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Is it possible to repress sexual abuse?

A jogger disappears into the fog along the Potomac River.
A jogger disappears into the fog along the Potomac River.
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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Are our brains hardwired to repress traumatic experiences like sexual abuse? There is a debate raging within the mental health field about the psychology around memory and sexual trauma.

On one side, some researchers believe that it is possible to have experienced sexual abuse and be rendered completely incapable of remembering the experience(s) until something later in life (when it’s psychologically safe) triggers the memory.

On the other side, researchers say there is little evidence to support the phenomenon of complete repression, noting that it’s difficult given the lack of credible evidence and corroboration often years after the trauma occurred to be assured with any certainty that the memories are real. They note that a child may be confused by the abuse, suppress or forget the memories until they reach adulthood and then confront the abuse through the eyes of an adult. The new understanding of these memories can trigger PTSD symptoms. However, the distinction is that the individuals can access the memories.

Is the brain capable of completely disassociating from painful memories to protect the delicate psyche of an abuse victim or is the brain simply not that complex an instrument?


Richard J. McNally, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Director of Clinical Training at Harvard University

Jim Hopper Ph.D., instructor in Psychology, Harvard Medical School