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MEMORY AND SEXUAL ABUSE

Last week Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate judiciary committee about allegations of sexual abuse. This sparked discussions about sexual abuse in news and social media across the United States. (Several victims even called into C-SPAN to share their stories after watching Dr. Ford’s testimony.)

The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Dr. Ford about holes in her memory of the alleged assault. Why didn’t she remember what day it happened, exactly who was there, or even how she got home afterwards?

The way Dr. Ford presented her memories is consistent with my experience working with men and women who have been sexually abused. Some details of the abuse–the smell of the carpet, a dog that won’t stop barking, a song playing in the background–are clear, while other seemingly important details are more fuzzy.

Dr. Tracey Shors, a neuroscientist and professor at Rutgers University, wrote:

“It is interesting to me that Ford says she remembers the context and the layout of the bedroom, the bathroom where she hid and the stairwell to the room. We just published a study showing that women with sexual violence history experience vivid memories of the spatial and temporal context of their most stressful life event.

And what the other people who were supposedly there? Kavanaugh denied attending the party, as has one of Dr. Ford’s friends. Doesn’t that mean Dr. Ford made it up?

Not necessarily. Consider this bit of information from Dr. Shors:

[T]he people at the party who were not assaulted or stressed by the event are not as likely to remember it. For her, it was a memorable event; for them, it may have just been another time hanging out with few friends hanging at a house. This applies to the people downstairs but perhaps even for the two boys, especially if they were intoxicated.

But why can’t Dr. Ford remember the date of the event? This may seem like a huge clue to the veracity of her claims, but memories surrounding sexual abuse are not very tidy.

Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University and the author of the book Remembering Trauma, gives an example of being a clerk at a convenience store and robbed at gunpoint.

Which parts of that memory get encoded into the brain?

Not all the details, even important ones. Here’s what McNally wrote in an article for NPR:

The person may often encode the features of the weapon, the gun pointed at him, but not recall whether or not the person was wearing glasses…When somebody has an experience such as this, they’re not necessarily saying, ‘I better get down the address.’ They’re preoccupied with trying to escape this terrifying experience.

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