Trauma and Memory: Why Rape Victims Don't Report and Why Details Can Be Hazy

PHOTO: This Dec. 5, 2014 photo shows the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. PlayAP
WATCH Rolling Stone Backpedals on UVA Rape Story

Rolling Stone magazine's move to backpedal its story about a University of Virginia student's alleged gang rape has put another twist in the shocking narrative. But as the story unfolds, experts say people should keep in mind that trauma victims' memories are often imperfect.

The victim, identified in a December Rolling Stone article as "Jackie," told the publication that she was raped by seven members of a UVA Phi Kappa Psi fraternity in 2012, but the Washington Post raised several questions about Jackie's story regarding the number of assailants, where she was attacked and who attacked her.

Many trauma victims don't clearly remember certain details of what happened to them, said Dr. Phillip Resnick, who directs the forensic psychiatry program at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, and is not involved in the UVA case. For example, victims who have been robbed at gunpoint might focus on the gun but not remember details of the robber's face, he said.

"This is an issue with all crime victims," he said. "It doesn't mean that the victim will be unreliable."

He said if a victim remembered a license plate number but was off by one digit, it wouldn't suggest false reporting, but hint at a memory distortion or omission.

Sexual assault victims often have a hard time recalling what happened leading up to or following the assault, regardless of whether they were drugged, said Jennifer Marsh, director of victim services at the anti-sexual assault group RAINN, which stands for Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.

Sexual assault victims may also try to fill in the gaps in their memories as they try to make sense of what happened to them, Marsh said. Sometimes victims do this because they're afraid that no one will believe them without a coherent story, she said. As a result, many law enforcement officials have been trained to see these memory gaps not as red flags but as "perfectly normal following a traumatic event."

Resnick also said an inability to remember some aspects of trauma is actually part of the diagnostic criterion for post-traumatic stress disorder, which The Post wrote Jackie told them she was diagnosed with following the rape. That doesn't mean all PTSD sufferers have memory loss, but it means it's common enough that it's listed in official diagnostic manuals as a symptom, he said.

"And of course time decays memory," Resnick said. "So someone is more likely to give an accurate picture to police [immediately after the fact] than if they're interviewed by a reporter two years later."

Despite advantages gained by women's and victims' rights groups more than three decades ago, Resnick said people are still hesitant to report sexual assaults because of the stigma and humiliation that goes along with it. Victims are also less likely to report these crimes if they were drunk or knew their assailant, he said, often asking themselves whether they did anything to provoke an attack. And if the victim doesn't think she (or he) will be taken seriously, they won't want to go through the trauma of talking about it, Resnick said.

Groups disagree over how many victims of sexual assault don't report them to police. According to RAINN 60 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, and only 3 percent of all rapists go to prison. Rolling Stone reported that only about 12 percent of rape victims report the crimes against them, and a Department of Justice report estimated the rate to be 27 percent.

Though Rolling Stone reported that between 2 and 8 percent of sexual assault accusations are unfounded, Resnick said he wasn't sure how accurate the number was. Even so, he said a victim would be more likely to lie about sexual assault if that victim had been rejected by a lover or was a teen who had been found in a compromising position by his or her parents.

Marsh said it's important to keep in mind that about 10,000 people call RAINN's phone and web hotlines for sexual assault each month.

"The big picture is that we hear stories like the one told in the Rolling Stone piece every week -- if not daily-- on the national sexual assault hotline," she said. "And unfortunately stories like Jackie's, the one told in the piece, are all too common."