Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by Dr Janet Boakes (CA 75)


  In the past decade or so numbers of individuals have claimed that they suffered sexual abuse in childhood and have recovered memories of it only in adult life, sometimes decades after the event. Some have been told as adults that their psychological symptoms may be caused by a trauma of which they have no conscious memory. Originally reports of recovered memories linked the phenomenon to therapy and suggested that some of the memories had been inadvertently suggested by therapists. Techniques intended to help the process of memory recovery raise concerns that the memories recovered in this way are unreliable, they are the product of imagination and fantasy. People are not recovering memories but are describing events which did not take place1,2. Many scientific reports have warned of the dangers of reliance upon recovered memories following the use of such methods and all the major psychiatric and psychological bodies have issued guidance in this area3,4,5,6,7,8,9.

  This is a new phenomenon. Until the first reports emerged in America in the late 1980s it was unknown apart from Freud's repudiated theory of sexual seduction more than a century ago. If the mind had the capacity to block out hideous events in the way proposed, it is remarkable that until two decades ago it had not been observed. It is worth noting that despite the large pool of people who are sexually abused, and the corresponding number of people who have the posited potential to repress and later recover memories, there is a striking absence of reliably corroborated cases of recovered memories in the literature.

  "Recovered memories" stand or fall with the concept of repression. The notion that traumatic events can lie forgotten for decades until triggered by current circumstances is a widely believed-in phenomenon. There is, however, no body of evidence which demonstrates that traumatic events can be repressed. On the contrary, it appears that highly disturbing events are the ones least likely to be forgotten. Follow up studies of victims of a range of different trauma (war veterans, concentration camp survivors and those involved in major disasters)10,11,12,13,14 have not found an ability to forget. On the contrary many were troubled by recurring intrusive memories. Despite 60 years of research,15 efforts to study repression in the laboratory have failed to produce evidence in support. There are anecdotal clinical accounts of repression and memory recall, but almost none have been verified. Four prospective studies16,17,18,19 which purport to show evidence of repression are all methodologically flawed.20

  Memory is known to be fallible, altered by the passage of time and subject to error and distortion.21,22 An extensive literature outlines its constructive and reconstructive nature rather than its reproductive nature. False memories—the apparent recollection of imaginary events—can and do occur. There are accounts of experimental creation of false memories,23 held with complete conviction, challenging the belief that no one would make up such things.

  Accounts of combat, both from the second world war and from more recent conflicts, notably the Vietnam war, refer to "psychogenic" amnesia, but the term describes a somewhat different phenomenon. Sufferers from wartime amnesia reported global amnesia, that is complete loss of all memory preceding or following the traumatic episode, and some could remember no personal information. Moreover these soldiers were fully aware of their memory loss. Such "psychogenic" amnesia was usually transient and memories were restored fairly quickly. This is entirely different from the "psychogenic" memory loss for specific incidents eg multiple rapes, while retaining intact a whole contemporary history of events. There is no reliable evidence to support such event specific amnesia.

  As long ago as 1944, Sargant24 warned of the risks of uncritical belief in newly recovered memories which had to be distinguished from confabulation and fantasy. Many of those who described amnesia and subsequent memory recovery during the war had been treated with drug abreaction or with hypnosis, both now known to increase the conviction with which a story may be recalled while reducing its accuracy. This must cast doubts upon reports of wartime "psychogenic amnesia". Moreover, none of those with "amnesia" ever forgot that they were in the front line and thought they spent the war at home. Amongst Vietnam veterans amnesia was also quite uncommon.25


  For a study to demonstrate the existence of repression it must show that: the alleged event occurred; it was of a kind unlikely to be forgotten in the normal way; its non-recollection cannot be explained by uncontroversial causes such as infantile amnesia (the period in infancy and early childhood from which memory is accepted as not possible) head injury, toxic states, or simple forgetting. No studies currently meet these criteria.20


  A large body of retrospective clinical studies26, 27 finds that a significant proportion of patients who allege that they were abused report periods in their lives when they could not remember that the abuse had occurred, but these studies generally fail to meet the test above. There are inherent difficulties in asking subjects if they remember that they forgot. These studies have also been criticised for their methodological failings.28 Corroboration is generally either completely absent or is unreliable, often it is provided from the patient's reports and unverified by the experimenter. Corroboration is also noted to be less common in memories for sexual abuse when compared with other recovered memories29. In the absence of independent corroboration that the event actually occurred there is no scientific means of determining the veracity of a memory recovered from alleged total amnesia.

  Whilst popular belief supports the ideas of repression and memory recovery the scientific evidence does not. The null hypothesis, that repression does not exist, (and therefore recovered memories cannot be relied upon) has not been falsified. Clinicians and investigators must be rigourous in seeking corroboration of all memories recovered years after the event. They must not be misled into thinking that current symptoms provide evidence of past trauma.

February 2002


  1.  Lindsay, D S & Read, J D (1994) Psychotherapy and memories of childhood sexual abuse: a cognitive perspective. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 8:281-338.

  2.  Brandon, S, Boakes, J P, Green, R and Glaser, D (1998) "Recovered Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse: implications for clinical practice", British Journal of Psychiatry, 172:296-307.

  3.  American Psychiatric Association (1993) Statement on Memories of sexual abuse. Washington DC, APA. reprinted in Moving Forward 6(2):8-9

  4.  American Medical Association (1994) Memories of childhood abuse. childhood sexual abuse. Report (5-A-94) Chicago. AMA.

  5.  American Psychological Association (1994) Statement on adult memories of childhood sexual abuse.

  6.  Australian Psychological Society (1994) Guidelines relating to the reporting of recovered memories. Sydney. APS Ltd.

  7.  British Psychological Society (1995) Recovered Memories. Leicester. BPS.

  8.  Canadian Psychiatric Association (1996) Position Statement. Adult Recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Toronto. CPA.

  9.  Report of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Working Group. "Reported recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse: Recommendations for good practice and implications for training, continuing professional development and research". Psychiatric Bulletin. 21:663-665.

  10.  Leopold, R L & Dillon, H (1963) Psychoanatomy of a Disaster: a long-term study of post traumatic neuroses in survivors of a marine explosion. American Journal of Psychiatry. 119:913-921.

  11.  Pynoos, R S & Nader, K (1989) Children's memories and proximity to violence. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 28:236-241.

  12.  Malt, U (1988) The Long-term consequences of accidental injury: a longitudinal study of 197 adults. Brit J Psychiat 153:810-818.

  13.  Terr, L C (1983) Chowchilla revisited. The effects of psychic trauma four years after the school bus kidnapping. American Journal of Psychiatry 140:1543-50.

  14.  Neisser, U & Harsch, N (1992) Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about challenger in Effect & Accuracy in recall: Studies of "Flashback" memories (eds E Windgrad & U Neisser) New York. Cambridge University Press.

  15.  Holmes, D (1990) The evidence for repression: An examination of sixty years of research. In Repression and dissociation (ed J Singer) Univ Chicago Press. pp 85-102.

  16.  Briere, J & Conte, J (1993) Self-reported amnesia for abuse in adults molested as children. J Traumatic Stress. 6:21-31.

  17.  Herman, J L & Schatzow, E (1987) Recovery and verification of memories of childhood sexual trauma. Psychoanal Psychology 4:1-14.

  18.  Loftus, E F, Polonsky, S & Fullilove, M T (1994) Memories of childhood sexual abuse: remembering and reprising. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 18:67-84.

  19.  Williams, L M (1994) Recall of childhood trauma. A prospective study of women's memories of child sexual abuse. J Consulting and Clinical Psychology 62:1167-1176.

  20.  Pope, H G & Hudson, J I (1995) Can memories of childhood sexual abuse be repressed? Psychological Medicine. 25:121-126.

  21.  Baddeley, A (1997) Human Memory. Theory and Practice. Psychology Press, an imprint of Erlbaum (UK) Hove, Sussex. p351ff.

  22.  Bartlett, F C (1932) Remembering. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.

  23.  Loftus, E F (1993) The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist. 48:518-537.

  24.  Sargant, W, Slater, E (1940) Acute war neuroses Lancet 2:1-2.

  25.  Merskey, H (1995) The Analysis of Hysteria. Royal College of Psychiatrists Gaskell publication.

  26.  Scheflin, A W & Brown, D (1996) Repressed memory or dissociative amnesia: what science says. J Psychiat & Law 24:143-188.

  27.  Brewin, C (1996) The Scientific Status of Recovered Memories. Brit J Psychiat. 169:131-134.

  28.  Piper, A (1997) What science says—and doesn't say—about repressed memories. A critique of Scheflin & Brown. J Psychiat & Law, winter. 615-632.

  29.  Andrews, B, Brewin, C et al (1999) Characteristics and Consequences of Memory Recovery Among Adults in Therapy. Brit J Psychiat. 175:141-146.


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Prepared 31 October 2002