International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Recovered Memory Questions Continue: An Update

Posted 1 January 1996 in StressPoints by Laura Brown, PhD

Three years into the highly public controversy over delayed recall of childhood sexual abuse, questions not only remain, but continue to grow over the mechanism of memory for traumatic events. This note contains updates on some issues in the recovered memory debate.

The American Psychological Association's Working Group on Recovered Memories of Childhood Abuse finished its deliberations in December, 1994. However, a final report has been delayed while differences between the memory researchers and trauma specialists on the group continue to be worked on.

Currently, a complete and final version of the group's report is due to be presented to the APA Board of Directors in early February, 1996. The report in its current form contains two reviews of literature, one each on memory and trauma, followed by responses to each review by the other group, and rebuttals to the responses. A joint concluding section will finish the report.

The process of the group highlighted the differences in epistemologies and knowledge bases between some memory researchers and professionals working in the field of trauma, with important differences in opinion about the effects of trauma on memory, the traumatic nature of childhood sexual abuse, and the likelihood that pseudomemories of childhood abuse could be easily created by therapist suggestions. The report is currently due to be published as a book by APA in late 1996.

The question of a scientific basis for delayed recall of trauma also continues to be addressed in the courts. While many courts in many states and Canada have allowed testimony on the topic of "repressed memory," in a recent case in the state of New Hampshire, a trial judge ruled that there was no scientific basis for the concept of repressed memory and refused to allow testimony on this topic.This finding, which is contradicted by a large body of data, much of it created by members of this Society, is currently being appealed.

ISTSS is considering writing and submitting an amicus curiae brief outlining the Society's understanding of the strong scientific basis for the concept of delayed recall of trauma.
Finally, a number of excellent reviews of the literature on the topic of trauma and memory have been published in response to this controversy, including most recently the exciting special issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Presentations at the Society's annual meeting in Boston also highlighted some of the newest and most provocative research on the neurobiology of trauma, underscoring the contention that the final chapter has not yet been written on the topic of delayed recall.