Christine Blasey Ford testifies about an alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Christine Blasey Ford testifies about an alleged sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Wikimedia Commons

Despite Trump's Rant, Research From FIU Professor Shows Survivors Accurately Remember Sex Abuse

At a Tuesday-night rally in Mississippi, President Donald Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford for her inability to remember certain parts of an attempted sexual assault by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

"How did you get home? I don’t remember. How did you get there? I don't remember. Where is the place? I don't remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know," Trump said. "Upstairs, downstairs, where was it? I don't know. But I only had one beer! That's the only thing I remember. And a man's life is in tatters."

The crowd clapped and cheered at the president's remarks about Ford's memory. But research from a Florida International University professor shows that, overwhelmingly, survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual abuse can accurately recall memories of those traumatic events years later — even if they can't remember details surrounding the incidents.

Deborah Goldfarb, an assistant professor of psychology at FIU, was part of a research team at the University of California's Davis and Irvine campuses that studied the memories of adults who had experienced sexual abuse as children or teens.

"There was a similar core finding, which is that people can remember sexual assault years later and that that memory seems to have a little bit of stickiness to it," Goldfarb tells New Times.

The researchers looked at records from years-old sexual abuse cases that had been documented by child protective services or in criminal court cases. Decades later, the researchers re-interviewed the victims to test their memories. Their findings showed that adults were able to accurately recall central aspects of sexual assaults from their youth.

"The idea that sometimes certain memories stand [the test of] time and that we can remember things decades later is really interesting and important to consider," Goldfarb says.

Jodi Quas, a UC Irvine professor who was part of the same team as Goldfarb, says their research is unique because they were able to compare people's memories to the formalized documentation.

"One of the challenges when you're looking at someone's memory from 30, 40 years ago for something like sexual assault is we don't know what really happened. That's the million-dollar question," Quas says. "The unique part of this is the way we were able to look at what the adults are saying now and say how well they are remembering it because we have documentation of what happened originally."

The studies showed that the more a person was traumatized by a sexual assault, the more accurately he or she could remember it years later. Victims who were older at the time of the abuse and those who had familial or social support also had more accurate memories.

Last week, Goldfarb, Quas, and a third colleague, Gail Goodman, coauthored an opinion piece for The Hill that puts their research in the context of Ford's allegations. The three argue that "victims can be accurate after long delays" and urged the Senate Judiciary Committee not to brush off the accusations.

Although the adults in the studies were able to accurately remember the core truth of their sexual abuse, Quas says it's common for survivors to remember only the most traumatic and significant details.

"Over time, you have this memory narrowing, so to speak, on the most personally important details," she says. "The challenge with the Ford memory is... are we interested in the details, or are we interested in the general idea?"

Quas says Ford's testimony "did appear consistent" with what researchers would expect from someone recounting a true event. From a scientific perspective, she says it's more important to focus on the truth of the core allegation rather than expecting someone to clearly remember every detail surrounding his or her sexual assault.

"We probably shouldn’t place an extraordinary amount of weight on the accuracy of minute details. I think we run the risk of getting so hung up on those that we're failing to see the broader narratives that are being described," Quas says. "If you focus too much on these specific details, you miss the broader way these memories are being recounted."

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