Recovered Memories of Child Sexual Abuse – It Is Possible 

By Linda M. Williams, Ph.D.
February 7, 2005

The conviction of Paul Shanley, a defrocked Catholic priest, on charges of rape and sexual abuse of a child, once again propelled the debate on recovered memory into the media. The jury appears to have understood that memories of child sexual abuse are not always continuous. Most people who were sexually abuse in childhood have all too vivid memories of their experiences. But dozens of credible scientific studies support the conclusion that some men and women who were sexually abused in childhood forget and then go on to recover their memories in adulthood. For example, studies of adults in treatment with mental health professionals have elicited reports of prior periods of no recall of the abuse suffered in childhood. Studies of college students as well as of adults in the wider community find that there are many who report that at some time in the past they forgot their victimization experiences.

My prospective longitudinal research on the experiences of men and women with documented cases of sexual abuse in childhood followed these victims and reassessed them some two decades later in early adulthood. Girls and boys who, in the early 1970s, were treated in an emergency room for child sexual abuse were interviewed 17-20 years later and asked standard screening questions about child sexual abuse. Thirty-eight percent of the women and fifty-five percent of the men did not appear to recall the previously documented child sexual abuse. In addition, of those women who did recall the abuse, sixteen percent (one out of every six or seven women) said that there was some time in the past when they did not remember the abuse, that is, they reported that they at some time recovered their memories of abuse. Many told us their memories were hazy, but their adult accounts of the abuse, when compared with the hospital records, were as accurate as the accounts of abuse given by the women who said they had always remembered their abuse.

This and other recent studies provide evidence that memory of child sexual abuse can be discontinuous. That is, it can be forgotten and then remembered. While any one study or research method has limitations, these studies of memory of child sexual abuse and other traumas suggest that there are people who do not remember their abuse and some who recall the experience in adulthood after a period of forgetting. The emergence of memories about abuse in childhood is most often tied to everyday contexts and situations, including media reports of the victimization of others. This finding is not really terribly surprising. Nearly all of us have had the experience of forgetting things that happened to us in childhood and then remembering them later when reminded by something. Forgetting things and then remembering them later is a common human experience that, according to my and other research, appears to apply to experiences of sexual abuse in childhood as well. The silence that occurs around sexual abuse, especially abuse by a respected authority figure such as a parent or a priest, may lead to impaired memories. Shame, guilt, betrayal and secrecy are all factors that may affect recall of abuse.

Some researchers working in the area of cognition and memory have disputed the existence of recovered memories of child sexual abuse and contend that these memories have often been falsely created—labeling them “false memories. ”While such a phenomenon occurs, research studies indicate that it is a minority of adults who appear to be susceptible to such memory creation for events that did not occur. Serious questions remain about the extent to which findings from such studies can be applied to the experience of memories for traumatic events such as child sexual abuse.

Over the past 35 years, more survivors of child sexual abuse have come forward, resulting in less shame, secrecy, and silencing of their voices. It makes sense that in this context, some adults have, over the past two decades, begun to recover memories of sexual abuse that occurred in childhood. Witness credibility must, of course, be judged on its own merits, but labeling all recovered memories illegitimate simply flies in the face of science.

Williams, L.M., & Banyard, V.L. (1997). Gender and Recall of Child Sexual Abuse: A Prospective Study. In J.D. Read & D.S. Lindsay (Eds.) Recollections of Trauma: Scientific Evidence and Clinical Practice (pp. 371-378). New York: Plenum.

Williams, L.M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8 (4), 649-673.

Williams, L.M. (1994). Recall of childhood trauma: A prospective study of women’s memories of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62 (6), 1167-1176.

Williams, L.M. (1994). What does it mean to forget child abuse?: A reply to Loftus, Garry, and Feldman. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62 (6), 1182-1186.

Berliner, L., & Williams, L.M. (1994). Memories of child sexual abuse: A response to Lindsay and Read. Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, 8 (3), 379-387.