Long Term Recall of Childhood Abuse

The relation between trauma and memory in children has been fraught with controversy (Bremner, 1999; Freyd & DePrince, 2001; Howe, Cicchetti, & Toth, 2006; Howe, Cicchetti, Toth, & Cerrito, 2004; Howe, Toth, & Cicchetti, 2006; Kihlstrom, 1995; Schacter, Coyle, Fischbach, Mesulam, & Sullivan, 1995; Williams & Banyard, 1999). At issue is whether delayed recall of childhood abuse can exist, whether these memories are implanted by therapists, and whether lost memories of abuse are related to altered memory function in abused individuals or are due to ordinary forgetting. We first review research studies related to memory and forgetting abuse, then the experimental literature on memory distortion and the controversy that has ensued in the literature on delayed recall of abuse, and finally findings from the neurobiology of trauma that are proposed as models for memory distortion in abused patients with mental disorders.

Several studies have shown varying degrees of lack of recall of childhood abuse events in later life. Williams studied 129 women with documented histories of sexual victimization in childhood (Williams, 1994). Thirty-eight percent reported no memory of the abuse. Factors associated with lack of recall included younger age and molestation by someone the women knew.

Widom and Morris (Widom & Morris, 1997) studied 1,196 victims of abuse or neglect 20 years after their initial assessments in childhood. Only 63% of individuals with documented sexual abuse in childhood reported this abuse in adulthood. Only 16% of men (compared to 64% of women) with documented sexual abuse reported childhood sexual abuse as adults. The authors concluded that there was "substantial under-reporting of childhood sexual abuse" that could be related to loss of memory, denial, or embarrassment about reporting abuse details. They also concluded that cultural or other social factors might explain why fewer men than women reported sexual abuse.

Alexander and colleagues (Alexander et al., 2005) studied 103 children involved in legal cases related to childhood abuse 10 to 16 years later. The authors found a 72% accuracy of remembering abuse. However, this was only in 94 of the subjects. Of the original 103, 3 said that they had never been abused even though they originally divulged abuse, and 2 said that the charges were false. Severity of PTSD was correlated with accuracy, and individuals who rated the abuse as their most traumatic life event had accurate memories of abuse regardless of PTSD severity. The authors concluded that memories of abuse were in general accurate.

Goodman et al. (2003) studied 175 individuals with documented childhood sexual abuse from age 4 to 17 at 13 years after the reported abuse. Of the subjects, 81% reported the documented abuse. Older age at the time when the abuse ended, maternal support, and more severe abuse were associated with a higher likelihood of disclosure.

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