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Links to a list of papers on the trauma-memory argument.


The Problem of Child Sexual Abuse


John F. Kihlstrom

University of California, Berkeley

Richard J. McNally

Harvard University

Elizabeth F. Loftus

University of California, Irvine

Harrison G. Pope

Harvard Medical School


The following letter was sent to the Editor of Science on April 27, 2005, responding to a Policy Forum on "The Science of Shild Sexual Abuse" by J.J. Freyd et al. that had appeared in the April 22 issue of that journal.  An edited version was published in the August 19, 2005 issue, along with other comments and a response from the authors (309, 1182-1185).

The Policy Forum by Freyd et al. calls for more and better scientific research on child sexual abuse (CSA). [1] Yet it misleadingly suggests that the "Cognitive and neurological mechanisms that may underlie the forgetting of abuse have been identified" (p. 501). This statement implies that the forgetting of CSA is somehow special, and cannot be explained by the sorts of principles familiar in the cognitive and neuroscientific study of memory.

The notion that individuals can develop amnesia for seemingly unforgettable traumatic events, followed by "recovery" of these memories months or years later, has been part of the folklore of psychiatry and clinical psychology for more than 100 years, and has been described under such headings as "repression," "dissociation," and "traumatic amnesia." [2] But in fact, surveys of trauma victims show that they typically remember their experiences all too well, and any forgetting is easily accounted for by organic factors or by normal memory processes such as ordinary forgetting and infantile or childhood amnesia. [3]

Genuinely traumatic events -- those experienced at the time as overwhelmingly terrifying and life-threatening -- are seldom, if ever, truly forgotten. Evidence to the contrary comes from methodologically weak studies that generally fail to obtain corroboration for retrospective self-reports of either trauma, amnesia, or both. Some investigators also confuse forgetting and amnesia with a simple failure to disclose a memory, or the recovery of memory with the reinterpretation of an event always remembered. The study cited by Freyd et al. [4] concluded that its results "do not support the existence of special memory mechanisms unique to traumatic events, but instead imply that normal cognitive operations underlie long-term memory for CSA" (p. 117).

These facts have long been known, [5, 6] though they are often ignored or discounted by professionals -- researchers as well as clinical practitioners -- and unappreciated by the public at large. So far as the scientific evidence is concerned, traumatic amnesia appears to be a myth. Rather than searching for the cognitive and neurological mechanisms underlying a phenomenon that appears nonexistent, scientists and policymakers might better focus their resources on the very real problems of CSA: its causes, correlates, and all-too-real consequences, and the most effective means by which it can be treated and prevented.



1. Freyd, J.J., Putnam, F.W., Lyon, t.D., Becker-Blease, K.A., Cheit, R.E., Siegel, N.B., & Pezdek, K., The science of child sexual abuse. Science, 2005. 308: p. 501.

2. Kihlstrom, J.F., Exhumed memory, in Truth in memory. 1998, The Guilford Press: New York, NY, USA. p. 3-31.

3. McNally, R.J., Remembering trauma. 2003, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

4. Goodman, G.S., et al., A Prospective Study of Memory for Child Sexual Abuse: New Findings Relevant to the Repressed-Memory Controversy. Psychological Science, 2003. 14(2): p. 113-118.

5. Loftus, E.F., The reality of repressed memories. American Psychologist, 1993. 48: p. 518-537.

6. Pope HG Jr, Oliva PS, Hudson JI. Repressed memories. The scientific status of research on repressed memories. In: Faigman DL, Kaye DH, Saks MJ, Sanders J, eds. Science in the law: social and behavioral science issues. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 2002, pp 487-526.


This page last revised 04/08/10 02:58:39 PM.