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Repressed Memory Versus False Memory - Scientific Proof Of Repressed Memory?

women abuse williams hospital

While some repressed memory experts such as Lenore Terr, a clinical professor of psychiatry, dismiss all laboratory experiments on memory as invalid, others have tried to prove scientifically that memories can be forgotten. Linda Meyer Williams, of the Family Research Laboratory of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, studied the recall of women who had been abused in childhood, for whom there were medical records proving the abuse ("Recall of Childhood Trauma: A Prospective Study of Women's Memories of Child Sexual Abuse," Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, vol. 62, no. 6, 1994).

Williams used data gathered between 1973 and 1975 on 206 girls (ages ten months to twelve years) who had been examined for sexual abuse in a city hospital emergency room. In 1990 and 1991 129 of these women were included in a study that was, they were told, a follow-up on the lives and health of women who had received health care as children at the hospital. The women, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-one at the time of the study, were not told of their history of child sexual abuse, although some women suspected the reason for their hospital visit.

Of the 129 women, 38% failed to report the sexual abuse documented by the hospital; of this group, however, 68% reported other childhood sexual abuses. Williams doubted that the women were simply unwilling to discuss the abuse because other personal subjects—such as abortions, prostitution, or having sexually transmitted diseases—were not withheld.

Twelve percent (fifteen respondents) of the total sample reported that they were never abused in childhood. Williams suggested that this was an undercount of the likely number of women who had forgotten childhood abuse. Because the abuse these women suffered was known to at least one other person (the person who brought the child to the hospital), it was less likely to have been repressed than abuse that was always kept a secret.

Williams concluded that if it is possible that victims do not remember having been abused, their recovery of repressed memory later on in life should not come as a surprise. In fact, 16% of the women who recalled the sexual victimization that brought them to the hospital reported there were periods when they "forgot" the abuse.

In a second paper on the same research ("Recovered Memories of Abuse in Women with Documented Child Sexual Victimization Histories," Journal of Traumatic Stress, October 1995), Williams described the interviews with some of the women who had forgotten. It is not clear whether the women were truly amnesic or whether the abuse wassimply not a part of their conscious lives for a time.

Most reported that they recalled the abuse when a television movie or some other event jogged their memories. None had sought therapy to uncover repressed memories. Williams suggested that these women (inner-city, mainly black, women) did not have the financial resources or knowledge to get professional help.

A Rebuttal

Critics of Williams's conclusions pointed out that one of the reasons women in the study had forgotten their abuse was that the trauma had occurred in infancy. (Experts contend that events that happen before the acquisition of language at two to three years of age are forgotten because there is no way to express the event.) Williams disagreed, noting that, while 55% of those who had been abused at three years or younger had no memory of the occurrence, 62% of those who were four to six years old also did not remember.

In addition, critics questioned how Williams could be certain that those who claimed not to remember were actually telling the truth. The researchers never confronted the women who did not report abuse by showing them their hospital records.

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