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Friday, December 26, 2014

Sexual Assault, Memory, and Trauma

This article for Think Progress, by Sacha Feinman, describes how he was sexually assaulted at the age of twelve, but didn't remember a thing about it until he was fifteen. He uses it as a window onto the chaos emanating from the Rolling Stone story about rape at the University of Virginia. Whatever the facts of that case, however—and I, anyway, think it very unlikely that "Jackie" completely invented her story—it would definitely be worth people's understanding how such traumatic events are processed and why interrogating the "accuracy" of people's memories of them is not just cruel and re-traumatizing but counter-productive, if your interest is really in the truth.
When we call Jackie or any other potential survivor a "liar", we accuse them of intentional obfuscation. And yet, the reality of our biological and neurological makeup is such that, in spite of our best efforts, victims of sexual abuse may sometimes be incapable of telling their stories accurately, if at all. In fact, contradictory details or head-scratching gaps in the narrative might be demonstrative that the violation was all too real.
Even under the best of circumstances, memory simply isn't the sort of photographic storehouse people seem to think it is. We know this not just from all the scientific research that has been done on memory but also from studies that have been done on eyewitness testimony. And when you add trauma into the mix, memories get repressed and reshaped in all kinds of ways. The question isn't then whether the memory is "accurate". Of course it's not "accurate". The question is what traumatic event actually caused it: what event it is we are seeing through a glass darkly. Dismissing the memory because it isn't "accurate" is simply refusing even to try to hear the message it is sending us.

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