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How reliable are the memories of sexual assault victims?

Jim Hopper writes:

Incomplete memories of sexual assault, including those with huge gaps, are understandable–if we learn the basics of how memory works and we genuinely listen to survivors.

Such memories should be expected. They are similar to the memories of soldiers and police officers for things they’ve experienced in the line of fire. And a great deal of scientific research on memory explains why.

I’m an expert on psychological trauma, including sexual assault and traumatic memories. I’ve spent more than 25 years studying this. I’ve trained military and civilian police officers, prosecutors and other professionals, including commanders at Fort Leavenworth and the Pentagon. I teach this to psychiatrists in training at Harvard Medical School.

As an expert witness, I review videos and transcripts of investigative interviews. It’s like using a microscope to examine how people recall – and don’t recall – parts of their assault experiences. I’ve seen poorly trained police officers not only fail to collect vital details, but actually worsen memory gaps and create inconsistences.

Ignorance of how memory works is a major reason why sexual assault is the easiest violent crime to get away with, across our country and around the world.

Yet when I teach military service members and police officers, it’s mostly about making light bulbs go on in their heads and helping them connect the dots from their own traumatic memories to those of sexual assault survivors.

Soldiers and police know that traumatic memories often have huge gaps. They know it can be difficult or impossible to recall the order in which some things happened. They know they’ll never forget some things from that alley in Ramadi where their best friend died—even though they can’t remember many details of the battle, or which month of their third Iraq rotation it was.

That’s why soldiers and police often approach me after trainings to say, “You get it,” or “now I understand how it’s no different for people who’ve been sexually assaulted.” [Continue reading…]

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