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Opinion

Opinion: What Weinstein’s defense team doesn’t want you to know about sexual assault and memory

Harvey Weinstein leaves court in New York
Harvey Weinstein leaves court Tuesday, during his rape trial in New York.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Several years ago, a woman I had been treating for an anxiety disorder disclosed to me that her supervisor had raped her 10 years earlier. When I asked why she was only now speaking of the rape, she said she always knew she had been raped but the details had been hazy. She had a tough time putting into words what happened that day.

Vivid memories of the rape were coming back to her, she said, after recently reading social media posts about her former supervisor being put on administrative leave after several employees made sexual harassment claims.

The rape trial in New York of Harvey Weinstein has reignited controversies that have long surrounded survivors of sexual assault. How reliable can a survivor story be if memories of the assault are riddled with gaps and contradictions? Why wait so long to disclose the attack?

Those who have reason to align themselves with the alleged perpetrator often take issue with the veracity of such accuser testimony. These are, at worst, liars seeking limelight or, at best, confused victims. They may have been assaulted but not by this guy.

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It’s not as simple as that.

This jump to the offensive, to blame the victim, overlooks two decades of progress made by trauma scientists to unravel the essence of how memory works and resolve this haziness paradox that has surrounded survivor testimony.

Accounts of trauma often include gaps that can be explained by the way the brain consolidates memories. Consolidation is a biological process that stabilizes memories and allows them to mature. After a major trauma, this natural process of consolidating memories goes into overdrive and lends traumatic memories a power beyond regular memories from your day-to-day life: They intrude into a survivor’s life in the weeks, months and years that follow with an unforgettable vividness.

This is what allows trauma survivors to confidently recall intricate details of a 10-year-old assault. My patient could recall the outfit she wore to work, the smell of jasmine in the air and the sound of her perpetrator’s laugh, all as though they happened yesterday.

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The same may not hold true for memories more peripheral to the trauma. Did you work late that night? What was the exact time this happened? How did you get home? If such details were coded as regular memories then, just like any other 10-year-old memory, they will likely fade with time.

It’s also common for trauma accounts to include contradictions, which can be explained by how trauma memories are categorized.

Human memories are categorized as either explicit or implicit. Explicit memories consist of deliberately retrieved facts about yourself, such as your date of birth or the address of your childhood home — or whether you have ever been raped.

In contrast, implicit memories are often activated by environmental cues allowing our brains to function on autopilot. It’s how you can cook a favorite dinner recipe while listening to an engrossing podcast. The sound of a sauce bubbling triggers earlier memories of your experience cooking this dish, which leads you to catch a sauce on the verge of overboiling without having to think about it.

The brain can code trauma memories as implicit memories too. Rather than requiring deliberate retrieval, some trauma memories are triggered by cues. These cues are often sensory information that was experienced during the trauma. So, for my patient, a summer day when jasmine is in full bloom or a male voice like that of the supervisor might trigger new memories of the assault.

But survivors rarely have control over environmental triggers they may encounter on any given day, week, month or year. This explains how a survivor can know she was assaulted but her account shifts over time.

Trauma accounts often emerge in a halting, out-of-order fashion, which also explains why some survivors wait to speak up. In addition to fears over personal safety or retaliation, the survivor may not have full control over how or when memories of the trauma are revealed to her — and that’s important to recognize.

It’s like she knows she went to see a movie, knows she saw the entire movie, knows it was a horror movie but can only recall the vivid movie trailer. She may eventually recall the entire movie but not necessarily on her timeline.

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How a human brain processes a trauma is a highly personalized process that is impossible to predict. Some rape survivors might report the event immediately and be able to describe, in minute detail, what happened.

For my patient and the hundreds of other rape survivors I have met over my career, accounts often emerge over time. How their stories emerge, what is vividly recalled, what is implicitly coded and what is forgotten is unique for each survivor.

Many other factors influence how a brain processes a sexual assault. A preexisting mental health history, a prior trauma history, use of alcohol or illicit drugs, or physical injuries at the time of assault are among them.

Regardless, these different pathways of memory recall explain why we should expect gaps in survivor testimony. The fact that trauma memories can be triggered by environmental cues explains why survivors’ testimony can sound inconsistent. It also explains why there is often a time gap between the day the assault happened and when the survivor first tells someone about it.

When it comes to the testimony of rape survivors, gaps, contradictions and delays in reporting must never be automatically equated with willful attempts to deceive.

Shaili Jain is a psychiatrist and post-traumatic stress disorder specialist at Stanford University and author of “The Unspeakable Mind: Stories of Trauma and Healing from the Frontlines of PTSD Science.” @shailijainmd


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