Memory Loss After Sexual Assault Is Real

When Alison Turkos woke up on the morning of October 14, 2017, after a night out celebrating with friends, her body ached. She had bruises on her knees. She had vaginal bleeding. She was exhausted, unable to even stand in the shower. And she had no idea why.

Hours later, she opened a ride-sharing app to order a ride and noticed that her ride at 2 a.m. the night before, which should have been a 15-minute ride home from one Brooklyn neighborhood to another, turned out to be a winding $107 ride that took her from Brooklyn through Manhattan to Jersey City and back to Brooklyn.

She took a screenshot of the convoluted route of her ride from the ride-sharing app and sent it to two of her friends, who started their own detective work trying to understand what happened. They also looked at her step tracker and noticed some unusual spikes. That, coupled with the visible physical injuries she had, convinced Alison to go to the doctor for an internal exam. The day after the exam, her doctor called and suggested she go to the hospital for a rape kit.

She filed a police report. For months, she had recurring night terrors. It wasn’t until late spring 2018 that Turkos started to have significant memories, after seeing a therapist regularly and doing a reenactment ride with police. Details came flooding back: She had been kidnapped at gunpoint by her driver and gang raped by three men.

“My body knew what happened, but my brain was like, We’re just going to give you some time, because once you have these memories, you will never be able to forget,” Turkos said.

Why does trauma-related memory loss happen?

Memory loss and delayed recall after the kind of intense trauma Turkos experienced is called dissociative amnesia, and it’s not uncommon, particularly for sexual assault survivors.

“The phenomenon is real. People can go a long time without remembering traumatic experiences and then remember them,” explained Jim Hopper, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and trauma expert who has been studying traumatic memory loss for more than two decades.

There are myriad causes for why this happens, and while researchers have evidence-based theories, there isn’t a simple explanation. Memories may be consciously or unconsciously suppressed because they are too painful. And for some survivors, like Turkos, it may be related to experiencing dissociation during the trauma.

“In the midst of a traumatic experience, the person feels disconnected from their body,” Hopper said, pointing to a widely cited paper from 2001 about how the lack of “meta-awareness” during trauma affects what a person remembers later. “They’re kind of in a daze. They might feel in a fog, so that changes how the event is encoded in memory and it decreases the probability that it’s going to be woven in with other memories.”

The right combination of context and cues, like the reenactment ride Turkos went on, can help the brain retrieve those memories months, even years later. Furthermore, Hopper said, there’s no evidence that delayed memories are any less accurate.

Even when survivors do remember the assault right away, it’s common that they don’t remember every detail — especially peripheral details.

“Peripheral details are details that didn’t get much attention. They didn’t have much emotional significance attached to them. And that’s a subjective experience of the person,” Hopper explained. “Someone being sexually assaulted might remember a painting on the wall, but not whether the guy was wearing a condom.”

This is one explanation for why, when Stanford University psychology professor Chrstine Blasey-Ford testified in 2018 about being assaulted by now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and another man, she couldn’t remember the date of the party where she was assaulted or how she got home. But, she said, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh — the uproarious laughter between the two, and their having fun at my expense.” While peripheral details about that night may, as Blasey-Ford testified, “drift away,” the emotionally charged experience of hearing her assaulters laugh during her trauma was encoded in her memory.

Had the Senate Judiciary Committee not excluded Hopper’s expert testimony, this is what he would have said.

Justice denied

The fundamental lack of understanding about memory among law enforcement and in the legal system contributes to reinforcing biases held against sexual assault victims, hindering investigations and legal proceedings, and ultimately, further traumatizing victims.

Cathy Garcia, a retired supervising investigator in San Diego’s sex crimes unit who now trains police across California, does the following exericise with police who work sexual assault cases:

“Everyone’s got a cell phone, right? You know what’s on your cell phone, you use your cell phone every day. You look at it all the time. Well, what’s the second icon from the left and the third row?” she asks them. When they look at her with blank stares, she says, “When we’re asking sexual assault victims to recall details, that’s the kind of thing we’re doing to them.”

According to research from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), there are 463,634 victims of sexual assault in the United States each year. Only 31% of incidents are reported, 5.7% of those cases lead to arrests, 1.1% of cases are referred to a prosecutor, and only around .7% of all rapes lead to convictions.

“This crime is so underreported, under-investigated and under-prosecuted. And if you have the courage to report, it can be easily dismissed and not even officially documented,” said Katharine Tellis, Ph.D., director of California State University’s School of Criminal Justice and Criminalistics.

She did in-depth research with the Los Angeles Police Department, scouring case files, reading case notes, and interviewing police and prosecutors dealing with sexual crimes. The resulting 400-page research study that she co-authored, “Policing and Prosecuting Sexual Assault: Inside the Criminal Justice System,” determined there were two approaches that detectives and prosecutors take to sexual assault victims.

“We categorized detectives as [taking] either an innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to victims or guilty-until-proven innocent approach to victims,” she said. “So those who had a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to victims really believed in rape myths, and didn’t really want to work these cases. They sort of fell into them.” They approached victims with suspicion, looking for reasons their stories didn’t add up. Similarly, prosecutors were categorized as those looking for reasons to file and those looking for reasons to reject.

“What’s interesting about that is that, taken together, we saw what we called a pre-arrest charge evaluation that most often happened with detectives who had a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to victims and prosecutors who were looking for reasons to reject,” Tellis explained.

“A detective wouldn’t really thoroughly investigate the case. They’d do a cursory interview of the victim, write it up, [and then] they’d send the file over informally to the DA’s office. They wouldn’t arrest the suspect, and the DA would say, ‘Based on this, it needs further investigation.” And then the detective would inappropriately clear the case as if it was solved.”

When there’s a perfect storm of a victim who is experiencing memory loss and detectives and prosecutors who are biased against victims, it’s a nearly insurmountable hill to climb.

In Turkos’ case, she said, the police were operating from the incorrect assumption that she had blacked out from drinking. In July, Turkos wrote an open letter admonishing the prosecutors who declined to file any charges. Four years after being raped, there have been no arrests. Despite her initial memory loss, she has a rape kit that found semen from two men and she has data from the ride, including the driver’s information and unexplainable route.

“I survived everyone’s worst nightmare. Do you understand why someone’s brain would turn that off and say, ‘I don’t think that you should process this yet?'” Turkos said. “It’s wildly unfair for people to judge me and to say it doesn’t make sense that I didn’t remember. How much trauma does one body need to hold? My body is still intact because I am a survivor and I am extraordinary.”

Resources
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) 800-656-HOPE
National Sexual Violence Resource Center