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How Rape Affects Memory And The Brain, And Why More Police Need To Know About This

Marissa Espiritu/CapRadio
Many survivors don't report sexual assaults because they fear no one will believe them. Advocates say better training for police on the neuroscience of trauma could help survivors feel safe while talking with police, making it less likely they experience a secondary trauma.

Annie Walker woke up one morning in 2019 with little recollection of the night before. She had bruises on her arms, legs, wrist and lower abdomen.

"But I literally had no idea what had happened," she says. "And, for days, I was trying to put the pieces together."

She knew she had gone to a Sacramento bar and restaurant with a group of people, and she remembered drinking there and being left alone with the man she'd later identify as her rapist. But not much else.

Still, memories that she couldn't summon that first morning gradually came into focus over the following days and weeks — details such as what the man had been wearing, and the way he shoved her against the bar. One week after the attack, She reported the crime to the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

Then, in the days after making the report, another wave of memories surfaced — she recalled, vividly, that the man had raped her, and that he had a weapon.

"I knew that there was a gun at my neck, at my back," she says. "It was just clear."

But the Sacramento detectives assigned to Walker's case didn't seem to understand why she couldn't remember all the details, right away.

"I remember I just kept saying 'I don't know, I don't know, I don't know!'" Walker says.

The detectives also gave her a hard time later, she says, when she called to report that she had remembered that her attacker had a gun.

"I felt like I was just extremely cross-examined on the phone. Like, 'why didn't you remember a gun? That's, like, a really important thing.'"

Sexual assault survivors say interactions with law enforcement can be so intense, and so unsympathetic, that they add a secondary trauma on top of the rape. Reporting a rape can be especially traumatic when officers cast doubt on victims' stories, if they don't immediately remember all the details of an assault right away.

But it doesn't have to be that away, according to scientists and scholars of criminal justice. If police gain a deeper understanding of what's going on in the brain during and after a rape, they can change the way they approach rape cases and avoid making survivors feel blamed or disbelieved.

Scientists who study trauma and memory say it's common for sexual assault survivors — as well as survivors of other serious traumas — to be unable to recall an attack fully. They might remember certain facts but not others, or struggle to recall events in the correct sequence.

These recall issues are common after a serious trauma, but can complicate the investigation of a rape if survivors report it to the police. When law enforcement officers aren't aware of the neuroscience of trauma, and have no training to deal with it, there's a tendency to dismiss or disbelieve victims who experience memory gaps, according to scholars and advocates for sexual-assault victims.

"There's a real danger when investigators are asking people for information that was never encoded or has been lost," says Harvard University psychologist Jim Hopper. "They can stress out the victim, leave them feeling misunderstood, incompetent, not wanting to further engage with the investigation."

Walker's alleged perpetrator was never arrested. And she's still frustrated with the way detectives put pressure on her to remember details during the investigation.

"I couldn't explain why I couldn't remember things that had happened, or why they were coming back to me the way that they did," she says.

When the brain switches into survival mode

When confronted with a crisis, the brain often activates its "fight, flight or freeze" response. In these scenarios, the brain's "defense circuitry" takes over, explains Jim Hopper, the Harvard psychologist. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical decision making, is no longer in control, and instead the areas of the brain responsible for scanning for danger take charge.

"And that's what people are running on" when trauma happens, Hopper says.

In this state, some people respond by mentally "dissociating," or disconnecting from their physical selves.

"People may describe feeling like they were floating, or like they were in a movie, or a dream," Hopper says. Walker says she had an "out-of-body experience" as she was being attacked.

"I felt paralyzed," she says. "I couldn't even feel my limbs."

That survival response affects the ability to absorb what's happening around them, Hopper says.

Studies on memory and recall during a traumatic event describe two types of details: central and peripheral. Central details are those that capture our attention and evoke emotions in the moment, such as a location where the attack took place. Peripheral details are those that a survivor might not have been paying attention to during the crisis, such as something the perpetrator says or whether other people were present. Central details tend to be stored more reliably and for longer than peripheral details.

Sometimes survivors are unable to answer what might seem like a simple question, if it involves a peripheral detail like the color of the attacker's shirt. And Hopper says that can make officers suspicious.

Hopper, who gives legal testimony in sexual assault cases, says victims are often held to unfair standards, even compared to other trauma survivors.

"Every day in courtrooms around the country, [defense attorneys] attack and question the credibility of victims of sexual assault for having the same kind of memories that soldiers have for their combat experiences," he says. "We would never question the credibility of a soldier, based on whether they can remember the exact sequence of those mortars coming in and which one blew off their friend's leg versus which blew off that guy's arm."

Victim advocates and criminal justice scholars say this tendency to disbelieve victims is one of the reasons so few sexual assault cases end in convictions.

But there are some Law enforcement officers who do understand the science. They say it's important for detectives to be open to anything a survivor might say, whenever they say it — even if those details were not available in an initial report, because the information survivors provide later on can be helpful for solving the crime.

One officer who does understand the science is Nicole Monroe, a police detective in Elk Grove, a suburb of Sacramento. She says she and some of her colleagues have gotten additional education on the science, and it has changed the way they approach sexual assault cases.

Monroe tells victims that she works with that more memories will continue to surface in the days, weeks and even months to come.

"Smells will come back. Sights will come back. When you think of these things, give me a call and let me know, so that it can be added," Monroe says, "Because little things like that are going to make a difference."

A new way for police to interview sexual assault survivors

Traditionally, law enforcement officers are trained to conduct an interrogation that may involve drawing out specific details, usually in chronological order.

"The expectation is someone is supposed to come in, sit down, they're supposed to be ready to talk, they're supposed to know what to talk about," says Carrie Hull, a former detective with the Ashland Police Department in southern Oregon. "They're going to tell you what happened to them from the beginning, through the middle, and then the end. That is a very traditional understanding."

Hull is now a consultant for police departments, and part of her work involves advocating for the adoption of a technique known as Forensic Experiential Trauma Interviewing, or FETI. The training can help law enforcement — and anyone else who interviews victims of trauma — learn how to ask questions differently: with empathy, patience, and an informed understanding of how a traumatized brain makes memories and recalls them. Training in the technique is available through an online course, but it's not a mandatory requirement for most police departments.

People who take Hull's course learn specific strategies for helping someone resurface a relevant memory that he or she may not have had access to, when they first walked into the interview room. Hull says FETI discourages counterproductive practices such as paraphrasing, changing the victim's words, interrupting or giving advice.

All this is far different from the stereotypical depiction of a police interview on television. Hull says the overarching goal of trauma interviewing is to first "collect the dots, then connect the dots." In other words, simply interview the victim about what happened. The sharper, more aggressive investigative tactics can wait.

Hull says FETI helps police officers become more aware of their own assumptions, as well as their role in setting the tone and mood for a more productive conversation with crime victims: "How do you gather information from somebody where you are not introducing your own biases?" she says. "How do you acknowledge what those biases are? Know that separation between interview and investigation? So those are some of the really core concepts that we work with."

There isn't currently any research proving that law enforcement departments who take this training solve more rape cases. But victim advocates and scholars say it's a best practice that could make working with police a more positive experience for victims, and, eventually, help bring more perpetrators to justice.

"If I had my way, every one of them would be doing this," saysDave Thomas, a program officer with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "And that's part of what we're trying to instill in agencies to do. Any officer conducting in-depth victim interviews and suspect interrogations should receive more detailed training on conducting trauma -informed interviews and interrogations."

Annie Walker is still struggling to recover from her sexual assault, but it's complicated because she's also healing from the way law enforcement handled her case. She thinks both police officers and survivors need more education on the way trauma affects memory.

"I imagine there's so many victims that truly feel and believe maybe they're crazy, or if other people are like, 'How come you didn't remember that?' They go, 'Oh, yeah, I guess I should have remembered that,'" Walker says.

She says if survivors knew what to expect in terms of memory issues, it wouldn't be so frustrating. "They need to feel like the way that things are happening in their mind is normal. Normal for them."

This story comes from NPR's health reporting partnership with CapRadio and Kaiser Health News (KHN).
Copyright 2021 CapRadio News. To see more, visit CapRadio News.