Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Forgetting and Remembering

Hodder-Fleming, Leigh (2004) Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Forgetting and Remembering. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Past research on adult memory for childhood sexual abuse (CSA) has provided support for the phenomenon of forgetting and subsequent recovery of the memories, after a period of time. This phenomenon, however, remains a source of debate and is still not fully understood by researchers and psychological and legal practitioners. The research has provided conflicting evidence about the factors which are thought to lead to CSA forgetting for extensive periods of time, in addition to the processes involved in forgetting, triggering and later remembering of the abuse memories by adult survivors.

This study utilised a mixed method to investigate and explore the factors and processes associated with CSA forgetting, triggering and later remembering, in a sample of Australian adult CSA survivors (N = 77). Participants were asked to complete a test booklet, containing the Traumatic Events Questionnaire (TEQ), Symptom Checklist-90-Revised (SCL-90-R), Dissociative Experiences Scale II (DES II), Impact of Events Scale - Revised (IES-R), a scale designed to measure persistence of memory (Loftus), and a scale designed to measure emotional intensity at the time of the abuse and now (Williams). Participants were then asked to participate in a semi-structured interview. Seventy-one participants completed the interview process. Five separate analyses were conducted on the data.

Methodological issues, such as the use of retrospective data and corroboration of the abuse were outlined. All participants were asked to provide details about any corroboration they had received that the abuse had occurred.

The participants were streamed into one of three categories of forgetting (Always Remembered, n = 28; Partial Forgetting, n = 16; and Extensive Forgetting, n = 33). The first analysis (Stage One Analysis One) examined the factors thought to be associated with CSA forgetting, such as abuse parameters (TEQ), current psychological functioning (SCL-90-R), persistence of memory (Loftus), emotional intensity at the time of the abuse and now (Williams), the trauma response experienced at the time of the abuse (IES-R), and current dissociation (DES II), to determine the significant differences between the three groups.

A significant difference was found regarding the age at which the abuse commenced, with the Extensive Forgetting group reporting an earlier age at which the abuse commenced. Significant differences were found on the variable that related to being abused by an aunt or uncle, and on the current experience of hostility (SCL-90-R sub-scale), and on the current levels of anger (Williams Emotional Intensity) experienced by the participants. Significant differences between the groups were also found on two of the Persistence of Memory items, namely clarity of memory and participants' memory of the tastes related to the abuse. Finally, a significant difference was found on the participants' current dissociation levels, with the Extensive Forgetting group reporting higher levels of current dissociation than the other two groups. Statistical profiles for each of the three groups were constructed, based on the mean scores of the SCL-90-R, IES-R and DES II, for use in the Stage Two, Analysis Two, profile comparison.

Stage Two, Analysis One, provided a qualitative analysis relating to the experience of always remembering the abuse. The aim of this analysis was to provide a deeper understanding of why some participants (n = 23) did not forget about their abuse, when other participants reported being able to forget for a period of time. The results indicated that participants' responses formed clusters, such as older age at abuse onset, failed dissociative mechanisms, constant reminders, and others.

Stage Two, Analysis Two, presented and compared each participant's profile against the statistical profiles constructed in Stage One. The participant's profiles included a summary of their TEQ responses and interview responses, in addition to their Stage One test booklet scores. The comparison was made, firstly, on a specific basis against the mean scores obtained by each category of forgetting, and secondly, on a broader basis, against the score range for each measure of the statistical profile. This was done to determine if there was a "typical" member of each category of forgetting and to investigate the within-group differences. The specific profile comparison demonstrated that there was no "typical" member of any of the three groups, with participants varying widely in their scores and patterns of scores. However, when the profile comparison was broadened to include score ranges, 61% of participants, who always remembered the abuse, 44% of participants who partially forgot the abuse, and 47% of participants who extensively forgot their abuse, matched the profile of a "typical" member of their relevant category of forgetting.

Stage Two, Analysis Three, provided an in-depth qualitative exploration on the process involved in CSA forgetting, triggering and later remembering, for a selection of participants who reported partially forgetting the abuse (n = 6), and extensively forgetting the abuse (n = 10). Participants' interview responses were transcribed verbatim and analysed, using Interview Analysis. This analysis explored the differences between participants, from the two categories of forgetting, on their experiences of CSA forgetting, triggering and later remembering, in addition to exploring how these participants were able to forget about the abuse; what events triggered their abuse memories; and how the initial memories returned. Issues of memory recovery, while in therapy or under hypnosis, were also explored.

Stage Two, Analysis Four, presented the case study of a participant, who had been identified as an "outlier", due to her high score on the DES II, claims of being able to remember abuse incidents that occurred prior to the age of two years, diagnosis of DID, and the substantiated conviction and sentencing of her abuser, based on her recovered memories of the abuse and corroboration from her sister and mother. Her case was examined against some of the criticisms often made by false memory supporters.

This thesis found that some CSA survivors forgot about their abuse, either partially or extensively. The thesis also found support for some, but not all, of the factors that previous researchers have identified as being associated with CSA forgetting by adult survivors, specifically the individual's age at the time the abuse commenced and the individual's ability to dissociate from the abuse. The research then explored, in-depth, the issues of: CSA remembering, CSA survivor profiling, and the "how" of CSA forgetting, triggering and later remembering, by adult survivors.

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ID Code: 16678
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: childhood sexual abuse; forgetting; remembering; adult survivors; trauma; memory; post-traumatic stress disorder; dissociation
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Psychology & Counselling
Department: Faculty of Health
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Copyright Owner: Copyright Leigh Hodder-Fleming
Deposited On: 03 Dec 2008 04:08
Last Modified: 24 Oct 2011 00:54

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