trauma memory

Three nights ago I was hounded by bouts of sleeplessness. This happens infrequently now, usually as a precursor to a migraine, and such has been the case alas. I usually listen to the radio when life is like this — podcasts, World Service, etc.

After much depressing news, I caught a podcast hosted by Steven Pinker, called Think with Pinker. This episode, ‘Sentence first, verdict after’, set out to look at cognitive concerns around juries and judges — specifically, language and memory.

Normally, I have a HUGE amount of time for Dr Pinker. He has done some fascinating work around language acquisition, computational intelligence, and has been a respected media intellectual for some years now. However, lying there unable to sleep….I just got madder and madder.

His main guest was Dr Elizabeth Loftus, a renowned cognitive psychologist, best known for her work in the area of memory and recovered memory. Her studies show pretty unequivocally that it is possible to ‘implant’ some kinds of memories in children especially (though they may be other conclusions to be drawn from them of course — perhaps just that adults can get children to believe lies?). While there are many questions about her work and how it may intersect with her own history (here is a fascinating and thorough New Yorker piece on her work and her personal history), there is no doubt that she is an influential expert in the area of ‘false memory’, called upon often by the defence in trials of the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

To be fair, I’m guessing that the podcast intended to control the conversation into only speaking about how necessary it is to be careful with language — to watch how questions and cross-questions are framed and asked when it comes to witnesses and victims. This makes sense: it’s good to be alert to influencing anyone on the stand.

But the programme was too dismissive for my liking. Too categorical. Loftus and Pinker laughed about how one of her studies convinced subjects that they’d been to Disneyland, when they hadn’t. One even reported having seen Bugs Bunny — impossible, because Bugs Bunny is not part of the Disney world.

Neither of them mentioned the very specific — and totally UNfunny situation of trials involving sexual abuse and sexual assault. Neither of them mentioned the fact that Dr Loftus is the queen of taking the stand for the defence in these cases — and testifying that memories can be implanted. And that therefore the victim’s recall of events and accusations may well be so unreliable as to be ‘untrue’.

Neither of them took any account of the questions surrounding Loftus’ work and traumatic experiences (see The New Yorker article above). Or mentioned that implanting traumatic memories has never been successful. And that is because it is impossible to recreate a sufficiently traumatic environment, context or individual situation. Trauma has its own rules.

We now know that not only are memories themselves different from each other (self evidently), but the creation and storage of these trauma memories are also different. There are many studies and articles available on the formation and characteristics (the neuroscience) of trauma memory; here is a snippet of a particularly well researched piece:

“Much of what is remembered of a traumatic or threatening event functions as if existing in separate islands of memory.

Information encoding and storage are impaired for aspects of the experiences that are not considered essential for survival or are of little emotional importance. This includes the sequence of events as well as peripheral details. This often results in a disorganized and incomplete narrative memory.

This is immensely important for how victims of trauma are interviewed. The primary emphasis of the sexual assault police interview should therefore be on the sensory, emotional memories that the victim has encoded and remembered rather than expecting the victim to give a narrative with a chronology.”

Trauma memory is different. It cannot be accessed like other types of memory, nor can memories be truly ‘planted’. The area of the brain into which the implanting would have to happen is too primal, and not open to suggestion.

The notion of memory — in all of its layers and mutability — is not solid at the best of times. But we must not confuse ‘normal’ memory with trauma memory. We have to establish respectful ways of questioning victims and witnesses who have been traumatised (or allegedly so) without risking re-traumatisation or further silencing. Sexual abuse and domestic abuse are SO common that we simply must find ways of doing this right. Discrediting memories, and/or eliding testimony into False Memory, fatally disadvantage actual victims and survivors — who are disproportionately penalised for having memories that behave differently, and which do so completely out of their control.

My memoir Learning to Survive reflects trauma memory at work in its structure, its gaps, and its fragmentation. I recognise and acknowledge these irregularities as the book progresses, but they are my reality, my memory, and ultimately they shape my life. This excerpt details what I can remember, and what I can’t, around an early traumatic sexual assault.

*

L is for Laundry Room

Close to the pool at one of the apartment blocks, there is a laundry room. I’ve been in it plenty of times. It’s a long thin room with washers and dryers along both sides: you open up the top, load in the clothes and close it, then line up the quarters in the sliding tray, push it in with a satisfying clunk. Many, many times I have helped my mother load up and push in the metal tray. You have to get it just right, but when it goes in, the water comes on immediately, a great rush into the drum of the machine.

            My friend Deidre and I are hanging around, as usual. It is summer. We wander past the laundry room, on our way somewhere else. There’s a man in there, and he steps out, calls after us, ‘Hey, can you help me?’

            We turn around. Deidre is wary, but I am not. Together we go back to him. He’s a big man, older, dressed in overalls like Granddaddy wears when he’s gardening or working on the pick-up truck. But he’s not as old as him, he’s more like an old father. He says, ‘Thanks. It’s just that I can’t get this to work, I don’t know how it works. Do you need quarters?’

            We are standing at the door, in shorts, barefoot and barelegged as usual, five years old. It’s darker in the room. We don’t say anything.

            ‘How many quarters do you need?’ he goes on. Finally I answer. ‘Two,’ I say.

            ‘Oh well,’ he says, ‘I’ve got two quarters. Could you show me how to work it?’

            Somehow I am moving into the room, and he lifts me up to put the quarters in. I push the slide in, and the wash starts. He puts me down. The moment of fear, the stepping forward, has passed, and I turn to leave.

            ‘Thank you,’ he says, then, as if it’s an afterthought, ‘oh hey, do you like Coke?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say.

            ‘Do you want one?’ he says.

            I do. He hasn’t given me anything for helping him, and I wonder if he’s going to give me a Coke for it. I nod.

            From now on, I don’t know what happens to Deidre, I only know what happens to me. I step forward again, and the man shuts the door. He says he’s going to put something over my eyes, then he’s going to give me a Coke. I am blindfolded. Fear begins to press at me, panic fluttering, but I don’t move. I don’t want him to see I am afraid. I tell myself that whatever is happening will be over, sometime it will be over.

            Something goes into my mouth. It doesn’t taste like coke. It tastes and feels terrible, but it is over quickly. I spit it out. I remember the sound of a zipper. I remember not looking at him when the blindfold comes off, and walking calmly out of the door, still not wanting to be afraid, the glass bottle of Coke in my hand.

            I sense that Deidre is with me, but I could be wrong. Perhaps she runs away, to find someone, to tell them, before the door is closed. Or perhaps she is blindfolded too.

            Some conversation comes up later, with older children or even with mothers, not my own. Someone asks me if I’ve seen anything, if anything has happened. ‘No,’ I say. I lie. I know I have something to hide. I’ve been greedy.

we’re here, folks, in droves

It’s been a week. My head has been down, to the grindstone. I’ve watched the Maxwell trial spin by. Relief has been followed by distress, and the too-familiar feeling of loss of control: a juror was abused. He helped others to understand the elements of abuse. Along the way another juror realised they’d most likely suffered child sexual abuse as well. All is up in the air.

What does this tell us? For those of us in the Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) world, it reinforces a few hard facts, all of which we know, all too intimately:

  1. CSA is very common. In the UK, the NSPCC can be sure that 1 in 20 children is sexually abused. In the US, the CDC splits this figure by gender: 1 in 4 girls, 1 in 13 boys. These are the surveyed and reported stats.
  2. There is also the hard fact that a third of those abused NEVER disclose or report it. So we can be sure that the figure is higher than either the NSPCC or CDC can report in good faith.
  3. No one likes to think that the person next to them has been a victim of child abuse. See number 1. No choice, folks.
  4. No one likes to think that there’s a chance that the crimes being tried were experienced on some level by a member of the jury. See number 1. No choice, folks.
  5. Nor that anyone in any context knows or has contact with anyone who was sexually abused as a child. See number 1. You, and everyone, are bound to know numerous people who have been abused. No choice, folks.

Here is the thing. As late as 1974, Child Sexual Abuse was considered extremely rare. 1 in 1 million people. My lord. Society and culture could then (incorrectly) be supported by medics’ and lawyers’ claims that CSA is virtually unknown. From there, silences, denials, dismissiveness, deflections…all of that seemed fair enough. Nothing to do with Us. What happens to those children, and those people, is not Us. What happens is strange. Perverted. Deviant. Not Us.

Yes. I’m not going to argue anything other than CSA is awful. Wrong. Deviant.

But it IS Us. It is an everyday occurrence. It deserves to be part of the conversation, even in trials around…CSA. Because who would think of having no differently abled people on a jury in a trial about discrimination against disabled folks? Who would think about requiring there be no people of colour on a jury in a trial which involved a person of colour?

CSA — for this era, and regrettably — is part of the conversation. Part of our lives. Part of your life. We have a voice. We have logic and reason. We can make a judgement. We can hear things out, and weigh things up. But we won’t disregard our abuse.

Juries represent and reflect the Human Experience. Of course the process and the questionnaire all need examining. But let’s not jump to conclusions and state that people who have been abused cannot be part of a jury which must come to a decision about abuse. It’s not gonna happen. And it’s not right if it does.

We all long for CSA never to happen again. But we are nowhere near that yet. As the Maxwell trial, and so much else, amply prove.

[photo: me at age 15, taken by school friend David Larsen. My father was still abusing me.]

*

from my memoir Learning to Survive, about how very badly we can be betrayed by those who in theory are supposed to protect us, and by an unenforceable law:

Therapy

The spring of my junior year at Blacksburg High School is a particularly gruelling time.

            The nerves I see in my father’s eyes become something else, and he appears to take action. He tells me that [my stepmother] ‘knows about us’ and ‘about Suzanne’, giving the impression that he has had to tell her, for my own good. He locates a therapy practice about 15 miles away in Radford which he deems suitable. We are at first booked into a group session; then I start my own sessions, and [my stepmother] and my father start marriage counselling.

            This all seems to happen within a couple of weeks. [My stepmother] does not speak to me about what she knows. I do not remember her asking any questions, or expressing any concern. We go back and forth to therapy together, and do not discuss anything said within those walls. From journals of the time, I know that I am deeply, deeply confused and unhappy. About everything. I love Suzanne, but I also like boys. I hate men. I want my father out of my life. And I am utterly miserable.

            Things that emerge from therapy:

            Every Rorschach ink blot terrifies me. Every single one looks sexual. Looks creepy. Looks scary. Has monsters. I feel I am losing some battle if I admit how terrified they make me feel. I am 17. I lie about all of them, although there is only my therapist and me in the room.      

My father requests that I no longer call him ‘Daddy’. You need to grow up, he says, and I need to move on.

            Suzanne is a bad influence. I am no longer allowed to see her, at least for a little while.

            None of this can be mentioned to [my siblings].

Things that do not happen from therapy:

My father is not reported.

My father is not reported.

My father is not reported.

It takes me a long time to accept – years, and many therapists later – that in this, my first encounter with therapy, I am fundamentally betrayed: my father does not take responsibility for his actions, and, as it turns out, never does, as if that one chance missed lets him off scot-free. As a consequence I am not protected, and nor, for that matter, is [my sister], who is 13 at the time. As a consequence I am completely flattened. If [my stepmother] in theory ‘knows’ now, if the therapists ‘know’, why does everything not fall apart? Is the abuse, after all, okay?

            My own unproven and unsubstantiated theory is that my father probably locates this practice precisely because he feels he can influence its members. After all, he has been able to manage every aspect of the story so far. He prevents any explosion, or any impact on any other part of our lives. We carry on. I speak of the abuse – lightly – in therapy, almost paralysed with dread. But it is not discussed much. Of more importance it seems is my relationship with Suzanne: is it real, am I really gay? The therapist seems fixated upon how I become involved with Suzanne, and I do not recall a single direct conversation about the abuse. I wonder if, after all that, she ever really believes me.

            I know now that my father almost certainly mis-directed and orchestrated the whole thing, such that [my stepmother] and I never have an honest conversation, and most vitally, [my siblings] are told nothing. I know now too that the therapists at the practice actually break the law: in 1981 in Virginia, therapists are legally obliged to report sexual abuse to the Child Protective Services — which these don’t, because I am never interviewed, and anyway, nothing changes. I know now that this requirement to report to services is in place precisely because perpetrators are generally expert manipulators, and otherwise control the dynamics. Which is precisely what my father does.

even the ‘good’ goes away

For many years I tried to ‘reconcile’ the parts of my father who was my abuser with the parts that weren’t. I tried to hold onto the ‘good’ parts. I tried to look past the ‘bad’. Because without doubt, he had much to offer to the world.

Like probably all survivors of sexual abuse, I am hugely relieved to hear of Ghislaine Maxwell’s conviction for sex trafficking girls. Regardless of her no doubt manifold ‘good’ qualities, her ‘bad’ qualities, her crimes, have taken priority. She has been held accountable.

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) can ruin victims’ lives. Sexual abuse is an extraordinarily damaging crime. Its effects bleed into everything. There is no way to look past it, either in your life or in the life of someone you love. The blame lies squarely with the perpetrator, and absolutely nowhere else. Sexual abuse is so heinous that it negates whatever else a perpetrator might have done in their lives. This may feel ‘unfair’ or ‘out of proportion’ to those who love or respect the perpetrators. But dealing with being a victim of sexual abuse is a lifelong sentence. Being sexually abused doesn’t ‘clear up’. It is never ‘out of sight’. There are ways to tackle its effects which are helpful, and which develop good tools for living. But trauma changes the wiring in the body; it changes us physiologically. As survivors, we are forever altered.

Perpetrators’ lives — no matter how much ‘good’ they do in the world — deserve likewise to be forever changed. The decisions they made, and the damage from them, are irreparable.

From Learning to Survive, writing about the loss of anything good to do with my father.

***

Good Things

After the age of about 11, I cannot remember a single decent time with him. That is, one that isn’t inflected with fear, or repulsion, wondering what his next move will be. Wondering how he will use any moment to bring me closer to him, to be with him, later. As I look back, I think I may experience some moments of joy, in theory – like listening to music with him, peering through a telescope, arriving at the correct answer to a maths problem together – but none of them exist separately for long. I cannot tease them apart from everything else; I cannot make them stand up strong. They are never far from everything else I want to forget. They become meaningless.

            So I forget them all. I forget any possibility of good in him, and it never comes back. That room, like so many, is entirely empty.

[photo Martin Muir]