What Are Repressed Memories?


“Recovered” memories is the descriptor given to recall of traumatic events, typically but not exclusively, of child sexual abuse, by adults who have exhibited little or no previous awareness of such experiences. While the term `repressed’ memory is sometimes used as a synonym, this is problematic because current research is shedding increased light on the differences between repression and dissociation (Howell & Itzkowitz, 2016). Reference to `repressed’ memory is also somewhat pejorative in evoking the so-called `false memory’ phenomenon of the 1990s (see below). Current clinical and neuroscientific research into the nature of memory has advanced considerably since the end of the last century; arguably the term `delayed onset memory recall’ is now preferable for this reason.

Also related to delayed onset or recovered memory is the term “traumatic amnesia”. The phenomenon of traumatic amnesia has been noted in a variety of populations over the last century, including war veterans, Holocaust survivors, and survivors of natural disasters. By the mid-1980s, a significant body of research indicated that many adult survivors of child sexual abuse also suffer from traumatic amnesia. While some people always remember having been abused, others do not remember anything about their experiences for many years, whilst others recall some but not all of the details of their abuse.

Current research upholds that memory is not unitary but comprised of networks or subsystems and that different types of memory (namely explicit, conscious and implicit, largely non-conscious) are stored in different parts of the brain. Traumatic memory is implicit, and manifests somatically and via behavioural re-enactments rather than words (as the book titles The Body Remembers and The Body Keeps the Score convey). Memory too overwhelming (traumatic) to be assimilated by the central nervous system arises as `fragmented splinters of inchoate and indigestible sensations, emotions, images, smells, tastes, thoughts’ (Levine, 2015:7). It thus functions quite differently from conscious, explicit, memory.


Traumatic amnesia was long regarded as a major obstacle to prosecution of child sexual abuse. Prior to the 1980s, survivors were often unable to pursue civil charges as the crime had occurred so long previously that they were not permitted to sue by law. In criminal cases, defendants often claimed that adult survivors were `unreliable witnesses’ because they had not reported the abuse until years or decades later.

Increased understanding of the nature, types and functions of memory is challenging this perception. By the late 1980s, lawyers argued that the limitation period (or the “statute of limitations”) for child sex offenses should be extended in cases where a complainant has suffered from traumatic amnesia. Growing insight into the neurological processes of memory types, and the dynamics of recovered memory, requires the law and justice systems to reflect these enhanced understandings. “Numerous cases in various parts of the world have demonstrated that recovered memories have been verified and corroborated by independent evidence or admissions of guilt by perpetrators or findings of guilt by courts”.  https://blogs.brown.edu/recoveredmemory/case-archive/legal-cases/

So, too, does acknowledgement of the protective purposes served by (conscious) `forgetting’ of trauma, which, in the case of childhood trauma, preserves the attachment bond to caregivers on which children’s survival depends (Freyd & Birrell, 2013).

In the contemporary period, the `false’ vs `recovered’ memory debate has largely been replaced by that between the contrasting paradigms of the `Fantasy’ vs `Trauma’ models of dissociation. The Trauma Model contends that Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) `is etiologically related to chronic neglect and physical and/or sexual abuse’, while the Fantasy Model (also known as the sociocognitive or iatrogenic model) claims that DID can be simulated and is the product of `high suggestibility, fantasy proneness, and sociocultural influences’ (Vissia, Giesen et al, 2016:111). In the first study to jointly test these two models empirically with DID participants, the DID group was found not to be more fantasy-prone or to generate more false memories – `Evidence consistently supported the Trauma Model of DID and challenges the core hypothesis of the Fantasy Model’ (Vissia, Giesen et al, ibid: 111; also Dalenberg et al, 2012).

For helpful references regarding this and related topics (including `The Accuracy of Recovered Memories’, `Delayed Recall of Trauma vs `False Memories’, and `Psychology Textbooks’ Coverage of Traumatic Amnesia and `Recovered’ Memory’, see Bethany Brand www.teachtrauma.com/controversial-topics-trauma/dissociation-trauma-based-fantasy-based/.

For further information, please see the Blue Knot Foundations Fact Sheet on ‘Memory’.

Please also see article (14-10-17) from the Weekend Australian ‘Reporting revives bad memories of contentious theories’ by Warwick Middleton, Martin Dorahy & Michael Salter.

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