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Rape trauma often mistaken for deception
01:56 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Christine Blasey Ford's credibility is being called into question; some say she's "mistaken"

Experts say that what Judge Brett Kavanaugh's accuser remembers is probably "locked in"

CNN  — 

Being pushed into a room, thrown onto a bed and groped: Those are the kinds of details that get embedded in a sexual assault survivor’s memory.

Peripheral information, like what day it was or what someone wore, may fall away or grow fuzzy, especially with time. But the most distressing moments get “locked in” and remain “very salient,” explained Dean Kilpatrick, a clinical psychologist and director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Kilpatrick, a senior investigator in the medical school’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has spent more than 40 years working with sexual assault survivors. He knows the subject well.

“Memory is not like a video camera” and can’t capture everything, he said. But life’s most impactful experiences – whether they be positive or negative – stay in focus.

Fears of being killed

All of this is pertinent as Christine Blasey Ford considers testifying and answering questions about accusations she’s made against Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Ford says the Supreme Court nominee sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago, when they were both high school students.

Kavanaugh has denied the accusation that he sexually assaulted Ford while drunk at a party in the early ’80s.

In a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Ford shared her memories. She recalled the drunken laughter of Kavanaugh and his friend, the loud music meant to drown out her cries for help, Kavanaugh’s hand that covered her mouth.

“I feared he may inadvertently kill me,” she wrote.

About half of sexual assault survivors, when asked whether they worried about being seriously injured or killed, say they did, Kilpatrick said.

“If they say ‘yes’ to that, it predicts more likelihood of long-term mental health problems,” he said.

Ford told the Washington Post about her years of feeling “derailed” and how she’s struggled with anxiety and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cementing painful memories

Not only are women who’ve experienced a sexual assault likely to remember their assaults, they tend to have memories that are more vivid than women who’ve experienced other sorts of traumas, such as car accidents, a new study shows.