What Do Sexual Assault Survivors Remember?

“Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.”

These words by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, describing her strongest memory from the night she was assaulted have become a vital point in the much-needed discussion on the important role memory and psychology play in sexual assault. During Dr. Ford’s testimony, questions of what she remembered quickly became a topic of contention. When asked how she found her way home that night, or what day it was, she could not remember. Instead, she remembered the sound of laughter, the fear of being suffocated, the visceral trauma she experienced in the moment.

Dr. Ford’s experience is far from unique. The psychology of sexual assault is complex, and survivors rarely react to an assault in the way that many expect. Trauma has a shocking effect on the brain, which makes recalling certain details difficult, while putting others in sharp focus. Unfortunately, the hazy details are often the ones inquired about during an investigation. When we accuse survivors of lying simply because of a misunderstanding of the psychology of trauma and assault, we are only making the problem worse.

 

Why Survivors Don’t Remember Everything

The very details that inspire many to doubt survivors of sexual assault are actually hallmarks of it, according to experts interviewed by The New York Times. A fear of coming forward with allegations and difficulty recalling the events are exceedingly common experiences shared by survivors. Accusations that a survivor’s story doesn’t “add up” are used to discredit them, when the aftermath of trauma is rarely ever clear-cut or formulaic.

James Hopper, a psychologist and teaching associate at Harvard Medical School consulted by the Times summarized the reaction like this:

Not only does memory fade with time, but when the brain’s defense circuitry is activated, the prefrontal cortex, which normally directs attention, can be rapidly impaired, affecting what information is recorded in memory . . . So the victim may remember a wallpaper pattern or a heightened sensation, but not the order of events.

Dr. Ford’s memory of her attackers’ laughter is an example of this sort of reaction. In the moment, survivors’ brains catalogue many small details instead of seeing the big picture. This same reaction happens across many different types of trauma, not just sexual assault. Soldiers who witnessed the deaths of their comrades in battle share this response. They remember fragments and details in hyper-focus, but not the peripheral information, Hopper explained in a separate statement.

 

Trusting Survivors’ Memory

The Washington Post cited a study in which rape survivors and survivors of other traumatic experiences were asked to describe the events in as much detail as possible. The results showed that traumatic experiences were widely poorly remembered, sexual and otherwise. The Post cited another study that assessed the memory of survivors of vehicle accidents; those with acute stress symptoms were more disorganized in their recollection of the same type of events. And the hippocampus, the center of the brain responsible for memory, is actually smaller in people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Trauma physically, measurably diminishes the brain’s capacity for memory.

The who, what, when, where, and why approach to sexual assault investigations gives no consideration to the reality of memory after trauma. The details that cause many to discredit survivors just so happen to be the tell-tale signs of the validity of their stories. Science tells us that trauma distorts memory, yet when a survivor can only give small details in their account of the attack, we take it as a sign of falsehood.

The odds are stacked against survivors in our justice system today. Join us in our fight to change the conversation and culture in America, to create an environment where survivors are believed, and to hold perpetrators of sexual assault accountable. We are a non-profit law firm with a mission is to help survivors heal by holding perpetrators accountable. We believe that money should not be a barrier to justice. You can help us develop resources and support survivors with a small donation here.