While California weighs the idea of extending the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse survivors to come forward in seeking justice, more research supports the idea that adults can accurately recall traumatic events repressed from their childhood—specifically repressed memories of sexual abuse. People can forget details or delay coming forward, especially if the abuse was severe, but the passage of time shouldn’t deny a person’s right to file a lawsuit for redress.
Repressed memories of sexual abuse have been a controversial topic for decades, which might cause you to question the validity of the thoughts and feelings you’ve been having. Here we discuss causes for loss of memory associated with sexual abuse, how to recover repressed memories of sexual abuse, and the role these memories play in the courtroom.
What Leads to Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse?
There have been a variety of studies and explanations regarding why survivors of sexual abuse may experience repressed memories.
- Encoding Errors: Richard J. McNally, a Harvard professor of psychology, explains, “Some children do not understand their childhood sexual abuse when it occurs, and do not experience terror. Years later, they recall the experience, and understanding it as abuse, suffer intense distress.”
- Physical Trauma: Another theory is that amnesia may arise due to physical trauma. If childhood sexual abuse involved the use of violence, drugs, or physical pain, the brain may have been rendered incapable of storing the event. One study of 38 children who saw a playmate struck and killed by lightning did not recall the event at all because they, too, had been hit with side flashes of lightning and knocked unconscious.
- Severe Psychological Stress: According to research published in Child Abuse & Neglect, learning and memory deteriorate under conditions of extreme stress and arousal. “These memory deficits are due to disturbances in hippocampal activation and arousal, and the corticosteroid secretion which can suppress neural activity associated with learning and memory and induce hippocampal atrophy.” Trauma victims are particularly at risk for this type of memory loss if there is a past history of repetitive emotional trauma, neurological injury of the temporal lobe and hippocampus, a young age, or higher baseline levels of cortisol.
- Childhood Amnesia: Forgetfulness naturally occurs along with neurocognitive pruning, changes in language, and brain maturation. Older children and adults frequently fail to recall events encoded during the preschool years and earlier.
Triggers for Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse
Sexual contact can stimulate all five senses. Later contact with a similar stimulus may jog the memory, inviting an intrusive recollection of traumatic memories which is often diagnosed as PTSD.
Oftentimes, traumatic memories are triggered during ordinary activities such as:
- watching TV or movies
- reading about someone else’s trauma
- experiencing a disturbing event in the present
- recollecting childhood stories with family members or friends
- encountering the abuser or the location where the abuse occurred
- major life changes like moving, marriage, divorce, pregnancy, or the birth of a child
How to Recover Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse
You may wonder whether it’s worth digging into the furthest recesses of your mind. The American Psychological Association summarizes it this way: “The reality is that most people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse remember all or part of what happened to them. Also true is the fact that thousands of people see a psychologist every day and are helped to deal with such things as issues of personal adjustment, depression, substance abuse, and problems in relationships.”
The best way to recover repressed memories of sexual abuse is to work with a trusted therapist. A licensed mental health practitioner can help you revisit past trauma in a safe environment and work through any conflicts that may arise. Therapy can help you heal and can help you if you decide to seek compensation after being sexually abused. By filing a civil lawsuit, you can work with an attorney to recover financial compensation for medical expenses, counseling costs, lost wages, as well as pain and suffering. Furthermore, a lawsuit stops the cycle of abuse by holding individuals and third parties accountable.
Are Repressed Memories Admissible in Court?
The most common challenge to the emergence of latent memories hinges on the amount of time that has elapsed since the trauma took place. Under current legislation in California, childhood sexual abuse survivors have eight years after the age of majority to file a civil lawsuit or within three years of the date of discovering that the psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by sexual abuse.
Most courts recognize the potential for repressed memories to come to light into adulthood. However, the use of credible, scientific expert testimony becomes paramount to the legal decision to allow repressed recollections at trial.
When repressed memories come to light during a therapy session, increased scrutiny may be applied. In the past, courts have examined four factors with regard to a theory or technique used by the expert: whether it is testable; whether it has been subjected to peer review; whether it has reported or known error rates; and whether it is generally accepted in the scientific community. Though evidentiary standards can be high, working with experienced sexual abuse attorneys can help you obtain justice.
Work With an Experienced Attorney to Obtain a Recovery
There are several reasons why survivors may delay coming forward—experiencing repressed memories of sexual abuse can be one of those reasons. No matter when you or your loved one decides to come forward about the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, there is always someone willing to listen.
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