When questioned closely by psychologists from Harvard University about their feelings, victims of childhood sexual abuse 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.