Autobiographical Memory in Child Sexual Abuse Victims Preliminary Findings

To examine issues of autobiographical memory for childhood events in adolescent and adult victims of child sexual abuse, we are currently conducting a study in which both autobiographical memory accuracy and specificity are examined (see Augusti et al., 2006; Block et al., 2006; Ogle et al., 2007). Among other questions, we are exploring whether child sexual abuse and PTSD are associated with more or less accurate autobiographical memory, and with more specific or more overgeneral autobiographical memory.

Child sexual abuse victims ranging in age from 14 to 37 years are participating in this study, along with a group of age- and gender-matched individuals with no known history of child sexual abuse. Tests of trauma-related psychopathology are also being administered. One advantage of this study over much of the previous research is that the reports of child sexual abuse are not retrospective; the participants were referred to our study from a child protection center, and we were granted access to therapists' and social workers' reports of the participants' abuse histories.

To tap autobiographical memory in this study, the Semantic Autobiographical Memory Task (SAMT; Meesters, Merckelbach, Muris, & Wessel, 2000) and the Autobiographical Memory Interview (AMI; Kopelman, Wilson, & Baddeley, 1989) are administered. For the SAMT, participants are asked to recall semantic information from when they were in third grade. For the AMI, participants are asked to describe a specific memory from each of the following time periods: prior to preschool, during elementary school, and during sixth grade. Both tasks are administered as interviews.

For the adolescents, parents' answers to the SAMT autobiographical memory test are obtained; this permits us to examine the accuracy of adolescents' autobiographical memory by comparing their reports with those of their parents. Results thus far reveal that adolescents with a history of child sexual abuse and who have more reexperiencing symptoms associated with PTSD have more accurate autobiographical memory than do adolescents with fewer reexperiencing symptoms (Ogle et al., 2007). This finding is consistent with research by Alexander et al. (2005), who found PTSD symptoms to be associated with more accurate memories of abuse in adolescents and young adult victims of child sexual abuse.

Degree of autobiographical memory specificity is measured in our study by participants' first responses on the autobiographical incident portion of the AMI. Responses are coded for details of time and place using a 4-point scale of 0 to 3. The following scoring criteria are employed: A score of 0 indicates no memory or a response based on semantic memory. A score of 1 is given for vague personal memories. A score of 2 indicates a personal but not specific (general) event, or a specific event lacking in details for time or place. An example of a memory with a specificity score of 2 is the following: "I remember the first time I saw snow in Alaska. I was sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window, and my mom was standing behind me, and she was pointing at the snow." This memory report describes a specific event and contains details of place (inside at a table in Alaska) but not time. The memory report quoted at the start of this chapter about, receiving a phone call with the awful news of the father's impending death also received a score of 2. Finally, a score of 3 is given for episodic memories specific in time and place. The following memory report received a specificity score of 3: "When I was about 4 years old we were living in Santa Rosa, and somebody had broken into a bunch of cars in our apartment complex. When my mom was talking to people, I was in charge of watching little kids, because I was a lot more mature when I was 4, like I am now. But I remember watching a 2-year-old. I don't remember his name, but after I felt very special because I had to watch over him and protect him and make sure nothing happened." As another example, we opened this chapter with a detailed autobiographical memory of the morning the Northridge Earthquake hit California in 1996, and of things falling out of the nanny's closet. This memory report also received a score of 3. Coding was completed by two coders blind to maltreatment status and with interrater reliability of 0.86 (proportion of agreement).

Preliminary findings from the AMI indicated that adults with child sexual abuse histories provided more specific autobiographical memories, especially for the preschool years, than did matched controls (Augusti et al., 2006). This pattern of results did not emerge for the adolescents, for whom no significant differences between the child sexual abuse and control participants have been found to date.

A DRM task for neutral, emotional (positive, negative), and trauma-related lists is also included in the present study (Block et al., 2006). For the subset of individuals who indicated a past traumatic experience (including individuals in the "no child sexual abuse" control group), the more PTSD symptoms the individual had, the more errors she or he made on DRM lists (Harris et al., 2007). Thus, consistent with previous studies, PTSD was associated with greater memory error on the DRM task, including for trauma-related words. These findings are similar to those of Brennen, Dybdahl, and Kapidzi (2007), who found that PTSD subsequent to war trauma was also associated with greater error on war-related DRM lists. However, our sample size is especially small for this analysis; thus the results may change as participants are added to the study.

Overall, it tentatively appears that child maltreatment and PTSD are, at times, associated with more accurate and more specific autobiographical memory. Such findings begin to emerge in adolescence, at least for autobiographical memory accuracy. However, on a variety of standard laboratory tasks, including the DRM task with lists that are trauma-related, PTSD is associated with greater error.

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