Mark Pendergrast

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Chapter 2: The Memory Maze

Great is this power of memory, exceedingly great. O my God, a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth? Yet it is a faculty of soul and belongs to my nature. In fact I cannot totally grasp all that I am.
–St. Augustine, 399 A.D.

We’ve all experienced sudden, seemingly involuntary recall of incidents, faces, and emotions from the past. Triggered by a particular perfume, a snatch of melody, a photograph, or a voice on the telephone, our pasts can sometimes rush back with surprising intensity and vividness. “Why, I hadn’t thought of Mrs. Carnes in years,” you might say. “I remember that teacher so clearly now, it’s just as if she were in the room with me.” Recalling that second-grade class, you might also flash on Steve Barber, the creep who always chased you and called you names, and the hot flush of fear and anger can be sudden and fresh.

It is, therefore, certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that someone might either forget or actively “repress” an unpleasant memory, a traumatic event that would pop back into consciousness years later with the proper stimulus. Memory researchers have long recognized that people tend to rewrite their pasts to some degree, making themselves into heroes or transforming their family trips from bickering sojourns into golden moments. Because we often view our personal pasts through rose-colored glasses, isn’t it intuitively reasonable to think that the incest survivor accusations may all be true? How many of us are living with versions of our pasts that are essentially myths of happy childhoods, or fabrications to defend our fragile egos?

In the following pages, I’ll summarize what researchers have found regarding repression and dissociation. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of pure science, these concepts have been neither absolutely proven nor absolutely disproven. It is usually impossible to corroborate either Survivors’ memories of incest or their parents’ anguished denials. The alleged events purportedly took place decades ago, and, except for the group abuse envisioned in ritual-abuse scenarios, there would usually have been no witnesses other than parent and child. Few pedophiles seduce their victims in public. By its very nature, sex abuse is a private, hidden act. Therefore, determining guilt or innocence is usually a matter of emotion, character, and conviction.

Similarly, belief in the concept of repression comes down to–well, just that: belief . Because there is no way to verify it, and because the stakes are so high, both sides of the debate over repressed memories tend to become polarized, angry, vociferous, and dogmatic. I’ll try to avoid such a polemical stance, although as an accused parent myself, I certainly do not believe in the validity of my own children’s accusations. Having come to know quite a few parents in similar situations, I doubt their guilt as well. Finally, having reviewed literature such as The Courage to Heal and the other disturbing material presented in the previous chapter, I can see how induced memories of abuse could come to seem quite real. Still, I must look at all sides, particularly because I know how prevalent real incest and other forms of abuse are. I would hate to think that anything I write could, in any way, provide cover for perpetrators or contribute to the silencing of real victims.

Reconstructing the Past

One thing should be made clear at the outset. Those who make accusations based on “recovered memories” are not consciously lying, even if their version of the past may be incorrect. For them, the memories are real, sometimes even more compelling than memories of actual events from childhood. Given that, how can anybody argue that all , or at least most , of these “memories” are inaccurate? Any explanation of how delusional memories can occur must include an examination of how our minds recall the past.

Without our memories, how would we define ourselves? Memories are who we are. Arguably, it is our capacity to remember and reflect on the past that separates us from other animals. Because we can recall the past and project it into the future, we understand cause-and-effect, we can create hypotheses. Memory allows us to be scientists, poets, storytellers, and creators.

But there is also a darker side to this capacity to remember and interpret past events, smells, and sounds. We nurture the inevitable pain and suffering we encounter, seeking explanations, and incorporating them into our self-concepts. We know that something similar might happen again. Because we see ourselves as active agents in the world, creating our own environments and destinies, we think that we must prevent some future disaster. In short, we worry. We have known pain, disappointment and abuse, and we nurse and rehearse their effects. We are historians.
Dream and nightmare, creative joy and paranoia, nostalgia and terror–all seem central to the human experience, and all rely on thoughts and interpretations of the past. This would probably be true even if our memories served as absolutely accurate recording devices and we all agreed on shared events. In fact, however, our minds, mini-lightning storms of tiny electrical currents snapping over billions of synapses awash in a sea of hormones, still defy our understanding. Little wonder, given this compelling description by science writer Philip J. Hilts:

The neurons, then, are like minute sea creatures, packed side to side like tiny bristles, several hundred billion of them in the whole cranial vault, and each in a frenetic state of decision or indecision. Each bristle has thousands of fine filaments to connect to others, and with the billions of cells, times the thousands of filaments, times the different signals which may pass between each reaching tentacle and another, there are, all told, tens to hundreds of trillions of tender signaling junctions formed among neurons.

We do not, in other words, record the past in neat computer-like bits and bytes. It is almost impossible to discuss the mechanisms of memory without employing misleading metaphors. Plato compared the mind to a wax writing tablet, the advanced technology of his era. For Freud, the brain functioned something like a giant plumbing system or steam engine, with uncomfortable material stashed away in the cesspool of the subconscious and leaking out when the pressure reached a critical point. Modern researchers have used other metaphors: the mind as a giant filing cabinet, videotape, or computer.

The trouble with all such comparisons is the implication that we remember everything that has ever happened to us–every smell, sound, sensation, joy or trauma has been encoded somewhere in the brain, and, if only the proper command or button is pushed, it will all come flooding back. Pop psychologists have repeatedly promulgated this notion, as in this passage from Unlocking the Secrets of Your Childhood Memories (1989): “Every experience we’ve had since birth has been recorded and tucked away safely in our brains. Like the most sophisticated computer in the world, the brain retrieves [memories] we need when we need them.”

But the brain does not function that way, as every modern memory researcher knows. “One of the most widely held, but wrong, beliefs that people have about memory is that ‘memories’ exist, somewhere in the brain, like books exist in a library, or packages of soap on the supermarket shelves,” writes psychologist Endel Tulving, “and that remembering is equivalent to somehow retrieving them. The whole concept of repression is built on this misconception.”

British experimental psychologist Frederic Bartlett first made this point in his classic 1932 text, Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology . “Some widely held views have to be completely discarded,” he asserted, “and none more completely than that which treats recall as the re-excitement in some way of fixed and changeless ‘traces.’ ” To the contrary, he held that remembering is “an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude toward a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience.” Based on his experiments, Bartlett concluded that our memories generally serve us well, not by offering photographic recall, but by selectively sampling experience and molding it so that our lives have purpose and meaning. “In a world of constantly changing environment, literal recall is extraordinarily unimportant.” In other words, the human species has evolved a brain that is adaptable, nimble, versatile and imaginative, but not always accurate. We literally “re-member,” patching together the puzzle bits of our past.

Because of this tendency toward “best guesses,” many of us display “source amnesia” or source mis-attribution for a particular memory, even of quite recent events. For instance, I am often quite sure I’ve told a friend something, when in fact I told someone else. Source amnesia is far more common with distant events, however. Thus, it is fairly common to construct a memory that encompasses details from several sources, including, perhaps, family photos, real memories of a bedroom, stories we have heard, or movies we have seen. Then the memories can seem quite accurate. A reconstructed incest abuse memory may, for instance, contain the always-remembered feel of a father’s stubble against a tender child’s face during a goodnight kiss, or the smell of his after-shave. That may be combined with a grotesque, stereotyped scene from a book or movie to form a coherent but misleading narrative.

In addition, we forget a good deal more than we remember. That’s why one common method employed by recovered-memory therapists works so well. They ask clients to recall their childhoods in detail, looking particularly for “missing chunks of time.” If a client cannot recall anything about third and fourth grade, for instance, that supposedly indicates that massive abuse took place during that time, so terrible that the memory had to be repressed, or an alternate personality had to be created. This explanation is quite convincing until one examines how normal memory works. Normally, we recall the highs and lows of our lives, with very little in between. It isn’t surprising, then, that people don’t remember much from their childhoods. Most of us don’t, unless cued with a particular name, smell, or event. At that point, someone who didn’t recall third grade at all might suddenly realize that he or she remembers quite a bit from that time, such as a pet dying, a particular vacation, or a change in bedrooms.

Not only do we simply forget a good deal, our versions of the personal past are highly colored by our own emotions and family myths. Most of us recognize that our siblings tend to recall the same events from quite different perspectives. I may remember those touch football games with great fondness, for instance, whereas for my brother they were pure torture.

After recounting a salient memory of her childhood, the narrator in Sue Miller’s 1990 novel, Family Pictures , admits that her memory is faulty:

My sister Liddie says it’s her memory, her story, one she told me much later …. And yet it seems as clear to me as a picture I might have taken. I could swear this was exactly what happened. But that’s the way it is in a family, isn’t it? The stories get passed around, polished, embellished …. And, of course, there’s also the factor of time. Of how your perspective, your way of telling the story–of seeing it–changes as time passes. As you change.

The classic Japanese film Rashomon makes the same point, allowing four characters who witnessed a violent episode to recall different versions, filtered through their own biases and perspectives.
We are also quite capable of projecting emotions and reinterpretations backward through time, and of creating absolutely clear memories of events that never occurred. This comes as shocking news to everyone, because it threatens our cherished sense of self. Who should know better than we what we have experienced?

Yet our memories are infinitely more suggestible and malleable than we would like to believe. A 1952 study dramatically illustrates the point. Twelve subjects in group therapy were asked to recall childhood memories involving parents, siblings, and sexual experiences. The Freudian therapist conducting the study was particularly interested in stories about rejecting fathers and flirtatious little girls. The memories were transcribed onto a pack of cards, shuffled, and presented to the subjects from three months to four years later. None of the patients could identify all of their previously reported memories . On average, they correctly recalled half of them.

Given the proper stimulus and the awful surmise that our parents did something really reprehensible to us–buried in the mists of our murky childhood memories–we could all come to believe in the reality of grotesque events that never took place . That, in fact, is what may have happened to millions of frightened, confused, angry adults in the United States in the final years of the 20th century.

[Continued… To order the book directly from the publisher, Upper Access Books, click here.]