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.