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October 12, 2006

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McNally (Staff file photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

Not unusual to forget childhood sexual abuse

By William J. Cromie
Harvard News Office

"I had no idea what was going on. I knew he was an authority figure so I figured he must know what he was doing. I didn't like it, knew it was wrong. If anything, I was embarrassed." The words come from an adult male remembering a sexual assault when he was a child.

The man is one of 27 people who had forgotten, then recovered, memories of childhood sexual abuse. When questioned closely by psychologists from Harvard University about their feelings, the victims revealed some surprising impressions.

First, the abuse apparently was not seen as traumatic, terrifying, life threatening, or violent at the time. "It hurt," said one man who was raped as a boy. "And after a while I knew it was wrong, but not at the beginning." Only two out of the 27 recalled feeling traumatized at the time, report psychologists Susan Clancy and Richard McNally.

Some psychologists believe that forgetting childhood sexual abuse is a deep-seated unconscious blocking out of the event, an involuntary mechanism that automatically keeps painful memories out of consciousness. Clancy and McNally's work leads them to conclude that it's just ordinary forgetting.

"I never told anyone," said one victim. "Basically, I just forgot about it."

"Memories of childhood sexual assault can slip from awareness in the same way that ordinary memories can," Clancy asserts. Everyday forgetting can include voluntary suppression, insufficient reminders, or avoidance. "A failure to think about something is not the same as being unable to remember it," McNally adds.

A major reason for such "normal forgetting" is that the abuse, even multiple episodes, was not seen as terrifying or life threatening at the time. But how about later when the violations were recalled? All 27 of those assaulted reported multiple negative effects from the abuse, such as loss of trust in people, difficulties with relationships, sexual problems, loss of self-esteem, mental health problems, or alienation. "It may be recovered memories of the assaults as traumatic, rather than the event itself being that way, that is responsible for these adverse impacts," Clancy concludes.

Profiles of abuse

She and McNally interviewed and tested 17 women and 10 men, who had recovered their memories of abuse around the age of 29 years. Average age at the time of abuse was about 8 years, and 13 of the victims reported that they were assaulted multiple times. This is the first study to obtain so much detail from recovered memories about what the abuse was like as it happened.

In every case, the victims knew their abusers (who included family friends, brothers, fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, uncles, cousins, priests, camp counselors, an aunt, a teacher, and a mother). Many different kinds of experiences brought back the memories, such as being asked about it, seeing a TV movie, reading about the experience of others, being in therapy or in Alcoholics Anonymous, and someone close who told of their own abuse. Only two people recalled the incidents as terrifying or life threatening. One of them involved a woman who remembered being raped by her grandfather.

"In most cases, the abuse was described as unpleasant or distressing, but not traumatic," Clancy says. "Terms such as ‘confusing,' ‘weird,' and ‘uncomfortable' were constantly used to describe their experience."

Four of the abused reported penetration, but only two of the 27 said they were aware that the experience was sexual at the time. However, most of them realized it was wrong. "I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know what to do," said one victim. "I don't remember what I thought was going on, but I knew it was wrong," reported another. "I thought it was my fault."

How to forget

Asked why they forgot about the abuse, most of the 27 victims answered that they actively tried not to think about it. "Well, it was clear to me that I could never tell my mother," one commented. "And it was obvious my father wasn't going to ask me any more about it. So how was I going to handle that? I just forgot about it."

Others said they forgot about it without trying. Three reported that it was because they had no reminders. Three others admitted, "I just really have no idea."

Only three credited their forgetfulness to some kind of unconscious defense that the mind uses to seal off memories of unpleasant or terrifying events. All of these three had discussed their sexual abuse with therapists.

Despite not regarding their mistreatment as terrifying and not being haunted by immediate memories of it, all of the victims reported emotional scars after memory recovery. Five said it shook their trust in other people, seven reported difficulties in relationships, and five others complained of sexual problems.

Some suffered shattered self-esteem. "I decided at the age of 9, not that God didn't exist, but that he certainly didn't love me," one said. "It was devastating."

Three had to deal with mental health problems. "It explains why I'm so screwed up," one remarked.

Some related their abuse to a history of later drug and alcohol problems; others felt that the experience cut them off from other people. Six now feel that the assaults affected all aspects of their lives. "It created a whole bunch of issues for me surrounding trust, intimacy, control and food, and other people. It's affected all my life. There's nothing untouched."

Clancy points out that "many researchers believe the trauma of the abuse is what causes the negative impact later in life. Our research suggests that, in many cases, it may be the recall of the event and the retrospective interpretation of it, rather than the event itself, that causes the problems."

The researchers describe their investigation and findings in the October issue of The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. How children understand abuse at the time it occurs is only one factor related to how that person's future will be affected, Clancy and McNally note. "Sexual abuse calls for condemnation regardless of whether a victim experienced it as traumatic, and regardless of whether a victim does ... [or doesn't] develop psychiatric disease as a consequence."


Copyright 2006 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College