What about Recovered Memories?

Jennifer J. Freyd, PhD

Professor Emerit of Psychology, University of Oregon

Founder and President, Center for Institutional Courage


Short Definition

Sivers, Schooler, and Freyd (2002, p 169) define recovered memory as: The recollection of a memory that is perceived to have been unavailable for some period of time.

Recommended Review Articles about Recovered Memories

For a current summary of the evidence regarding recovered memories and known mechanisms and motivations for recovered memories, an excellent starting source is:

Although the Belli (2012) book is not completely published on-line you can search parts of it and you may be able to get the full book through your library. You may also want to refer to our chapter within the book (full text linked below):

For a shorter media article about research on false and recovered memories written by a scholar:

New 2020 Section (Update 2022): History and Current Status of the So-Called "False/Recovered Memory Controversy"

As I explain in the section below on conceptual tangles, from a scientific perspective the dichotomy between false and recovered memories is itself false. That is, these are conceptually two separate issues that boil down to whether memories can be inaccurate and whether memories can be inaccessible and later accessible to conscious recall. (The answer to both questions is of course yes.). Not only are these conceptually distinct, importantly the empirical evidence does not support a strong empirical relationship between these two ways memory can fail us. This is discussed in the section below on common conceptual confusions.

While questions of recovered memories and false memories are scientifically distinct, they are often quite entangled politically and rhetorically. For instance, the "False Memory Syndrome Foundation" was focused on recovered memories. One of many articles that discuss the way politics enter the scientific discourse here, and particularly the gendered nature of the discourse is:

I had a unique position relative to this debate and the False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Readers interested in learning more about my experiences can read the Afterword of Betrayal Trauma (Freyd, 1996). Even more about my experiences can be found in several chapters of Blind to Betrayal (Freyd & Birrell, 2013).

A new development as of 31 December 2019 is that the False Memory Syndrome Foundation has been dissolved. A preliminary report about this can be found here: https://themighty.com/2019/12/false-memory-syndrome-foundation-folds/

I also comment on the significance of the dissolution in a twitter thread that has been unrolled here.

In January 2020 two articles relevant to the history and politics of this issue were published:

In 2022 two volumes were published that offer retrospective analyses of the false memory movement.

Some important historical documents are also available on the APSAC website -- these are the articles published in 1997 Volume of Child Maltreatment, with commentary regarding a famous case and the more recent the 2014 Journal of Interpersonal Violence special issue with commentaries about the related case of Taus v. Loftus. Go to http://www.apsac.org/apsac-publications and scroll down to right below "APSAC position papers". I have also archived the links here.

Recommended Web Sites about Recovered Memories Research

There are a lot of web sites on this topic. Quality varies. Here are three web pages I have found particularly useful regarding research about recovered memories. (Each of these sites has links to more sites. Also see more links at the end of this page.)

Recovered Memory: Context and Controversy

If you forget where you left your keys, and then later remember the location, you have just recovered a memory. This experience is fairly common and not very controversial (but even so, psychologists still debate how and why it happens). However, usually in everyday language people use the term "recovered memory" to refer to memory for something traumatic, such as remembering being abused as a child and feeling you had not remembered this for a long time. The issues around these sorts of recovered memories are complex and controversial. This is true both in the sense that the psychology is complex (how and why does it happen) and it is true in the emotional, political, legal, and societal sense when people question whether the memories are accurate.

The charged controversy about recovered memories of abuse can sometimes make it is difficult to think clearly and difficult to get accurate information. Of course, the most charged issue of all is whether a recovered memory of abuse is true or accurate. If you think about the situation in which you temporarily cannot remember where you left your keys, you probably can remember times when you later remembered the location (and later remembered putting those keys in a special place) and you were accurate (a true recovered memory), and other times when you thought you remembered the location but you were wrong because the keys were actually somewhere else (a mistaken recovered memory). There were probably other times you thought you remembered your key location all along, but when you checked the place you were sure you left your keys they were not there (a mistaken continuous memory). Finally, and fortunately, sometimes you thought you remembered the location of your keys all along, and you checked the location and they were there just as you remembered (a true continuous memory). The possibilities of true or mistaken, and recovered and continuous memory, don't seem so remarkable when it comes to memory for keys. But when it comes to memory for abuse, the issues can get confusing. One big difference between memory for key location and abuse is that we can almost always check our memory against reality when it comes to key location, but evidence for prior abuse is much harder to agree about. Another important difference is that usually a lost and found memory for key location does not inspire disagreement with other people, whereas a lost and found abuse memory has a high probability of inspiring serious conflict.

Is this web page balanced? Sometimes when people write about recovered memories they claim that their own viewpoint is balanced. Often each author or researcher thinks his or her position is balanced and that other (different) viewpoints are extreme. (It would be fairly strange if you heard someone say "my own position is an extreme and unbalanced one.") For this reason I like to say "Balance is in the eye of the beholder." In this case you are the beholder.

My goal with this web page is to offer a few tools for thinking about recovered memories for abuse and to give you some pointers for getting more information. My own research is not so much on recovered memories per se, but rather it is focused on betrayal trauma theory, which does attempt to explain aspects of recovered memories along with other kinds of not-knowing and unawareness. The recovered memory and false memory controversy has often seemed to me like an annoying distraction from my main research focus. Yet I have felt at times that I must address the issues in order to dispel confusion that might otherwise interfere with the ability of my readers or audience members to attend to my main focus. For more on that main focus, betrayal trauma theory, I hope you will visit my web page "What is betrayal trauma? What is betrayal trauma theory?" at http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/defineBT.html.

Some papers my colleagues and I have written that focus on the issues of recovered memories and the ethics in the science surrounding the topic are listed here (abstracts and ordering information can be found at: http://pages.uoregon.edu/dynamic/jjf/traumapapers.html.) My books also have sections on this issue.


Two Common conceptual tangles about recovered memories

1. Confusing phenomena, mechanisms, and motivation

To define more precisely what we know and do not know, we must untangle the several issues involved and ask scientifically tractable questions, while remaining compassionate and aware of the high stakes involved in these issues. First, we must distinguish phenomena (what), motivations (why), and mechanisms (how). The phenomena are apparent forgetting and later remembering a significant event (or series of event). Why they occur is a question of motivation, and how they occur a question of mechanisms. A related problem is the language used. When a phrase like "repressed memories" is used, do people mean the phenomena, motivations, or purported mechanisms? It is often not clear, and sometimes the phenomena of recovered memories are discredited because one particular mechanism of "repression" is not supported by a particular research study. These issues are addressed in some detail in:

Freyd, J. J. (1996). Betrayal trauma: The logic of forgetting childhood abuse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2. Conflating memory accuracy with memory persistence

Memory accuracy is the degree to which a memory is historically true. Memory persistence is the degree to which a memory has remained available over time. These are conceptually independent or distinct issues, but they have often been very mixed up in the controversy about recovered memories. The image below is intended to illustrate in a schematic way the conceptual distinction between these two dimensions of memory.

The two dimensions are conceptually distinct and not necessarily correlated - however they have often been collapsed into a single dimension. An empirical question regards the relationship between memory accuracy and memory persistence. Are unavailable memories when recalled more likely to be true or mistaken than are continuously available memories? Authors have made both claims (that recovered memories are more likely to be true or that recovered memories are more likely to be mistaken). However, the research does not clearly support either claim. For example, Dalenburg (1996) found that memories of sexual abuse were found to be as likely to be accurate whether recovered or continuously remembered. Williams (1995) investigated the memories of 129 adults whose abuse during childhood had been documented by medical professionals. She found that ``in general, the women with recovered memories had no more inconsistencies in their accounts than did the women who had always remembered" (Williams, 1995, p. 660). This issue is addressed in more detail in:

Dalenberg, C. J. (1996). Accuracy, timing and circumstances of disclosure in therapy of recovered and continuous memories of abuse. Journal of Psychiatry & Law, 24, 229-75.

Freyd, J. J. (1998) Science in the Memory Debate. Ethics & Behavior, 8, 101-113.

Williams, L. M. (1995). Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 8, 649-673.

Memory accuracy and memory persistence are themselves each complicated and challenging dimensions of memory, with long histories of research in psychology. Memories vary in degrees of accuracy and persistence; rarely are there absolutes (such as a perfectly true, completely mistaken, perfectly available, or completely unavailable memory). Memory accuracy is further complicated by the fact that historical truth -- what really happened -- usually has elements of interpretation (people often disagree about the interpretation of current events, never mind historical events), and that a memory might be extraordinarily accurate in one regard and quite inacurate in another regard. Memory persistence is complicated by the possibility that people's own introspections about memory availability may be subject to error (e.g.: one may forget that something that had in fact been previously remembered; or one may overestimate the availability of memory in hindsight). Memory persistence is also complicated by the fact that memory itself is a function of many separate sub-systems so that, for instance, we can fail to have conscious recall of an event but show through our behavior that we have learned from that particular situation. Please see Sivers, Schooler, and Freyd (2002) and Freyd (1996) for more on the cognitive psychology of memory. Additional material is presented in Freyd, DePrince, and Gleaves(2007) and DePrince et al (2012).


Recovered memory in Russia

Is recovered memory observed in countries without the media exposure and awareness of ideas such as dissociation and recovered memory? Palesh and Dalenberg (2006; Dalenberg & Palesh, 2004) investigated recovered memory and dissociation in a sample of Russian college students. Publically available information on child abuse, dissociation, or dissociative amnesia is not readily available in Russia. The exposure of Russian students to published information about child abuse, dissociation, and recovered memory is very limited compared to exposure for North American students. Nonetheless Palesh and Dalenberg report rates of dissociation and memory disturbance for traumatized students in the Russian sample that are higher than in most US college student samples. These findings "support the argument that dissociation is not a culture-specific phenomenon, created by zealous American/British therapists or an abuse-obsessed media, but instead may be a universal occurrence." (Palesh, 2002, p 2.)

Dalenberg, C. J., & Palesh, O. G. (2004). Relationship between child abuse history, trauma, and dissociation in Russian college students. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 461-474.

Palesh, O. G. and C. J. Dalenberg (2006). Recovered memory and amnesia in Russian college students. College students: mental health and coping strategies. Pages 153-165. In M. V. Landow (Ed), College students: mental health and coping strategies. Nova Science Publishers.

Palesh, O.G. (2002) The study of dissociation in Russia: Considerations for the international researcher. ISSD News. 20(6), 2-3.

A word of caution: individual cases deserve individual consideration

Sometimes it is tempting to apply research findings to individual situations. There are indeed ways we can use research findings to better understand our experiences and confusing situations. However, it is important to realize that research findings usually are at best revealing general trends and probabilities and may not apply well to a given situation. For instance, research on lung cancer has revealed that smoking increases the risk. This may be an important fact to consider when deciding whether to smoke, or in investigating a case of lung cancer. However we wouldn't want to claim that someone who smokes necessarily will get lung cancer, nor even that someone who smokes and has lung cancer necessarily would not have had lung cancer without the smoking. Although the relationship between smoking and lung cancer is strong it is not absolute. Similarly, in the case of recovered memories we may be able to gain a lot of insight and understanding from research, but no matter how much we learn from research, "individual cases of contested memories will continue to deserve open-minded individual scrutiny" (Freyd, 1994, p 324).

Freyd, J.J. (1994). Betrayal-trauma: Traumatic amnesia as an adaptive response to childhood abuse. Ethics & Behavior, 4, 307-329.


Some FAQs

Why do people forget and remember? How do people forget and remember?

How and why would anyone forget something so seemingly significant as childhood molestation and then remember it decades later? The encyclopedia articles cited at the beginning of this article review various motivations for and mechanisms for recovered memories of abuse. The author's attempt to answer these questions inspired Betrayal Trauma theory. For more on this please see my web page: "What is a Betrayal Trauma? What is Betrayal Trauma Theory."

Are demands for silence a factor in not remembering?

Explicit and implicit demands for silence (see Veldhuis & Freyd, 1999, cited at What is DARVO?) may lead to a complete failure to even discuss an experience. Experiences that have never been shared with anyone else may have a different internal structure than shared experiences (see What is Shareability?).

What about gender and recovered memory?

Gender has been a significant issue in the recovered memory debate all along. Two sources of information about gender and recovered memory that I recommend are:

Rivera, M. (Ed.) (1999), Fragment by Fragment: Feminist Perspectives on Memory and Child Sexual Abuse. Charlottetown, PEI Canada: Gynergy Books.

Stoler, L., Quina, K., DePrince, A.P &. Freyd, J. J. (2001) Recovered memories. In J. Worrell (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Women and Gender, Volume Two. (pp 905-917) San Diego, California and London: Academic Press.

It appears that men experience more non-betrayal traumas than do women, while women experience more betrayal traumas than do men. (Goldberg & Freyd, 2006; Klest, Freyd, & Foynes, 2013). Women may seem to have more recovered memories of abuse because they may have more experiences with the sorts of events that lead to forgetting. (DePrince & Freyd, 2002)

DePrince, A.P. & Freyd, J.J. (2002). The intersection of gender and betrayal in trauma. In R. Kimerling, P.C. Oumette, & J. Wolfe (Eds.) Gender and PTSD. (pp 98-113). New York: Guilford Press.

Goldberg, LR. & Freyd, J.J. (2006). Self-reports of potentially traumatic experiences in an adult community sample: Gender differences and test-retest stabilities of the items in a Brief Betrayal-Trauma Survey. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 7(3), 39-63.

Klest, B., Freyd, J.J., & Foynes, M.M. (2013). Trauma exposure and posttraumatic symptoms in Hawaii: Gender, ethnicity, and social context.  Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5, 409-416.

How do I cite this page?

Freyd, J.J. ([Current year]). What about Recovered Memories? Retrieved [today's date] from https://dynamic.uoregon.edu/jjf/whatabout.html

What are some local pages related to this one?

What do I do if I need support for myself or a loved one?

I am not a therapist myself and I am not able to answer most of the email I get, so writing to me is not likely to help. I am sorry about that. While I can make no promises about the quality of information or care anyone else provides, you might find it helpful to visit David Baldwin's Trauma Information Pages, and select the "Supportive Information" section there. The web sites listed earlier on this page are also full of links that may help you find the support you are looking for. There are also resources and links provided at the Sidran Institute and The Leadership Council on Child Abuse & Interpersonal Violence.