Newsletter. Traumatic memory and the Need for Fair Trials of Rape Victims

Newsletter No. 1 2018 Traumatic memory and the Need for Fair Trials of Rape Victims

28.02 2018

Dear friends and colleagues,

“Victims are put through the wringer of having their credibility questioned, their integrity questioned, their behavior questioned, so that they are the focus of the investigation rather than the offender’s behavior.”

Rebecca Campbell, Community Psychologist, Michigan State University

As the International Women´s Day approaches, HHRI wishes to call the attention to the need for greater awareness and understanding as to the characteristics of traumatic memory, and the necessity of taking this information into consideration in the different situations in which victims are questioned about violations and threats, that is as part of medical examination, in public courts, at college campuses and by media. By educating personnel engaged in this kind of work on trauma and memory those who speak up and report the assault may hopefully have a better chance of being listened to and having a fair trial.

What may seem as discrepancies in the survivor´s testimony often reinforce the prevailing tendency to doubt sexual assault victims. Trauma survivors frequently have fragmented recollections and difficulty with some of the details. This can sometimes make it difficult for the person to tell the story in a consistent way. It is therefore of essence to understand that the victim may be trying to make coherence out of an incredibly disorganized and painful set of elements and experiences.

To understand the mechanics of how memories may seemingly become inconsistent, we must know the way the brain functions in response to trauma. The intense fear that comes from experiencing a traumatic event, alerts the victim of a threat to her survival. This immediately, and without any conscious deliberation, activates the amygdala —an area of the “older” brain involved in both fear processing and stress response. When the amygdala starts sending out alerts, humans —as well as animals— go into survival mode, putting the brain and body on high alert. These reactions are automatic responses, and include both hormonal and behavioral patterns, but may also have some individual variation.

When a person is in this state of high stress, it is natural to focus her attention on the most immediate aspect of the threat —at the expense of other details—. Therefore, the peripheral details fade away, in terms of our attention. Extreme stress may in some individuals, especially in those who have been traumatized several times at an early age, lead to a form of stress reaction where the person “disconnects”, that is, psychologically, escapes the situation and thus becomes less aware and attentive. This is often termed “dissociation”, and describes the situation with low level of consciousness, indicating less likelihood that information be encoded in the way it would otherwise be. This has an impact on what we are able to recall after the event has taken place, it diminishes our memory of the traumatic event.

What further aggravates the situation is what is termed “mental avoidance”, that is, the tendency to avoid anything that resembles or triggers the traumatic event. This means avoidance of activities, places and thoughts about the event. This is also one of the “hallmarks” of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis. Fragmented memories and difficulties in recalling memories, must be understood in the context of dissociation, physiological reactions and avoidance. The problems that victims may face in such situations, and their difficulties in replying “adequately” to questions during trials, may be the reason for which they are discredited or disbelieved.

By being aware of  how human memory often functions in the aftermath of traumatic events, —including the pain involved in revisiting such events for the victim—, is vital for law enforcement, family members, friends and others involved with survivors. This may contribute to a better understanding and reduce risk of additional stressors in relation to narrating difficult experiences.

As a closing remark, the most important take-home lesson —from work with women who have survived severe human rights abuses and are facing challenges in the care system as well as in the legal system—, is the following: for a fair process to take place, a good dialogue, room for listening and exploring in respectful ways, and showing respect to the dignity and integrity of the person subjected to violence, are of utmost importance.

And finally, our main focus must always be on the prevention of such violence, on combating that these abuses happen and on the process of holding those responsible to account.

Further Reading on Fair Trials for Survivors of Rape

Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. 
Anna Möller, Hans Peter Söndergaard, Lotti Helström June, 2017
Active resistance is considered to be the ‘normal’ reaction during rape. However, studies have indicated that similar to animals, humans exposed to extreme threat may react with a state of involuntary, temporary motor inhibition known as tonic immobility. The aim of the present study was to assess the occurrence of tonic immobility during rape and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.

The impact of trauma on the brain, experience, behavior and memory 
Jim Hopper, Ph.D., April, 2016
This article provides an introduction to the impact of trauma on memory and recollection, including how traumatic events may affect an individual’s ability to recall or give proper sequence to details, including information that an objective observer (and even the victim/survivor/complainant) would deem vital and seemingly “unforgettable.”

Animation (video) – Trauma and the Brain: Understanding abuse survivors responses NHS Lanarkshire
Abuse is a traumatic experience. When a person experiences abuse, their responses to protect them – in the short and longer term – are instinctive. Knowing how and why means that you can recognise these responses and be more effective in what you do.

Sexual Assault & the Brain
Jim Hopper
Why are memories of sexual assault so often fragmentary and confusing? The answer has big implications for people who’ve been sexually assaulted, for those who investigate and prosecute such crimes, and for everyone else who knows or works with someone who’s been sexually assaulted.

Transcript “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault” 
Rebecca Campbell, Ph.D. December, 2012
Dr. Campbell discuss the research on the neurobiology of trauma and the criminal justice system response to sexual assault. She will explain the underlying neurobiology of traumatic events, its emotional and physical manifestation, and how these processes can impact the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault.

What Sexual Assault Does To The Brain 
Carolyne Gregoire, The Huffington Post. Dec. 2014
There are more complications to proper recall: “We may become hyper focused on what we perceive to be the threatening stimuli,” said Lisak. “Very often when we become focused on that, we lose attention to everything else. So the peripheral details really fade away in terms of our attention. That has an impact on what we recall after the fact.”

Prosecuting sexual assault: ‘Raped all over again’ 
The Guardian. April, 2013
The process of telling a crowded court what had happened to her was profoundly upsetting. ” You don’t have to bring back the memories – they don’t go away – but it is difficult to talk about them because of the shame you feel as a victim.”

How Brain Science Can Help Explain Discrepancies in a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Story 
Cognitive Neuroscience Society, December 2014
The rate of false report in sexual violence is actually low, estimated by most studies to be around 7 percent (to compare, this is considerably lower than the rate of insurance fraud). Moreover, research shows that sexual violence is in fact underreported.

Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories 
James Hopper and David Lisak, December 2014
In states of high stress, fear or terror like combat and sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired– sometimes even effectively shut down– by a surge of stress chemicals.

The Neuroscience of Trauma from Sexual Assault 
Cognitive Neuroscience Society, May 2015
A relatively new area of the literature on human response to trauma, particularly the trauma experienced during sexual violence, is that of “tonic immobility.” Defined as self-paralysis, or as the inability to move even when not forcibly restrained, tonic immobility has long been studied in non-human animals as the “freeze” response to extreme stress.

All manuals can be downloaded from the MHHRI website

There are three different manuals, which respectively address working with women, with boys and men, and with children who have experienced sexual violence.

The manuals are translated into several languages. The page numbers in each manual remain the same across languages. This allows survivors and helpers to work from copies in their preferred language and read the same content on the same pages. It also makes it easier to teach participants when participants and trainers work in more than one language. The manuals include a toolbox. Survivors can use it individually to regulate their own emotions through grounding exercises or in collaboration with a helper. Helpers can also use grounding exercises to take care of themselves as helpers.

We appreciate feedback and comments 

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Sincerely yours,
Take care – and we are wishing you all the best.

Sincerely yours,

Mental Health and Human Rights Info