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The Experience of "Forgetting" Childhood Abuse
A National Survey of Psychologists *

Shirley Feldman-Summers
Kenneth S. Pope

ABSTRACT: A national sample of psychologists were asked whether they had been abused as children and, if so, whether they had ever forgotten some or all of the abuse. Almost a quarter of the sample (23.9%) reported childhood abuse, and of those, approximately 40% reported a period of forgetting some or all of the abuse. The major findings were that (a) both sexual and nonsexual abuse were subject to periods of forgetting; (b) the most frequently reported factor related to recall was being in therapy; (c) approximately one half of those who reported forgetting also reported corroboration of the abuse; and (d) reported forgetting was not related to gender or age of the respondent but was related to severity of the abuse.

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The recollection of once forgotten events-especially childhood abuse-has been the subject of intense public interest in recent years and has even been the subject of legislation. For example, in 1991, the legislature of the State of Washington extended the statute of limitations for civil claims based on childhood sexual abuse, stating that, "the victim of childhood sexual abuse may repress the memory of the abuse or be unable to connect the abuse to any injury until after the statute of limitations has run." [Footnote #1: See 1991 Washington Laws, chap. 212.]

After a long period during which professional interest was dormant, numerous theoretical explorations into the subject have emerged during the past decade or so (e.g., Briere, 1992; Courtois, 1988; Herman, 1981; Hunter, 1990; Kluft, 1990). At least two empirical studies have been published that focus almost entirely on women who report childhood sexual abuse after a period during which they were unable to remember the abuse (Briere & Conte, 1993 ; Herman & Schatzow, 1987). In addition, Williams (1992) gathered longitudinal data from a sample of adult women who, as children, had previously disclosed sexual abuse. Her unique study revealed that a substantial proportion (38%) did not recall the abuse when asked about it 17 years later.

The present study was designed to extend our knowledge of the conditions under which childhood trauma may be forgotten. Drawing on a national sample of psychologists, we focus on the, following questions. [Footnote #2: Psychologists were chosen as participants to permit comparisons with a previous study of psychologists (Pope & Feldman-Summers, 1992).] First, to what extent (if at all) are episodes of nonsexual (as well as sexual) abuse during childhood subject to being forgotten? Second, if there are reports of forgotten abuse, what are the conditions or events most commonly reported as "triggering," or leading to the recall of, the forgotten abuse? Third, do people who report a period in which childhood abuse was forgotten also report corroboration, and if so, what types of corroboration are most frequently reported? Fourth, to what extent is this phenomenon related to gender or age of the respondent, or to the reported duration or severity of abuse?


A letter, a questionnaire, and a stamped, addressed envelope for returning the questionnaire were mailed to 250 men and 250 women, who were randomly selected from Divisions 12, 17, 29, 37, 39, 42, and 43 of the American Psychological Association (APA) as listed in the Membership Register .

Participants were asked to indicate their age group (i.e., under 45, 45 years or older). [Footnote #3: Age was presented as a dichotomous variable to minimize specifically identifying information about participants who were providing sensitive information about their own abuse history. Previous research on similar populations suggested that 46 was the approximate median (Pope, Keith-Spiegel, & Tabachnick, 1986, p. 151; see also Pope, 1994).] They were also asked to indicate their gender and whether they had experienced sexual or nonsexual physical abuse before their 18th birthday. [Footnote #4: It is conceivable that respondents may have different conceptions of sexual abuse. However, to assure comparability to other studies of childhood sexual abuse (e.g., Finkelhor, 1984) that rely on self-defined abuse, we made no attempt to limit the meaning of "sexual abuse." No respondent indicated lack of understanding of the term.]

Those who answered "no" to the latter question were thanked and asked to return the form. Those who answered "yes" were asked to provide additional information, including the form of abuse (sexual abuse by a relative, nonsexual physical abuse by a relative, sexual abuse by someone who was not a relative, and nonsexual abuse by someone who was not a relative), the age when the abuse started and when it stopped, and whether there had been a period of time when the participant could not remember some or all of the abuse.

Participants who reported a period when they could not remember the abuse were asked to provide additional information, including (a) the kind(s) of abuse they could not remember; (b) when the period of forgetting began and ended; (c) events, experiences, or circumstances, if any, which had helped them remember the abuse; and (d) the sources, if any, that supported, corroborated, or confirmed their memory of the abuse.

Accompanying the question concerning events or circumstances leading to recall was a checklist of specific response categories, such as "a book, article, lecture, movie, or TV show reminded me," "someone who knew about the abuse reminded me," or "in therapy, the memory began to return." In addition, the checklist included an open-ended category ("some other event"), with a space in which the respondent could elaborate. The checklist also included the statement, "nothing seemed to be related to my remembering the abuse."

Accompanying the corroboration item was a checklist of specific categories, such as "the abuser(s) acknowledged some or all of the remembered abuse," or "someone who knew about the abuse told me," or "medical records referred to or described the abuse." The checklist also included the statement, "no support, corroboration, or confirmation has been found." Words such as "repression" or "repressed memory" were not included in the questionnaire or in the accompanying cover letter.


Three hundred and thirty participants (145 men, 185 women) returned usable questionnaires, for an effective return rate of 66%. Forty percent of the participants were under 45 years old, and 56% were female.

In comparison, 42.8% of all APA members in the sampled divisions are under age 45. For the entire U.S. population (25 years and older), 50.9% are under 45. Likewise, 31.9% of the members of the sampled divisions are female, whereas 51.25% of the adult population (i.e., over 25) of the United States are female. [Footnote #5: Demographic data concerning APA membership are based on the 1989 APA directory as compiled by the APA Office of Demographic, Employment, and Educational Research, U.S. demographic data are published in the 1990 United States Census of Population and Housing: Summary Population and Housing Characteristics in the United States, (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1992).]

Reported Abuse

Childhood abuse (either sexual or nonsexual) was reported by 28.6% of the female participants and by 17.9% of the male participants, equaling 23.9% of the sample. This finding does not differ markedly from findings of an earlier national survey of psychologists, in which approximately one third reported childhood abuse (Pope & Feldman-Summers, 1992).

Sexual abuse was repored by 25.9% of the women and by 16.5% of the men, for a total of 21.8% of the sample. These findings are in about the midrange of findings from previous survey (i.e., reported childhood sexual abuse has ranged from 19% to 35% for women and from 8.6% to 30% for men; see Herman [1981, pp. 12-15]). Note, however, that in a survey by Russell (1986) , 38% of a random sample of adult women in San Francisco reported having been sexually abused as a child.

Frequency of types of abuse.

Table 1 presents the types of abuse for male and female participants who reported abuse. No one reported physical abuse by a nonrelative.

Table 1 - Frequencies of Types of Abuse by Gender
Type of abuse Male Female
Sexual abuse by a relative 10 26
Sexual abuse by a nonrelative 14 22
Physical abuse by a relative 7 18
Physical abuse by a nonrelative 0 0

Duration of abuse.

The age at which the reported abuse began ranged from 1 year to 16 years. The mean was 7.27 years (or approximately 7 years, 3 months), and the median was 7 years. The age at which the abuse ended ranged from 3 years to 20 years. The mean was 11.27 (or approximately 11 years, 3 months), and the median was 11 years. The average duration, therefore, was approximately 4 years. [Footnote #6: Because participants were asked to provide age of onset and ending of abuse generally, and because many participants reported more than one type of abuse, it was not possible to calculate duration of abuse for each category of abuse separately.]

Forgotten Abuse

Of the 79 participants who reported having experienced some form of childhood abuse, 32 (40.5%) reported that there was a period of time when they could not remember some or all of the abuse.

Periods of forgetting were reported for each of the three categories (i.e., sexual abuse by a relative, sexual abuse by a nonrelative, and physical abuse by a relative) in which abuse was reported. Of those who reported a period of forgetting (n = 32), 56.2% reported that it involved sexual abuse by a relative, 37.5% reported that it involved sexual abuse by a nonrelative, and 21.9% reported that it involved nonsexual physical abuse by a relative. [Footnote #7: The percentages total more than 100% because some participants reported having forgotten more than one type of abuse.]

Of all 36 participants reporting sexual abuse by a relative, 52.7% reported having forgotten some or all of the abuse. Of all 36 participants who reported sexual abuse by a nonrelative, 44.4% reported a period of forgetting. Of all 25 who reported nonsexual, physical abuse by a relative, 48% reported a period of forgetting. These differences were not statistically significant, chi-square (N = 97) = 0.5 .

Recollection of forgotten abuse.

Of those who reported a period of forgetting, 90% reported at least one event or circumstance that was believed to have triggered a recollection of the abuse. Table 2 presents the events, experiences, and circumstances that participants reported as helping them remember previously forgotten abuse.

Table 2 - Events, Experiences, or Circumstances That Triggered Recovery of the Memories of Abuse
Experience n %
A book, article, lecture, movie, or TV show reminded me. 8 25.0
Someone who knew about the abuse reminded me. 6 18.8
In therapy, the memory began to return. 18 56.2
In a self-help or peer group (i.e., not a therapy group), the memory began to return. 2 6.2
Some other event seemed to trigger or elicit the memory (please describe). 9 28.1
Nothing seemed to be related to my remembering the abuse. 3 9.4

Nine participants reported that "some other event seemed to trigger or elicit the memory." These events were described, in substance, as "working with abused children or with a family in which child abuse had occurred" (n = 4); "learning that a friend or relative had been abused" (n = 3); and a "personal experience with a lover" (n = 2).

Fifty-six percent of the respondents reported that therapy was associated with recollection, although only one fourth reported that the recollection was triggered by therapy alone.


Of the participants who reported forgotten abuse, 46.9% reported that they had found some corroboration of the abuse. Five participants (15.6%) reported more than one type of corroboration. The types of corroboration reported are shown in Table 3.

Table 3 - Sources That Support, Corroborate, or Confirm the Memory of the Abuse
Source n %
The abuser(s) acknowledged some or all of the remembered abuse. 5 15.6
Someone who knew about the abuse told me. 7 21.9
Journals or diaries kept by the abuser(s) described or referred to the abuse. 0 0.0
My own journals or diaries (that I had forgotten about) described the abuse. 2 6.2
Someone else reported abuse by the same perpetrator. 5 15.6
Medical records referred to or described the abuse. 0 0.0
No support, corroboration, or confirmation has been found. 16 50.0

Comparisons Between Participants Who Did and Did Not Report Forgetting

Of the 26 men who reported abuse, 43.3% reported a period of forgetting. Of the 53 women who reported abuse, 39.6% reported a period of forgetting. This difference is not statistically significant, chi-square (1, N = 79) = 0.05.

Of the younger group (i.e., under age 45) who reported abuse, 50% reported a period of forgetting. Of the older group, 35.3% reported a period of forgetting. This difference was not significant, chi-square (1, N = 79) = 1.62.

Participants who reported more than one type of abuse were more likely to report forgotten abuse than those who reported only one type of abuse, chi-square (1, N = 79) = 13.82, (p < .0001). Of those who reported forgotten abuse, 40.5% reported more than one kind of abuse. Of those whose abuse had not been forgotten, 6.3% reported more than one type of abuse.

There was a nonsignificant tendency for those who had forgotten the abuse-compared with those who had never forgotten it-to be younger when the abuse occurred and to report that the abuse occurred over a longer period of time.


Forgotten Abuse

The findings obtained here lend support to the growing body of empirical evidence that a substantial proportion of adults reporting childhood sexual abuse have experienced a period of forgetting with regard to all or some of the abuse.

The results also show that the phenomenon of forgetting childhood trauma can be expected to include nonsexual abuse. This finding is consistent with observations of adult amnesia in combat veterans (e.g., Bremner et al., 1992; Fisher, 1945). It is also consistent with the theoretical view that forgetting traumatic experiences may be an adaptive mechanism that permits psychosocial functioning without the intrusion of "anxiety and dysphoria associated with abuse-related recollections" (Briere & Conte, 1993, p. 27). There is no reason why such an adaptive mechanism would come into play only if the trauma is sexual in nature.

Recollection and Corroboration

Slightly over one half of the participants identified therapy-alone or with other events or conditions-as being related to recall. One fourth of the participants identified therapy alone as the sole factor associated with recall.

Several explanations are possible. First, recollection of childhood abuse may be facilitated by therapy because it is ordinarily (but not always) characterized by a safe, supportive, and confidential environment that encourages exploration.

Second, people who enter therapy may be, in general, more likely than other people to be introspective or to be willing to explore their personal histories.

Third, some therapists may inquire directly about a history of abuse (e.g., see Briere & Zaidi, 1989; Pruitt & Kappius, 1992), suggest the possibility of abuse, or encourage clients to explore childhood experiences and memories that may be related to the forgotten memories of the abuse. Advocates for those who claim to have been falsely accused of abusing children have asserted that some therapists go beyond inquiry and improperly coach a client to adopt false memories of abuse (e.g., see Loftus, 1993).

This latter explanation seems unlikely to account for many of the reports in this study because participants who reported that therapy was a factor in recalling the abuse were no less likely to report finding corroboration than were participants whose recollections were triggered by circumstances exclusive of therapy. In each group, the identical proportion (50%) reported at least one source of corroboration. Only 8 participants reported that therapy was the only factor associated with recall, and of those, 37.5% reported at least one source of corroboration.

Individual Differences

The present study found that men who reported childhood abuse were no less likely to report a period of forgetting the abuse than were women. Similarly, no age differences emerged; older participants were neither more nor less likely to report having forgotten some or all of the abuse than were younger participants.

Briere and Conte (1993) and Herman and Schatzow (1987) reported that the likelihood of forgetting was positively correlated with severity of the abuse. Here, participants who had experienced more than one type of childhood abuse (and arguably suffered greater trauma) were more likely to report a period of forgetting than were participants reporting only one type of abuse.


It may be argued that self-reports about topics that are as emotionally charged as childhood abuse must be independently confirmed because they are subject to distortion or even misrepresentation, especially as to such matters as corroboration. However, independent confirmation of the reported sources of corroboration would be virtually impossible in a study that promises anonymity to the participants. For the same reason, it is virtually impossible to ascertain whether there is corroboration even in those cases in which the participants reported finding none.

Also, in this study, we did not attempt to distinguish among different degrees of forgetting, nor did we gather detailed information about the circumstances of the abuse and its treatment (if any), both of which are potentially significant factors in determining whether, and to what extent, memories of the abuse are likely to be forgotten, at least temporarily.

In conclusion, this study lends further support to the observation that many people forget, for various periods of time, some or all of the trauma they have experienced. Whether this forgetting can be best explained by using a psychodynamic concept, such as repression, or a trauma-related process of dissociation, or whether other mechanisms are at work, cannot be answered here. Also, identifying the mechanism by which recall of the once-forgotten trauma occurs, as well as the conditions under which recall is most and least accurate, must await further study, preferably involving participants whose abuse or other trauma is well documented, thus eliminating any question about corroboration. In the meantime, empirical findings such as those presented here make it clear that reported forgetting and recall of past trauma are common phenomena that demand our attention as clinicians and social scientists.


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