How well can a person remember things that happened more than 30 years ago?
A central question is circling around the Brett Kavanaugh controversy in Washington this week: How well can a person remember anything that happened more than 30 years ago? And why can his accuser remember some aspects of the alleged attack better than others?
Republican senators have been questioning whether they can believe Christine Blasey Ford’s account of an alleged assault by the Supreme Court nominee back when the two were teens — because she doesn’t remember exactly when and where it took place.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican and Judiciary Committee member, floated the idea that it’s all a case of mistaken identity — that Ford may have been assaulted but has misremembered who held her down, tried to remove her clothes, and covered her mouth to stifle her screams.
But two specialists who study memory say that’s not how it works. Important memories stick in the brain, even if unimportant details slip away, and the failure to recall trivial facts doesn’t mean the more meaningful recollections are inaccurate, they said.
“Traumatic memories are remembered with an unusual amount of clarity, especially for the central details of what happened,” including who was involved, said Dr. James A. Chu, a McLean Hospital psychiatrist who has studied traumatic memory for decades. “What you might not remember quite so well are peripheral details, such as the exact date, the exact location.”
The reason, he said, is that the brain stores traumatic memories in a different way. An emotionally powerful memory maintains clarity over many years, while ordinary recollections degrade over time, he said.
Laboratory animals that are subjected to stress release neurohormones that enhance their ability to learn, he said. A similar process is thought to strengthen traumatic memories in people.
Speaking of Ford, Chu said, “Based on what I’ve read, her account gives me no reason to doubt the accuracy of what she’s saying.”
Dr. Aladdin Ossorio, a psychologist at William James College in Newton whose research has focused on brain-behavior interactions, said he hasn’t been following the Kavanaugh controversy very closely, but his observations about memory were similar to Chu’s.
“The most important moments in your life, you tend to remember for the entirety of your life,” Ossorio said. “Generally speaking, memories that are the most meaningful to us are the most likely to be remembered. The fine details are often not accurate, even though we think they are.”
An assault victim will remember who was involved, what happened, and how she felt, but not necessarily facts that aren’t central to the memory’s importance, Ossorio said.
He noted that mind-altering substances such as alcohol will fog the memory. If, as Ford asserts, Kavanaugh was drunk at the time, his recollections would be less accurate.
Each time a person retrieves a memory by thinking about something that happened in the past, the memory gets slightly altered before it is stored again. “But you’re not going to lose the core of the memory,” he said.
Tyler H. Fox, a Cambridge lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment and assault cases, said that based on his experience, it makes sense that a victim would remember some details and not others. What happened and who did it would be most memorable, he said.
“This person was literally in her face,” Fox said. “I’ve had victims say to me, ‘You don’t forget a person who’s raping you.’ It makes sense to me that you would remember a face more than a date.”
It’s extremely rare for someone to make up a story of sexual assault, given the cost of going public, Fox said. “Look what she has to go through,” he said.
But it’s not at all unusual for a victim to wait decades — even 50 years or more — to report an assault because of the shame associated with such incidents.
Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer famous for representing victims of Catholic clergy sexual abuse, said victims often don’t come forward until they feel obligated to, for the sake of others.
“What helps her credibility,” he said of Ford, “is the fact that she’s now telling the world, a world of strangers — which includes people who disbelieve her — her deepest darkest secret.”
And she has already apparently paid a high price for the decision to come forward. Her lawyers said she had faced harassment and death threats, and had to move out of her home, according to news reports.
Garabedian said that if both Kavanaugh and Ford believe their versions of events, they will appear equally credible in a hearing. That’s why he believes there should be an investigation, as Ford has requested, seeking corroborating information about what happened.
“Having a question-and-answer period by a committee inexperienced in sexual abuse will probably prove to be inadequate and leave a lot of open questions,” he said. “There needs to be an independent investigation so that, for instance, historical records are reviewed, experts are consulted, statements from all relevant sources are obtained, and all available evidence is examined.”