How do victims of sexual assault forge ahead without succumbing to the weight of a terrible memory? Dr. Hopper suggested that the answer may lie, in part, with how that memory is retrieved. “If you cling to an abstract, emotionally void description of an event and don’t label it ‘an attempted rape,’ then you can go for years and that’s all that will pop up,” he said. “You don’t go there with the sensory details that you have pushed away. You tell yourself, ‘I was forced into a room, I struggled and I got away.’”
But perhaps months, years, even decades after the event, an inadvertent trigger may breach the safety of the abstraction, and the reality of the memory—he was trying to rape me—may rush through, Dr. Hopper said. That realization prompts new emotions, which can reframe the narrative of the memory.
A perpetrator’s memory of the encounter is at least as prone to revision on retrieval. The encoded fragments of the event are there but typically less vivid; many relevant details may be impossible to summon, especially if the assailant hasn’t thought about the incident for years. The memory trace isn’t erased, but it can be reconfigured and supplanted.
Lingering emotions from the incident are crucial to this process. In a study of teachers and other personnel after a school shooting in suburban Chicago, Dr. McNally and colleagues found that participants’ memories of the event often changed sharply between six months and 18 months after the shooting. Some of the people who were no longer upset by the experience 18 months later recalled that they had been outside the building during the event, when in fact they’d been inside. In remembering the scene, they had physically removed themselves from it.
A similar sleight of retrieval may protect perpetrators of abuse, experts say. The human mind works to preserve a sense of moral integrity. That process is a self-serving one, allowing us to function day-to-day, tweaking our personal narrative to support who we are or want to be.
Men who commit sexual assault rarely think of themselves as assailants, Dr. Hopper said: “We tend to go with the abstract descriptions of events that make us feel less bad about ourselves, and less ashamed.”
For the senators trying to sort out this explosive drama, the most important element may be timing: what happened between encoding and retrieval, and when. One thing that brain scientists have consistently found is that, once people settle on the basic “facts” of what happened, however flawed that perception, they rarely make corrections, even in face of contradicting evidence. They have their story and they’re sticking to it.