden recall of the abuse at age 17 after several years of reported inability to recall the experience were captured on videotape. This article includes transcripts of the interviews at ages 6 and 17.

The case was originally referred to Corwin for a court-appointed evaluation of allegations of sexual and physical abuse. The father was accusing the mother of having sexually and physically abused their daughter (Jane Doe). Corwin had three interviews with the child and also met with both parents. The evaluation along with previous documentation (Jane was seen for burns to the bottom of both feet after her mother punished her by burning them) strongly supported the child’s allegation of both physical and sexual abuse by her mother. Moreover, Jane made consistent statements regarding the identity of her sexual abuser and the nature of the abuse in all three forensic interviews. Her accounts included sensory detail and she reported detailed maternal threats not to disclose. In her first interview, her disclosure was spontaneous and not in response to a question directed to sexual abuse. In addition to the interviews, the records included protective services reports, court declarations by the parents, pleadings, court decisions, reports by prior evaluators and therapists, letters from Jane’s parents, friends, and relatives, and Jane’s medical records.

Parental behavior during the interviews was also consistent with the mother having abused Jane. Before each parent left the room, Corwin asked each one to tell Jane to tell him the truth about anything he asked her. The father did so with ease. However, instead of telling Jane to tell the truth, her mother asked her to repeat what they had been talking about that morning. Psychological testing of the mother was consistent with the mother having a dissociative disorder. In addition, psychological testing on Jane’s mother indicated impulsivity, inadequate judgment, and problems with perception and thinking. The father’s psychological testing indicated emotional constraint but found no problems with perception and thinking. Based on the weight of the evidence the court gave Jane’s father full custody and denied visitation Jane’s mother.

At age 16, Jane was placed in foster care after her father had a stroke and was placed in a nursing home. Jane’s foster mother reported that Jane had a difficult and rebellious early adolescence. Jane resumed contact with her mother during this time. After her father’s death, Jane, who no longer had any memory of the abuse, wanted a closer relationship with her mother. Her mother denied the abuse allegations claiming that Jane’s father had pressured Jane to repeat false allegations so he could get sole custody. Confused, Jane contacted Dr. Corwin and asked to she the videotape of her disclosure at age six. Jane said: “I’ve chosen to believe that my real mom didn’t do anything, even though I don’t really remember if she did or not.”

Before showing her the videotape, Corwin asks Jane to remember everything that she could about her interviews with him at age 6. Corwin asked her if she remembered “anything about the concerns about sexual abuse.” Jane replied: “No. I mean, I remember that was part of the accusation, but I don’t remember anything–wait a minute, yeah, I do.” Corwin asked her what she remembered. Jane responded, “My gosh, that’s really, really weird.” This was followed by tears as Jane remembers the pain of her mother vaginally penetrating with her finger during bath time.

Corwin then showed Jane the videotapes of his interviews with her when she was 6 years old. After watching the videotapes, Jane believed that the child on the tapes was telling the truth, but she also wants to continue seeing her mother and wants to believe that maybe her mother hurt her accidently and that she made it out to be worse then it really was.

For information on attempts to discredit this study by Elizabeth Loftus, a false memory advocate click here.

Duggal, S., & Sroufe, L. A. (1998). Recovered memory of childhood sexual trauma: A documented case from a longitudinal study. Journal of Trauma Stress, 11(2), 301-321.

This account contains the first available prospective report of memory loss in a case in which there is both documented evidence of trauma and evidence of recovery of memory. The subject “Laura” participated in a prospective longitudinal large-scale study of children followed closely from birth to adulthood which was not focused on memory for trauma. Laura spontaneously reported a recovered memory during a routine interview. The memory was corroborated by historical records of a therapist who worked with the family when the subject was 4 years old. There was abundant evidence suggesting that Laura was being abused by her father during visitations. However, there was no report of penetration, only fondling. Without physical evidence, CPS did not feel there was enough evidence to prosecute the father. However, because the father was a drug addict and alcoholic, it was decided that Laura would only see her father during supervised visitations. As a young child, Laura entered short-term therapy to deal with her anxiety and anger towards her father along with her sexualized and regressive behaviors. Evidence in the historical records shows that Laura’s memory for the abuse persisted until she was at least age 8. The last clear evidence of memory of trauma is in the therapy records from third grade. Her mother did not discuss the abuse unless Laura brought up the subject. As a result, the subject was not discussed again.

At age 16, Laura filled out a questionnaire which asked if she had ever been sexually abused. At this time, Laura indicated in writing that she had never been sexually abused. It is noted that her denial does not appear related to poor rapport with the interviewer or embarrassment, as she was open and answered multiple questions about drug/alcohol abuse, family relationships, and dating relationships which contained sensitive questions without any apparent discomfort. At 17, Laura again denied any terrible or unusual experiences including sexual abuse. Visitation had been increased with her father as Laura indicated that she felt good about spending time with her father.

At age 18, Laura had a conversation with boyfriend in which they discussed their earliest memories. Her boyfriend asked her about her earliest memory with her father. Laura reported that this question elicited a strange reaction:

“I told him and then all of sudden I got this really overwhelming feeling, like that was, that was really weird and like, and I just shut up and didn’t say anything more.”

Partial recall of the memory returned in the school office while talking with a trusted teacher about her father’s drinking. Her recall consisted largely of her father kissing her along with a compelling sense that there was a sexual component to the interaction with her father. At the same time, she felt a fear of her father that she didn’t ever remember feeling before.

The memory was not suggested by a therapist and there were no apparent rewards for remembering the abuse which created a great deal of pain and confusion for Laura, especially concerning her feelings about her father.

Martinez-Taboas, A. (1996). Repressed memories: Some clinical data contributing toward its elucidation. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 50(2), 217-30.

The author presents two well documented and corroborated cases of dissociated or delayed memories of child sexual abuse in patients with a diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The patients amnesia was well documented and in both cases the author obtained definite and clear-cut independent corroboration of the abuse.

Schooler, J. W. (1994). Seeking the core: The issues and evidence surrounding recovered accounts of sexual trauma. Consciousness and Cognition, 3(3-4), 452-69.

A case is presented of a recovered memory in which there are multiple sources of corroboration including a confession by the perpetrator.

Viederman M. (1995). The reconstruction of a repressed sexual molestation fifty years later. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 43(4), 1169-1219.

The author reports the reconstruction of a previously completely repressed memory of sexual molestation. Six years following termination of analysis, the patient wrote a letter describing a confirmation of the event, now sixty years past, from the sole other survivor of the period who had knowledge of what had happened.

The Recovered Memory Archive provides a detailed list of corroborated cases of recovered memory

Studies that examined whether corroboration was available for recovered

Memories and/or whether therapy was a significant factor in memory recovery.

Albach, F., Moormann, P. & Bermond, B. (1996). Memory Recovery of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Dissociation, 9 (4), 261-273.

Studied 97 adult victims of extreme sexual abuse and a control group of 65 women, matched for age and education who 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.


Inability to recall the abuse (or unpleasant event) at some point

CSA (n = 97)

Control (n = 65)


No Tx





Events that triggered recall of abuse:

  1. Discovering their own daughter had been abused
  2. After another trauma occurred
  3. When confronted with specific sensory triggers, especially during a time when they were “physically and emotionally exhausted.” Triggers mentioned included:
    • Being touched on the back
    • Smell of alcohol or tobacco on a man’s breath; male sweat; specific soap or after-shave; semen
    • Hearing panting noises or footsteps on the stairs
    • Seeing things such as an erect penis, dirty hands, specific masculine pajamas, a handkerchief, and white liquids.
    • Reading articles or seeing television programs about incest

Andrews, B., Brewin, C. R., Ochera, J., Morton, J., Bekerian, D. A., Davies, G. M., & Mollon, P. (1999). Characteristics, context and consequences of memory recovery among adults in therapy. British Journal of Psychiatry, 75, 141-146.

Background: There are concerns that memories recovered during therapy are likely to be the result of inappropriate therapeutic changes.

Aims: To investigate systematically these concerns.

Method: 108 therapists provided information on all clients with recovered memories seen in the past 3 years, and were interviewed in detail on up to 3 such clients.

Results: Of a total of 690 clients, therapists reported that 65% recalled child sexual abuse and 35% recalled other traumas, 32% started recovering memories before entering therapy. According to their therapists’ accounts, among the 236 detailed client cases very few appeared improbable and corroboration was reported in 41%. Techniques to aid recall were used in 42%, but only in 22% were they used before memory recovery started.

Conclusions: Some of the data are consistent with memories being of iatrogenic origin, but other data clearly point to the need for additional explanations.

Chu , J., Frey, L., Ganzel, B., & Matthews, J. (1999). Memories of childhood abuse: Dissociation, amnesia, and corroboration. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 156, 749-55.

Objective: This study investigated the relationship between self-reported childhood abuse and dissociative symptoms and amnesia. The presence or absence of corroboration of recovered memories of childhood abuse was also studied.

Method: Participants were 90 women inpatients admitted to a unit specializing in the treatment of trauma-related disorders. Participants completed instruments measuring dissociative symptoms and elicited details concerning childhood physical abuse, sexual abuse, and witnessing abuse. Participants also underwent a structured interview that asked about amnesia for traumatic experiences, the circumstances of recovered memory, the role of suggestion in recovered memories, and independent corroboration of the memories.

Results: Participants reporting any type of childhood abuse demonstrated elevated levels of dissociative symptoms that were significantly higher than in those not reporting abuse. Higher dissociative symptoms were correlated with early age of onset of physical and sexual abuse and more frequent sexual abuse. A substantial proportion of participants with all types of abuse reported partial or complete amnesia for abuse memories. For physical and sexual abuse, early age of onset was correlated with greater levels of amnesia. Participants who reported recovering memories of abuse generally recalled these experiences while at home, alone, or with family or friends. Although some participants were in treatment at the time, very few were in therapy sessions during their first memory recovery. Suggestion was generally denied as a factor in memory recovery. A majority of participants were able to find strong corroboration of their recovered memories.

Conclusions: Childhood abuse, particularly chronic abuse beginning at early ages, is related to the development of high levels of dissociative symptoms including amnesia for abuse memories. This study strongly suggests that psychotherapy usually is not associated with memory recovery, and that independent corroboration of recovered abuse memories is often present.

Feldman-Summers, S., & Pope, K. S. (1994). The experience of forgetting childhood abuse: A national survey of psychologists. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 636-639.

This study was designed to contribute to our understanding of the conditions under which childhood trauma may be forgotten. A national sample of 500 psychologists was asked whether they had been abused as children, and if so, whether they had ever forgotten some or all of the abuse. Almost 24% of the respondents reported childhood abuse (either sexual or nonsexual), and of those, approximately 40% reported a period of forgetting some or all of the abuse. Childhood abuse was reported by 28.6% of the female participants and by 17.9% of the male participants. The survey found:

  1. Both sexual and nonsexual abuse were subject to periods of forgetting.
  2. The most frequently reported factor related to recall was being in therapy.
  3. Approximately one-half of those who reported forgetting also reported corroboration of the abuse.

These findings lend support to the observation that many people forget, for various periods of time, some or all of the trauma they have experienced.

Gleaves, D. H., Hernandez, E., & Warner, M. S. (1999). Corroborating premorbid dissociative symptomatology in dissociative identity disorder. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 30, 341-345.

Clinicians are often cautious about making the diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The existence of corroborating evidence that the symptoms of the disorder existed prior to assessment may address concerns about the genuineness of individual cases. The authors report the results of a survey clinicians to determine the frequency of corroboration that clients’ DID symptoms existed prior to being diagnosed or prior to any form of therapy. On the basis of 446 cases of DID, clinicians reported some form of corroboration (e.g., reports from family members or friends, clients’ journals, prior medical records) in 73% of the cases for symptoms prior to diagnosis and in 67% of the cases prior to any therapy.

Herman, J. L., & Harvey, M. R. (1997). Adult memories of childhood trauma: A naturalistic clinical study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 10, 557-571.

This study was undertaken to examine the role of psychotherapy in memory retrieval by studying patients at the point of initiation of therapy. The study focused on the manner in which patients seeking treatment in a psychiatric clinic for crime victims spontaneously described their memories of childhood trauma. The evaluation interviews were conducted prior to the establishment of an ongoing treatment relationship and the clinicians were not instructed to ask any specific questions regarding the nature of traumatic memories, but rather to record information that the patients volunteered.

The researchers reviewed written summaries of the clinical evaluations of 77 adult psychiatric outpatients reporting memories of childhood trauma. A majority of patients reported some degree of continuous recall. Roughly half (53%) said they had never forgotten the traumatic events. Two smaller groups described a mixture of continuous and delayed recall (17%) or a period of complete amnesia followed by delayed recall (16%). Patients with and without delayed recall did not differ significantly in the proportions reporting corroboration of their memories from other sources. Idiosyncratic, trauma-specific reminders and recent life crises were most commonly cited as precipitants to delayed recall. Previous psychotherapy was cited as a factor in a minority (28%) of cases. By contrast, intrusion of new memories after a period of amnesia was frequently cited as a factor leading to the decision to seek psychotherapy.

Herman, J. L., & Schatzow, E. (1987). Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 1-14.

This study investigated the link between traumatic childhood memories and symptom formation in adult life and explored the therapeutic effect of recovery and validation of memories of early trauma. 53 women outpatients (aged 1553 years) participated in short-term therapy groups for incest survivors. This treatment modality proved to be a powerful stimulus for recovery of previously repressed traumatic memories. A relationship was observed between the age of onset, duration, and degree of violence of the abuse and the extent to which memory of the abuse had been repressed. 20 women reported that they had always remembered the abuse in detail. The majority of patients (64%) did not have full recall of the sexual abuse and reported at least some degree of amnesia; 28% reported severe memory deficits.

A strong association was observed between the degree of reported amnesia and the age of onset of the sexual abuse. Women who reported memory deficits tended to be younger when the abuse started, while those with no memory deficits experienced abuse that had begun or continued into adolescence. In addition, a relationship was observed between violent or sadistic abuse and massive repression. Nine of the 12 women who suffered overtly violent abuse reported that they had been amnesic for these experiences for a long period of time. Differences were observed in the adaptive styles and symptoms of patients with no memory deficits and those with severe amnesia. Those who reported full recall tended to depend heavily on dissociation and isolation of affect to protect themselves from the overwhelming feelings associated with the abuse. Four case examples are provided illustrate the differences in clinical presentation of patients with varying degrees of memory deficits.

The majority of patients (74%) were able to obtain confirmation of the sexual from another source. 21 women (40%) obtained corroborating evidence either from the perpetrator himself, from other family members, or from physical evidence such as diaries or photographs. Another 18 women (34%) discovered that another child, usually a sibling, had been abused by the same perpetrator; 5 women (9%) reported statements from other family members indicating a strong likelihood that they had also been abused, but did not confirm their suspicions by direct questioning. Six patients (11%) made no attempt to obtain corroboration from other sources, and 3 patients (6%) attempted to find corroboration but were unable to do so. The authors hope that these findings help lay to rest the concern that memories recovered during psychotherapy are based purely on fantasy.

Kluft, R. (1995). The confirmation and disconfirmation of memories of abuse in DID patients: A naturalistic clinical study. Dissociation: Progress in the Dissociative Disorders, 8(4), 253-258.

The author reviewed the charts of 34 dissociative identity disorder (DID) patients in treatment for instances of the confirmation or disconfirmation of recalled episodes of abuse occurring naturalistically in the course of their psychotherapies. Evidence confirming instances of the recalled abuses was found for 19 of the patients. Ten of the 19 had always recalled the abuses that were confirmed. However, 13 of the 19 obtained documentation of events that were recovered in the course of therapy, usually with the use of hypnosis. Three patients had instances in which the inaccuracy of their recollection could be demonstrated. Results suggest that stances that are either extremely credulous of retrieved recollections or extremely skeptical of retrieved recollections are inconsistent with clinical data.

Westerhof, Y., Woertman, L. Van der Hart, O., & Nijenhuis, E.R.S. (2000). Forgetting child abuse: Feldman-Summers and Pope’s (1994) study replicated among Dutch psychologists. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 7, 220-229.

In a replication of Feldman-Summers and Pope’s (1994) national survey of American psychologists on ‘forgetting’ childhood abuse, a Dutch sample of 500 members of the Netherlands Institute of Psychologists (NIP) were asked if they had been abused as children and, if so, whether they had ever forgotten some or all of the abuse for some significant period of time. As compared to the 23.9% in the original study, 13.3% reported childhood abuse. Of that subgroup, 39% (as compared to 40% in the original study) reported a period of forgetting some or all of the abuse for a period of time. Both sexual and non-sexual physical abuse were subject to forgetting, which in 70% of cases was reversed while being in therapy. Almost 70% of those who reported forgetting also reported corroboration of the abuse. The forgetting was not related to gender or age, but was associated with the reported early abuse onset. These results were remarkably similar to the resulats of the Feldman-Summers and Pope’s original study.

Wilsnack, S. C., Wonderlich, S. A., Kristjanson, A. F., Vogeltanz-Holm, N. D., & Wilsnack, R. W. (2002). Self-reports of forgetting and remembering childhood sexual abuse in a nationally representative sample of US women. Child Abuse & Neglect, 26(2), 139-47.

The respondents were a national probability sample of 711 women, aged 26 years to 54 years, residing in noninstitutional settings in the contiguous 48 states. In a 1996 face-to-face interview survey, trained female interviewers asked each respondent whether she had experienced any sexual coercion by family members or nonfamily members while growing up; whether she believed that she had been sexually abused (by family members or others); and whether she had ever forgotten the CSA experiences and, if so, how she had subsequently remembered them. 22% of respondents reported having sexually coercive experiences while growing up; of these, 69.0% indicated that they felt they had been sexually abused.

More than one-fourth of respondents who felt sexually abused reported that they had forgotten the abuse for some period of time but later remembered it on their own. Only 1.8% of women self-described as sexually abused reported remembering the abuse with the help of a therapist or other professional person. As one of the few studies of CSA memories in a nationally representative sample, this study suggests that therapist-assisted recall is not a major source of CSA memories among women in the US general population.