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It is natural for sex abuse victims to have hazy recall of details

One of the major stories currently making news has to do with contested sexual assault allegations. Recently, Rolling Stone Magazine did a feature story about a young woman identified as “Jackie,” who is or was a student at the University of Virginia. She alleged in an interview that she had been gang raped by a group of men in a fraternity house.

Since the story was published, there have been numerous rebuttals from others involved or associated with the alleged incident. Sadly, Rolling Stone has failed to stand by the article and many are now claiming that the whole incident may have been a hoax or some sort of cry for attention.

The rebuttals focus on certain details provided by Jackie about the incident. Her memory of the experience may not be entirely accurate, but that should not discredit her or other victims. In fact, hazy recall is commonplace when a sexual abuse victim seeks to cope with the trauma of what they experienced.

Humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to remember trauma. Anything that is a serious threat to our survival needs to be remembered so that it can be avoided in the future. This is why traumatic memories can viscerally resurface years or even decades later without warning and without volitional control.

At the same time, however, our brains are also hardwired to cope with extreme stress. During a traumatic event, the brain may release a flood of certain hormones to help the victim cope with both physical and emotional pain.

One psychologist explains: “The brain is trying to lay down a memory of the trauma. The problem is that those hormones... interfere with the brain's capacity to lay down a picture perfect representation of the trauma.”

The result is that a sexual abuse victim may remember details about the most salient aspects of the threat they are facing while failing to recall other details such as what time or day it was or where the experience occurred.

Sadly, fragmented memories are often used to discredit sexual abuse victims. Police, defendants, and even family members may doubt a victim’s allegations because they either can’t remember certain details or recall them incorrectly.

Most of us may never know if Jackie’s allegations are true or false. But discrepancies in any alleged victim’s story should not be construed as evidence of lying or fabrication. Rather, we need to understand that trauma can hijack the very parts of a victim’s memories needed for skeptics to believe that she is a credible witness.

Source: The Huffington Post, “What Sexual Assault Does To The Brain,” Carolyn Gregoire, Dec. 11, 2014

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