The media have reported numerous cases in which alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse have been accused and convicted based on the testimony of adult women who "recover" memories of their childhood sexual abuse. This "recovery" has usually occurred dur­ing psychotherapy. But can a person repress memories of sexual abuse that may have occurred years or decades earlier and then suddenly or gradually "recover" them after exposure to certain triggering stimuli? Or can a "memory" of an event that never hap­pened in childhood be suggested to an adult and then "remembered" as true? These questions lie at the heart of a debate among clinicians, researchers, and lawyers.

Skeptics of recovered memories claim that thousands of families and individuals have been devastated by the widespread inclination to accept claims of recovered memo­ries at face value, in the absence of validating evidence. These skeptics offer as proof of their concern cases in which falsely accused and convicted individuals were later exoner­ated, either by the legal system or by victim recantation (Colangelo, 2007; Frazier, 2006; Gardner, 2006).

The possibility of being falsely accused of such a heinous crime is the substance of nightmares. But just how often are the accusations false; that is, what is the probability that recovered memories are imagined? To gain some perspective on this issue, let us briefly consider some of the evidence.

Support for the legitimacy of recovered memories has been provided by several stud­ies. In one investigation, 129 adult women who had experienced childhood sexual abuse in the 1970s were identified and interviewed in the 1990s. Of this group, 38% did not recall the abuse that had been reported and documented 17 years earlier. The author of this investigation concluded that, if having no recall of child sexual abuse is a common occurrence for adult women, as indicated by the study’s results, then "later recovery of child sexual abuse by some women should not be surprising" (L. Williams, 1994, p. 1174). In another study, 56% of 45 adult women survivors of childhood sexual abuse indicated that they had been amnesic about their abuse for varied lengths of time, and 16% reported remembering their abuse while receiving psychotherapy (Rodriguez et al., 1997). A survey of several hundred university students found that 20% of 111 victims of childhood sexual abuse reported that they had recovered memories of abuse (Melchert & Parker, 1997). Finally, a review of the research literature dealing with recovered memory reported finding 30 studies of adult survivors of child sexual abuse in which between 19% and 59% of the participants forgot and later recalled some or all of the abuse (Stoler et al., 2001).

On the other hand, several researchers have expressed skepticism about recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. Some have argued that "repressed memories" are inadvertently planted in suggestible clients by overzealous or poorly trained psychothera­pists who believe that most psychological problems stem from childhood sexual abuse (Colangelo, 2007; Gardner, 2006; Gross, 2004). Numerous studies have demonstrated the relative ease with which "memories" of events that never occurred can be created in the research laboratory (Brainerd & Reyna, 1998; Loftus et al., 1994; Porter et al., 1999). In one 11-week study, for instance, young children were asked at weekly intervals whether they had ever experienced five distinct events. Four of the events were real, and one—get­ting treated in the hospital for an injured finger—was fictitious. The children readily rec­ognized the real events. However, more than one third also became gradually convinced over the course of the 11 weeks that one of their fingers had been injured. In some cases, they even "remembered" elaborate details about their injuries. Many continued to insist that these false memories were true even after being told otherwise (Ceci et al., 1994).

So where are we now on this controversial issue? A number of professional orga­nizations, including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychi­atric Association, and the American Medical Association, have all issued statements

supporting the belief that memories can be recovered later in life. These professional organizations also acknowledge that a "memory" may be suggested and then remem­bered as true. In recent years the debate about recovered memories has subsided as mental health professionals have searched for common ground and ways to be more collaborative and less adversarial (Colangelo, 2007). Research evidence indicates that recovered memories may be fictitious at times and authentic at other times (Lindsay et al., 2009). There is now general agreement that traumatic memories are often processed differently than memories of ordinary events and that "recovered memories are possible while not necessarily accurate in their entirety" (Colangelo, 2007, p. 96). As profession­als continue to discuss the issues surrounding recovered memories, it is important to remember that, despite the media spotlight on defendants who claim they have been falsely accused, sexual abuse of children is a fact, not a question. The recovered-memo­ries debate must not turn back the clock to a time when victims of sexual abuse did not report their traumatic experiences out of fear of not being believed. In the same spirit, we must act responsibly to protect the innocent from wrongful accusations that stem from false memories.