Memory Issues in the Diagnosis of Unreported Trauma

  • J. Don Read
  • Cathy Spatz Widom
Part of the NATO ASI Series book series (NSSA, volume 291)


It seems intuitively obvious to many people that if something unpleasant happens to them that they would rather forget, somehow wishing to forget it ought be successful. As the degree of unpleasantness of the event increases, moving it into the realm of perhaps life- or security-threatening experiences, or what might be called traumatic events, it seems all the more obvious that their wish to forget and success at doing so ought to be greater. But, paradoxically, we recognize that the events we generally remember about our past are those that are, in fact, highly salient and unusual which serve as the landmarks and signposts around which we organize the meaning and narratives of our lives. Hence, because traumatic events are also highly unusual and salient it is simultaneously contradictory that we could as easily forget these events as we can other minor, mildly unpleasant and less salient events. Instead, if we are to be successful at forgetting highly unusual, salient, and unpleasant events, the mind needs to be endowed with additional abilities. Hypothetical mental mechanisms like repression and dissociation that will allow us to forget successfully are frequently advanced as likely candidates within the clinical literature (see Lindsay & Read, 1994, 1995; Loftus, 1993; Ofshe & Singer, 1994). The belief that we are able to eliminate from memory the unpleasant events of our lives through these special mechanisms is so highly ingrained in our culture that it has spawned several ancillary beliefs about the operation of memory and these have spilled over into the fields in which we work, some as researchers, some as clinical practitioners, and some who do both. Of course, it may indeed turn out that this core belief relating trauma and successful forgetting has validity. Perhaps so, but in the meantime I will argue that we need to better understand how we can test the claims about memory that are inherent in these beliefs.


Sexual Abuse Traumatic Event Childhood Sexual Abuse False Memory Autobiographical Memory 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • J. Don Read
    • 1
  • Cathy Spatz Widom
    • 2
  1. 1.University of LethbridgeLethbridgeCanada
  2. 2.The University of Albany (SUNY)USA

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