Traumatic memory and its relationship to the frequency and duration of childhood sexual abuse

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Rothman, Daniel B.
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A growing body of literature advises that there may be a traumatic memory system that operates uniquely from ordinary memory. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is useful as a framework to explain two seemingly contradictory processes involved in traumatic memory, 'amnesia' and ' hypermnesia', which can cooperate in the forgetting and subsequent recovery of traumatic memories. The present study explored the relationship between (1) self-reported confidence in the accuracy of memories of an abusive experience, (2) delayed recall of the abuse, and (3) some of the phenomenal characteristics of traumatic memories of the abuse. Participants were a sample of introductory psychology students who met the sexual abuse criteria of a modified version of Finkelhor's (1979) Sexual Victimization Survey and who completed the Revised Impact of Event Scale (IES-R; Horowitz, Wilner, & Alvarez, 1979). It was found that sexually abused individuals overall were less confident, more likely to have experienced delayed recall, and showed more traumatic symptoms of intrusion and avoidance than nonabused individuals. Participants who had been subjected to repeated and chronic abuse were more confident, but less likely to have experienced delayed recall and more expressive of an intrusive symptomatology than those whose abuse was of a comparatively lower frequency and duration. However, individuals abused by family members exhibited the greatest tendencies toward diminished confidence in their memories, delayed recall, and psychological defenses. Whether or not survivors were believed by their chosen confidants was associated with the operation of psychological defenses as well.