Child Abuse History and Autobiographical Memory

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There is considerable evidence in the clinical literature that exposure to traumatic experiences in childhood, particularly physical or sexual abuse, is linked to autobiographical memory disturbances in adulthood. Many adults who have experienced childhood trauma report gaps in their memories of childhood (e.g., Edwards, Fivush, Anda, Felitti, & Nordenberg, 2001; Herman & Schatzow, 1987). For instance, a study conducted by Edwards et al. (2001) indicated that adult men and women who retrospectively reported histories of child sexual or physical abuse were significantly more likely than other adults to report that there were large parts of their childhoods (after age 4) that they could not remember. Other work has shown that a self-reported history of sexual abuse is related to poorer recall of personal facts from childhood, such as the name of one's elementary school (Hunter & Andrews, 2002). The most consistent findings, however, relate to the ability to remember or report specific episodes from one's past. In this regard, a number of studies have illustrated that adults who report histories of childhood trauma have difficulty recollecting specific autobiographical memories (e.g., Burnside, Startup, Byatt, Rollinson, & Hill, 2004; Henderson et al., 2002; Hermans et al., 2004; Kuyken & Brewin, 1995). In most of these studies, autobiographical memory is assessed with an autobiographical memory test (AMT) in which participants are asked to generate specific memories (i.e., personal memories that refer to single events lasting less than 24 hours) in response to cue words. Adults who report childhood trauma histories are more likely than control subjects to generate generic or "overgeneral" memories that reflect a category of events (e.g., "My mom and my stepdad argued all the time," in response to the cue "arguing") rather than one specific event in their lives (e.g., "I remember my mom and my aunt arguing about how I cut my head"). Moreover, the duration and severity of the trauma is negatively associated with memory specificity among trauma survivors (Burnside et al., 2004). Nevertheless, not all studies have found poor memory specificity among adults exposed to childhood trauma. In their longitudinal study of depressed outpatients, Peeters, Wessel, Merckelbach, and Boon-Vermeeren

(2002) found that reports of childhood trauma actually predicted greater memory specificity in response to negative cue words.

In the literature on memory and psychopathology, it is well established that difficulty retrieving and reporting specific autobiographical memories is also associated with depression. Compared to nondepressed control adults, depressed or suicidal adults show longer latencies when retrieving specific memories and are more likely to report inappropriately general memories when assessed with AMTs (Brittlebank et al., 1993; Park, Goodyer, & Teasdale, 2002; Watkins, Teasdale, & Williams, 2000; Williams & Broadbent, 1986; Williams & Dritschel, 1988). It does not seem to be the case, however, that trauma-related autobiographical memory problems are simply a reflection of elevated levels of depression among trauma survivors, as childhood trauma is related to difficulty recalling personal memories even when depression is statistically controlled (Edwards et al., 2001; Henderson et al., 2002; Hermans et al., 2004; Kuyken & Brewin, 1995).

Only a handful of studies have examined the autobiographical memory functioning of children and adolescents exposed to trauma, and the findings are less consistent than those observed with adults. In a sample of adolescent psychiatric inpatients, de Decker, Hermans, Raes, and Eelen

(2003) found that teens' retrospective reports of a trauma history were associated with the production of more overgeneral memories on an AMT. In contrast, two studies using measures of autobiographical memory functioning other than the AMT have failed to find trauma-related memory deficits. Eisen et al. (1999) examined memory and suggestibility for a medical examination among maltreated children and found no differences in memory performance or susceptibility to suggestion between the abused children and nonabused controls. Similarly, in their study of adolescents with childhood exposure to family violence, Orbach, Lamb, Sternberg, Williams, and Dawud-Noursi (2001) found that neither witnessing nor being a target of family violence was related to the specificity of the adolescents' memories for family disagreements. The authors also noted, however, that children exposed to family violence were more likely than children in a control group to omit responses to questions; thus they avoided providing any responses, either generic or specific.

To summarize, there is reasonably strong evidence that a history of childhood trauma is associated with atypical patterns of autobiographical memory in adulthood, although whether these memory deficits appear during childhood or adolescence is unclear. Furthermore, it is not known whether trauma-related memory patterns are attributable to deficits in the encoding and storage of autobiographical memories, impairments in the retrieval of stored memories, or unwillingness to report memories that are retrieved. So how can trauma-related autobiographical memory problems be explained? In the next section, we turn to this issue.

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