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Section 25
Retrieving Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse
& Therapeutic Boundaries

Question 25 | Test | Table of Contents

The review of the sexual abuse experience may be hindered for many survivors as some memories may remain repressed. These survivors may be certain, or may strongly suspect, that the abuse occurred but have little or no recall of the actual events. Other survivors report vague memories that do not seem real. Marked memory deficits typically occur in survivors whose abuse was characterized by early onset and violent or sadistic episodes (Herman and Schatzow, 1987).

Although retrieval of repressed memories can result in intense affective responses and trauma symptomatology, the process is considered necessary for recovery (Herman and Schatzow, 1987). Such retrieval allows survivors to understand experiences (e.g. reactions to 'trigger' events, disturbing dreams) that previously made little sense to them and to reintegrate the abuse into their life history in a meaningful way. Memory retrieval may also often result in eventual relief from post-traumatic stress symptomatology (Herman and Schatzow, 1987).

Counseling interventions
Techniques to precipitate memory retrieval or to confirm memories that do not seem real can be used in counseling. As with other processes that precipitate intense emotional responses, memory retrieval techniques should be paced, should be the survivor's choice, and should be accompanied by the support and reassurance of the counselor. When using any of these techniques, counselors may discuss with survivors what they hope to accomplish, what they imagine the experience will be like for them, how they might feel if the technique is not successful, and how they might handle their possible affective response to retrieval if it occurs. Counseling interventions that can be useful in memory retrieval include the following.

Clients are advised to bring to counseling sessions old family photographs, scrapbooks, diaries, and other memorabilia from the period that they believe the abuse occurred. The counselor and the client then focus on any memories that are evoked by viewing and discussing these materials.

In some instances, counselors may recommend that survivors return to the scene of the abuse to precipitate memory retrieval. Going back to one's home town and visiting the family home of one's childhood can be a powerful experience. Counselors discuss with the survivor any memories that were provoked by this visit. In some cases, counselors actually accompany survivors on these visits to provide support.

Counselors may facilitate the validation or retrieval of memories by suggesting that survivors contact family or friends who might have some knowledge of family functioning at the time of the abuse. Asking siblings about their childhood experiences, for example, and finding that they were also abused can result in retrieval of memories or confirmation of survivors' suspicions that they were abused. Sometimes, simply reminiscing with significant others from the past, without discussing the abuse per se, can provoke repressed memories.

In some instances, counselors may refer survivors to a specially trained hypnotist to uncover deeply repressed traumatic memories of the abuse (Faria and Belohlavek, 1984; Urbancic, 1987). The use of hypnosis with survivors is controversial as they may perceive hypnosis as a loss of control, a salient concern of most survivors. However, in some cases, hypnosis, conducted by a practitioner who is trained in working with abuse survivors and who uses naturalistic methods that allow survivors to control their own trance, can be successful (Malmo, 1990).

Clients may be referred to a survivors' group to aid in memory retrieval. The stimulation of hearing the abuse experiences of other survivors in a group situation is extremely effective in precipitating memory retrieval for survivors with partial repression of abuse experiences as well as for those who have complete amnesia (Herman and Schatzow, 1987). (The use of survivor groups as an adjunct to counseling will be discussed in detail later.)
- Draucker, Claire, Counselling Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Sage Publications: London, 1992

Personal Reflection Exercise #11
The preceding section contained information about retrieving repressed memories. Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

The use of what technique with sexual abuse survivors is controversial as the client may perceive these issues as a loss of control and a salient concern of most survivors? To select and enter your answer go to Test

Section 26
Table of Contents