On Trauma and Remembering

Posted: October 4, 2018 in Uncategorized

One dimension of the recent furor over the nomination of a Supreme Court Justice are assumptions about the way that memory functions, especially memory surrounding trauma. For those of us who have spent countless hours listening to people’s stories of trauma this polarized debate seems strange. Some have declared that unless the entire story is remembered en toto testimony lacks credibility. Others reflect a different view, that memories are somewhat like photographs and to be trusted in the same way. Both views are found wanting.

First, traumatic memories are encapsulated within a mental story line and that story line contains a series of capsules/memories/recorded impressions attached to sensory experiences. As I have worked with vets processing a firefight, for instance, they remember particular things – not all things – but standout fragments: A powerful odor, the expression on someone’s face, a deafening sound, an image and its color. All of the emotions of the entire trauma are vested in these capsules and the work of clearing the emotions from these individual pieces is crucial to draining the entire story of its crippling emotion.

When a person who has experienced assault remembers pieces those pieces are the embodiment of the whole story. They are the standout memories of intensity. And when you deal with those you are dealing with the whole story. They are as real as real can be. In fact, in terms of healing, unless you get to the particular you probably won’t make much progress.

On the other hand our memories are not like video recordings of what happened. They include our sensory experience of the moment, selective attention to certain details and not others, and our interior reactions to outer events. That is why no two people have exactly the same memory of the same event; only a consensus of many eyes and brains creates some believable scenario that may have taken place. The memory of one person includes partial remembrance and very personal emotional response.

And of course, memory can change. We do change memories every time we access them. Our minds contain surprising ways to interpret and give meaning to what has happened. That is one of the hopes of therapy; we can actually adjust memory, add additional interpretation, and even complete unfinished stories in redemptive ways. So memory is never static.

I remember the death and funeral of my mother in a very particular way with very particular images in my mind. These same images, however, are not shared by my brother who ostensibly passed through the same experience. Our two recollections are very different. What we can do is remember and hold the emotional response, the importance we have granted the event, and deal with that. Though my brother and I don’t have identical memories of our mother’s passing and the the death rituals that followed, we do know how much it impacted us and left its powerful mark on our young souls. That very subjective reality we do share. But it is not a record that can be objectified.

As regards this current high court nomination and its resistance, I observe several things based on these realities of memory:

Nothing like objectivity can be attained by an exchange of he said/she said testimony. It is too subjective. That can only be corroborated through multiple attestation. Short of that, nothing conclusive can be determined. And if anyone in power limits investigation so that multiple witnesses are excluded, they short-circuit the search for truth.

Fragmentary memories are not to be dismissed, especially from supercharged traumas, either recent or from the distant past. I’ve experienced people accessing and sharing these kinds of memories in exactly these kinds of ways. As I listened to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford it rang quite authentic in its fragmentary nature and emotionally charged content.  It should not be dismissed because it was partial. In fact, taking the emotionally super-charged story line seriously – as a testimony of emotional impact – is the least level of empathy we should extend.

No memory, however, is utterly objective and unchanging. That includes the memory of Brett Kavanaugh. His memory, too, is partial and the product of his own emotional and mental state at the time. He, too, has changed his memory over time to conform to the self he believes he is and others believe him to be. That’s what we do. Quite apart from any attempt to intentionally mislead is the subjective nature of memory itself. Which is why, of course, multiple attestation is so important.

It has often been said and I believe it to be true that what we remember about a person is not what they said to us but rather how we felt about them at the time. That reality is surely in play as a part of this highly emotion-filled and politically charged issue. Whatever the truth of Kavanaugh’s history and the ways he has either stayed the same or changed in intervening years, what is remembered by one woman so very long ago is the powerful and real feelings she had in a particular place and moment in time. Since we cannot observe it for ourselves and witnesses are kept unavailable to corroborate the stories for us, we can never know, not for certain, the meaning of what was experienced for that woman in that terrifying moment.

None of this simplifies seeking conclusions or making decisions. In fact, it makes it more complex. Make of all this what you will, but I know one thing for certain: The way that public persons have dismissed the testimony of a person attempting to share a traumatic experience is bone-chilling. It reinforces the tendency of people to not share their pain and instead carry it alone and in silence. This will not help those persons who find themselves in great peril in situations of domestic abuse. This will not help persons who have been raped and who will not be believed.

During my years of hearing many stories of trauma I have learned to say one thing if I don’t say anything else. It is the one thing that doesn’t depend on absolute rational, objective proof or a water-tight story. And it is this: I believe you. I have said that more times than I can remember. And they may be the most important words I’ve ever spoken.

Comments
  1. Don Lanier says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful and insightful “take” on the Kavanaugh charade. Unfortunately, such reasonable and careful thought is in short supply among power-hungry Republicans in D.C. these days.

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