How reliable is the recall of repressed memories of abuse from childhood?

Repression is a defence mechanism proposed by Freud, where a person unconsciously forgets disturbing/traumatic thoughts.  They exclude distressing thoughts, feelings and memories from the conscious mind and repress them into their unconscious mind where they are no longer accessible.  A method which can be used to bring repressed memories back into conscious thinking is psychoanalysis, which includes free association and dream analysis.

Williams (1994) investigated the extent to which women who had suffered abuse in their childhoods could recover memories of the abuse that took place.  Williams interviewed one hundred twenty-nine women who had documented histories of sexual violence in childhood.  It was found that 80 of the women who had reported sexual abuse seventeen years earlier recalled the abuse.  16% of the women interviewed reported that they had forgotten the abuse at some point in the past.  It was also found that women who had experienced a period of forgetting were those who had been abused at a younger age and therefore had received less support.

In recent years there has been a debate over the reliability of people being able to recall repressed memories of abuse in childhood.  This applies in particular to when there is a delay in remembering the abuse.  There has also been an increase in reported memories of child abuse.  Reporters of the abuse have alleged that the memories were repressed for many years.  Loftus (1993) suggested that these recovered memories could be fabricated by therapists or other adults.  Therefore the reliability of the repressed memories that come to light many years later could be further questioned e.g. are there sources of detail which can affect memory?

A famous case of a falsely recalled memory took place in 1990, when George Franklin, a 51 year old defendant was accused by his daughter of murdering an 8 year old girl 20 years earlier.  Eileen, George Franklin’s daughter, claimed that she could now remember the murder of the victim Susan Kay Nason taking place, and accused her own father of carrying out the murder.  She claimed that the memory had been repressed for the past 20 years.  After 6 years in prison, Franklin was released when irregularities were discovered in Eileen’s evidence: it was discovered that she had been hypnotised before testifying.  This case is evidence of how much damage a falsely recalled memory can do.  In order to improve methods of collecting information about abuse in childhood, researchers need to be careful about how they word questions.  If a question is worded wrongly, this could cause people to recall memories which are in fact false.  They must also be very careful not to plant false memories in the patient’s mind, as this can cause a great deal of damage.  When researchers are investigating abuse in childhood; which is a sensitive topic for the people in question, they need to be especially careful.



Williams (1994) Recovered memories of abuse in women with documented child sexual victimization histories.  Journal of traumatic stress 8, 4, 649-673.

Loftus (1993) The reality of repressed memories American Psychologist, Vol 48(5), May 1993, 518-537. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.48.5.518

For more information about the George Franklin case follow this link:



6 thoughts on “How reliable is the recall of repressed memories of abuse from childhood?

  1. The case of George Franklin should never have happened. Although the severity of the claim was made by his daughter, it was a good 20 years ago and with no evidence! Although made unique by the fact it was a family member who had reported him, hypnosis used in this way is dangerous, as there is no clear-cut way to show what memories are true or false, and are in fact reliable.

    Some studies to retrieve memories a lone, show 30-40% of people to recall inaccurate information. Loftus (1993). Again, what is know about the individual conducting the hypnosis, and what information is clear. Whereas what information received is open to interpretation or open of bias information they want to find.

    Loftus (1993) The reality of repressed memories American Psychologist, Vol 48(5), May 1993, 518-537. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.48.5.518

  2. You have made the assumption that memories of abuse from childhood can in fact be repressed. Pope & Hudson (1995) reviewed four different studies into repressed memories of childhood and abuse and found that not one of the studies could adequately provide clear evidence of the trauma and the repression.
    However it has certainly been shown that false memories can be implanted into a person’s mind. Loftus (1997) showed that it was possible to implant childhood memories into her participants. There is very little evidence to suggest that repressed memories are even a a real phenomenon and it has been shown that they can be falsely created. Repressed memories are far to unreliable to be used at all.

  3. I have recently heard that using hypnosis for memory recall has become illegal due to such cases as George Franklin. I believe that the reliabilty of using psychoanalytical mehtods to recall memory is in fact quite low. This is due the the idea of false memories.a study by Lock, L,. Myers & Payne (1997) found that hypnosis with repressed memories can sometimes not be retrieved but in fact false memories can be retreived (when compared with available records). Therefore the use of psychoanalytical methods to retrieve memories are in fact low in reliability. However you failed to mention that the discovery of repressed memories in a patient can be reliable if the patient sufferes from a psychological disorder. Let’s take Thigpen & cleckley’s case study on Eve white. Eve white suffered from a disorder known as multiple personality disorder, in which she had more than one personality in whcih she was first un aware of. Through therapy it was found that traumatic childhood events such as witnessing a death in her uncle’s factory led to eve repressing these memories, but her subconscious used multiple personality disorder as a coping mechanism. This idea then suggests a high reliabilty in repressed memories, and the effect hey can have in a person.

  4. I think of the George Franklin case as an anomaly that should have never took place. Repression is the cornerstone of psychology and it has been built upon to develop the subject we study today. Although Holmes (1990) was right in saying that there is virtually no scientific evidence to demonstrate the authenticity of repressed memories, it is still a concept that psychology has been built upon whether it is reliable or not. Other cases have shown that repressed memory treatment is effective and reliable. In 1991, actress Roseanne Barr Arnold’s spoke about memories of her mother abusing her from the time she was an infant until she was 6 or 7 years old and she only found this after she was in therapy. There is positive evidence of other research that shows how reliable repressed memories are.

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