Assessing Repressed Memories

“As an undergraduate student in psychology, I was taught that multiple personalities were a very rare and bizarre disorder. That is all that I was taught on ... It soon became apparent that what I had been taught was simply not true. Not only was I meeting people with multiplicity; these individuals entering my life were normal human beings with much to offer. They were simply people who had endured more than their share of pain in this life and were struggling to make sense of it.”

― Deborah Bray Haddock, The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook

Assessing Repressed Memories

Without finding strong evidence that what one is recovering is real (medical records; past reports to Child Protective Services; photographs or videos of sexually explicit materials or that show remembered injuries; journals, writing, or artwork from the time that mention, detail, or portray the trauma; spontaneous disclosure of another victim; admittance of the perpetrator or a witness), it is impossible to fully verify the memories. However, some factors may indicate that certain memories are more or less reliable.

Childhood amnesia is normal, especially before ages 3-4. However, complete or extremely extensive memory loss from before one's teenage or young adult years can indicate some kind of memory problem. In the absence of any organic reason for this memory loss and if memory loss for daily life begins to diminish and recede as memories of trauma resurface, this might indicate that much of one's childhood and adolescence was dissociated in order to shield one from the trauma. However, what adults label trauma is not the only thing that could cause dissociated memories in children. Extreme stress can impair memory formation or storage, and children may consider many things traumatic that adults would not, especially depending on their age, mental health, and general temperament. Another possible factor that can contribute to dissociated memories is disorganized or otherwise insecure attachment with one's childhood caregivers. Even if one does have repressed memories, there is no reason to assume that these memories must be of abuse or must be of a certain objective severity.

Behavioral indicators such as posttraumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, or borderline personality disorder can reinforce memories of abuse or dysfunction, though they alone cannot confirm nor deny specific memories or suspicions. Non-medical records may help to shed light on the issue; for example, school records that involve notes of signs of abuse or neglect, indicate a sudden change in personality or decline in grades around the time that the trauma would have begun or worsened, or hint at a childhood disclosure that was not followed up on can help to validate that something was wrong. Childhood stories or reports from others who were present in one's life at the time may also put forth or confirm such evidence. Another potentially telling factor is the behavior of suspected perpetrators and witnesses in the present. For example, if one suspects that a family member sexually abused them as a child and this family member is still visibly sexually inappropriate with younger family members, this might support that the family member was sexually abusive to the individual as well. If one suspects physical abuse from a family member who still experiences violent outbursts of temper or whose loved ones are frequently seen with unexplained injuries or appear to be attempting to hide injuries, this can support the validity of the individual's recovered memories. Finally, if one suspects that they were abused within their home and notes that their family even now reacts to problems and stressors with denial, minimization, or avoidance, this can reinforce that an environment of silence could have allowed for childhood abuse to continue. This is especially true if unrelated stressful, "deviant," or potentially traumatic events have been treated as undeserving of acknowledgement or discussion so that those who do attempt to acknowledge them are overtly or covertly rejected and shunned.

Even if one comes to believe that their recovered memories of trauma are genuine, it is still important to keep certain considerations in mind. Even memories that portray a true event may involve: false elements such as an incorrect event, location, time line, or perpetrator; misunderstandings due to childish confusion or deliberate obfuscation of the perpetrator; adult reinterpretation influencing the truth; real memories being combined with childish desires for rescue, media exposure, or nightmares; or a collapse of multiple memories into one. It is vital that one never allow anyone, therapists in particular, to tell them what they do or should remember. It is important to avoid media exposure or stories of other survivors that might influence existing memories or create false memories. Comparing recovered to previous memories or records of the time can highlight inconsistencies or contradictions that require more careful examination. Spontaneously recovered memories that were not influenced by a therapist or other clinician, by friends or acquaintances, or by media but were instead triggered by a seemingly benign stimulus may be more likely to be accurate.

It should be noted that those who do have false memories of abuse are not bad, liars, or suffering from a personality or delusional disorder (despite what the criteria for the clinically unvalidated false memory syndrome suggests). False memories of abuse are horrible and painful things to experience, and no one would choose to blindly believe in them or use them to cause harm (if one does, this is likely not evidence of false memories but instead of malingering). If one has false memories of abuse but is not acting on them (using them to hurt the alleged perpetrator or bystanders or using them as an excuse for poor behavior), these memories are mostly only hurtful and damaging to the one suffering from them. False memories are most likely due to an outside influence (such as media, other people, or an unprofessional therapist) combined with suggestibility, some form of coercion, or other mental health problems. Having false memories of trauma is not a statement about one's personality or general character or even a commentary on the validity of one's other memories.