Age of a memory alone should not shut the door on justice

Age of a memory alone should not shut the door on justice
© Greg Nash

The Judiciary Committee is in a unique position to mirror for the country the legal response it believes should be afforded to both victims and defendants of alleged sexual assault. Of importance, our cutting-edge research supports that victims of sexual assault can accurately recall the trauma even after decades have passed.

There are a number of factors that predict increased memory accuracy for sexual assault decades later: Overall, the more distressed and traumatized the victim of sexual assault recalls being at the time, the more accurate is the victim’s memory later. If the victim said it was the worst thing that ever happened to her, had a fair number of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (e.g., flashbacks, intrusive recurrent thoughts or nightmares), attended therapy, or showed signs of depression, the victim is more likely to recall legally important detail.

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Furthermore, if the victim had social support (such as from her mother), or if the assaults were severe and the victim was relatively secure in other intimate adult relationships (such as with a husband or life partner), those are predictors of accuracy, too.

There is a mass of research, including our own, showing — very clearly — that children and teenagers typically delay disclosing sexual assaults, due to factors such as fear of repercussions and feelings of embarrassment.

Here is how social scientists like us have reached these conclusions (well before the current case arose):

In two studies that started back in the 1980s and 1990s, we collected data on the alleged sexual assaults and other offenses committed on hundreds of children and teenagers involved in social service and criminal court actions. We coded crucial information about the assaults and the victims’ legal involvement from police reports, prosecutors’ files, child protection records, medical evidence, eyewitness accounts, defendant confessions, and the children’s and teenagers’ reports of what happened to them.

Then, many years after the assaults took place (e.g., 21 years later), we located the children and teenagers as adults and interviewed them to determine the accuracy of their memories even though decades had passed. These included memories that were corroborated by medical or other evidence. We could therefore examine the accuracy of the victims’ reports after long delays to help the legal system understand factors that influence the accuracy of victims’ memories.

Our findings scientifically support that even after decades have passed adults can accurately recall the central aspects of sexual assaults experienced in adolescence. In addition, for neutral events we documented at the time, there were no false memories of sexual assaults.

In the situation involving Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, there simply has not been sufficient time to permit appropriate investigation and due process for either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanagh. Dr. Ford has evidenced some of the indications of accuracy in her statements to date but only a full investigation and testimony can render a greater understanding of all the evidence at hand.

The committee should not feel pressured to shunt aside these allegations and rush to a conclusion or a confirmation. We now have science plus real cases to back our findings and those of others that victims can be accurate after long delays and should be given the opportunity to be heard and have “voice” in matters that deeply concern them — in this case, matters that deeply concern the entire nation.

Let’s learn from these findings and not push aside allegations of assault simply because the timing is not ideal. To do so would undermine the rights of millions of victims and the role of investigative agencies in these cases. In fact, it undermines our entire legal system.

Science cannot tell us whether the individuals in this hearing are telling the truth. Science cannot be the final arbiter of justice. But science can help us understand that while some memories fade, the core of other memories — the birth of a child, witnessing the death of a loved one, or attempted or completed rape — can stick with us accurately for the rest of our lives.

Gail S. Goodman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. Deborah Goldfarb, JD and Ph.D. is an assistant professor of psychology at Florida International University. Jodi A. Quas, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine.