New York State vs. Harvey Weinstein

Weinstein’s Alleged Victims’ Memories Are Consistent with Those of Sexual Trauma Survivors

Culture, Power, Safety, Silencebreakers, TIME'S UP Legal Defense Fund, Weinstein

It is expected that the defense will elicit testimony from Deborah Davis, a University of Nevada at Reno psychologist, to suggest that the testifying victims have unreliable or “false” memories of the alleged abuse. But most scientific research shows traumatic events of all kinds are often cemented in a person’s memory. And current research shows that memories of sexual assault are even more vivid than memories of other sorts of traumas, such as car accidents.

Traumatic memories are vivid for victims while banal details are forgotten

The moment of impact in a head-on collision. The joke your friend was telling before the surprise IED blast. The difficult birth of your youngest child. The big boss appearing naked before you in an untied bathrobe, asking for a massage.

Traumatic events are processed differently than peripheral information about traumatic events. With extreme emotional arousal at the time of a traumatic event, people experiencing trauma often become narrowly focused on what is happening and, therefore, more likely to remember it. In contrast, they will have less clear and complete memories about other aspects of the traumatic event, such as the day of the week or the clothes they were wearing.

Likewise, traumatic memories often come to mind as involuntary and intrusive thoughts or ruminations replayed and rehearsed over an entire lifetime. Extraneous details and information, on the other hand, do not re-appear as intrusive thoughts or ruminations, so they become easily forgotten, especially as time passes.

“False memories” are not likely at play in acquaintance sexual assault

For most events, and particularly for traumatic ones, people tend to remember and report critical central details correctly. They especially tend to identify the right perpetrator when they are known to the victim because of the reliability of “recognition memory,” or the ability to identify information encountered previously.

Even so, traumatic memories — like all memories — are not like a videotape with complete and perfect replay. In general, survivors of trauma remember “pieces, as opposed to complete storylines.” Distortions and some forgetting of details, especially peripheral details, can occur over time.

Additionally, research shows that forgetting, not thinking about, and even misremembering an assault may be both necessary and adaptive to help survivors cope with their reality. When abuse is perpetrated by someone on whom the victim is dependent, the survivor must adapt day-to-day because they are stuck in that relationship. One way to adjust to that situation would be to think or remember less about the abuse, or to reframe it.