Did I experience sexual abuse as a child?

Dear Alice,

This may seem like a stupid question, but I'm eighteen years old, and I recently read a book in which there was a girl who had been molested by her father. One of the things that she did was poke holes in the female genitals of her dolls. Now I distinctly remember doing that with my dolls when I was a lot younger. Is this normal, or could there be "something" in my past? I don't remember anything, and don't want to try and make up something that was never there, but how can I be sure?

Dear Reader, 

It’s brave of you for bringing this up. This isn’t a stupid question, and, truthfully, there may be no way of knowing with absolute certainty if you were sexually abused as a child. The fact that you engaged in the same behavior as a person molested in a book may be a coincidence or may have a deeper meaning. Researchers in the field continue to debate the validity of forgotten memories (more on this later); however, they tend to agree that traumatic events, like abuse, are typically remembered. 

While trying to better understand the situation you find yourself in, it may be helpful to first consider how memory works and what gets classified as a forgotten memory. A memory is formed in three stages: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. Encoding is the initial process of learning and processing new information like your observations and experiences. Consolidation is the process of converting short term memories into long term memories and storing the information—this mostly happens when you sleep. Retrieval is the process of obtaining information that is stored in the consolidation phase. 

Prior to consolidation, memories are more malleable and are therefore at risk of being altered in some way. Memories are more likely to be retrieved successfully at a later time when your external context (environment, for example) and your internal state are more aligned with what you experienced during the encoding period of that memory. Because of the complexity of memory formation, it’s not unheard of for the mind to create false or inaccurate memories. In fact, it can be common for memories to be inaccurate and change over time—what you remember may not match the original memory. For instance, when you retrieve a childhood memory, what you recall may include added, inaccurate information, or may omit details of what actually happened. 

You may notice terms like 'repressed' and 'suppressed' being used on a regular basis to describe memories. Though the terms are similar, repressed memories are unconsciously blocked out or forgotten, while suppressed memories are thought to be deliberately or intentionally blocked. Memory researchers continue to investigate and debate about the credibility of repressed memories and often end up in two camps. The first camp suggests that people have repressed memories, and they can be remembered at some point in life. The other camp argues that research about repressed memories may not be valid. Those who question the studies suggest that participants may be influenced by suggestions provided in therapy or otherwise. It’s worth noting that anti-repression researchers say this doesn’t happen often or easily. 

The debate is further complicated by the inclusion of dissociative amnesia in editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMD). Dissociative amnesia is characterized by the inability to recall events, normally due to trauma or stress. Despite its inclusion in the DSMMD, some researchers still argue against its ability to explain all potential reasons for memory loss. For individuals with repressed memories and dissociative amnesia, it's expected to see the forgotten memories manifest as other behavioral or emotional challenges. Furthermore, both sides of the research tend to agree that traumatic events, like sexual abuse, are typically remembered by most people. However, it could be true that such an event wasn't initially perceived as traumatic, perhaps making it easier to forget. All that being said, memories are incredibly nuanced, and they may or may not represent factual information. 

To help you navigate if, as you say, "something" may have happened in your past, consider reflecting on the following questions: 

  • Are there any indicators in your current adult life that may be connected to something from your childhood? For example, any current behavioral or emotional challenges. 
  • What other experiences, if any, can you recall that further support that childhood abuse may have been possible? 
  • Are there any other reasons why you could have poked holes in your dolls? 

Certain emotions may arise as you reflect on these questions, and you may find it helpful to work through them with the help of a mental health professional. You may also find that using websites like Psychology Today can be helpful in finding mental health support. How to find a therapist in the Go Ask Alice! archives may also prove helpful in your search. If you continue having concerns about childhood sexual abuse or forgotten memories, consider talking with a parent, guardian, sibling, or friend who was around during the time you played with dolls. They may be able to provide their own perspective or memory of this experience or others. 

Hopefully this information gets you closer to the clarity you seek! 

Last updated Oct 13, 2023
Originally published Apr 26, 1996

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