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Traumatic memories: lost and found.

Often, a single traumatic event creates an indelible memory. But in children who are repeatedly exposed to such experiences -- as in many cases of sexual abuse -- the distressing memories may lie dormant until unleashed by a seemingly inconsequential situation in adulthood, according to Lenore C. Terr of the University of California, San Francisco.

Terr bases her assertion on dozens of cases of "spontaneous recall" of childhood traumas explored in her clinical practice and described in letters from people across the country who read of her interest in traumatic memories.

In most cases, the child first "dissociates" from disturbing events. Dissociation involves psychological detachment from one's surroundings and a distancing of self from sensations, thoughts or emotions. It also alters perceptions of time and identity, often resulting in memory gaps.

In a much-publicized court case that ended this past February with a conviction, a 28-year-old woman claimed she suddenly remembered witnessing her father murder one of her playmates 20 years earlier. The woman, who said she was repeatedly raped by her father as a child, recalled the murder when she looked into her own daughter's eyes and realized that they resembled the murder victim's eyes. Terr, who testified in the case, also notes that the memory resurfaced with the woman's severing of all ties to her father after he made sexual advances to her daughter. The woman's description of the crime closely matched police evidence on the victim's wounds and the nature of the attack, Terr adds.

Paying attention to repeated behaviors may also spark the return of traumatic memories, she says. In one instance, an artist reliazed that her surrealistic paintings reenacted her sexual abuse as a child. In every painting, she felt compelled to depict her childhood house surrounded by flames.

"We can sometimes help kids recreate their experiences of abuse by having them draw their homes," Terr maintains.

Some researchers question the accuracy of spontaneous recall, noting that memories tend to blend together and change over time. Corroborating evidence and repeated behaviors or dreams that reflect traumatic events serve as checks on spontaneous recall, Terr contends.
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Title Annotation:distressing memories acquired in childhood may lie dormant until released in adulthood
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:May 25, 1991
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