The Brain is a Fascinating Place
September 7, 2005

Why is it that as a society in the U.S. we'll believe in the repressed memories of Viet Nam vets ... and now we'll be understanding (or at least, more understanding) of folks who forget what leads up to a nasty car wreck or other trauma ...
but we have such a difficult time believing that someone abused as a child would or even that they could forget darn near the whole thing?

Is it because when we're thinking about Viet Nam vets, we're assuming there was one day out of 365 that they can't remember the traumatic events? Is it because if John Davies forgot the hour before and after his car wreck, it's still a pretty limited time period?
Is it because we find it hard to believe that someone could forget years at a time?

I'm just thinking out loud. I can see Private Duke forgetting about the day that everybody went nuts after no sleep and not even much in the way of MREs and everyone on alert for days and days at a time ... and then going psycho on a hut of folks who may or may not have been innocent. And really, in Nam, how could you tell who's innocent or not after a little kid blew up your best friend?
I mean, I can see the stress and lack of sleep and food just contributing to the shock of seeing (and doing) something horrific. I can see how you could forget under those circumstances.

And having been in a minor wreck or two, I can also see how you're just driving, doing what you're doing -- you're not consciously trying to recall how to drive and which street you're passing. So I can see where it would be easy to block out of your mind exactly what happened. I can see how it would be easy to completely forget the whole thing ... the shock would contribute to the "daily routine" aspect and it can be really hard to remember much.

But when we think about child abuse, the whole tenor of belief seems to change. First, we don't seem to want to believe kids who do say that something terrible has happened to them.
Is it because so many kids are so imaginative and live in their own worlds? Is it because we simply don't want to think that horrible things could happen to a kid we know? Is it because we don't believe the particular person the kid names could be capable of that? Is it because we hear on the news about all sorts of false accusations?

And then, when we add the concept of a repressed memory to the mix that we already want to disbelieve ... is this simply one step too far, stretching our suspense of disbelief to the breaking point? (And yes, I used a term normally associated with fiction on purpose.)

Is it because the events generally described in these repressed memories just seem too horrific to be forgotten? If so, how is this any different from some of the horrific Viet Nam repressed memories that have been corroborrated by other vets?

Is it because we simply can't believe that someone, some adult, didn't notice the event(s)?

Is it because we just don't want to believe there's that kind of evil in the world?

I've listened as an older friend talked haltingly about Viet Nam. And when he crept up on some of the recovered memories ... the shame in his voice ... the shaking ... the whole affect of his body language changed. He still hadn't fully dealt with those things ... even though he'd (mostly) recovered the memory. In some cases, he simply related stories that the other guys in his unit told him had happened because he still couldn't remember.

I've listened to friends after a car wreck. Again, the whole affect changes. If they still haven't recovered memory of the wreck, the affect often stays very "blank," for lack of a better word. They're reciting facts, cold and rehearsed. There's a tension behind that blankness and you can generally watch as muscles become tight. Or, a few people react with no emotional cues at all. These folks will relate a horrific wreck almost as if reading the grocery list -- no connection to the event at all.

And I've listened to friends who have always remembered childhood abuse and some who've recovered a memory. Those people I believed had the same range of emotional response: some shook, some changed body language, some recited without emotion, some tensed up, some sounded like they were back in the past living it again.

Those I haven't believed? They've been few and far between, now that I think about it. There have been times when I've thought that something surely happened to that person, but perhaps not quite the scenario they related. After all, it seems like it might be easy enough to lead a child to think they've witnessed one thing, when it was actually a staged event. (I particularly think about all the little elementary kids who used to think that tv wrestling was a real athletic competition instead of a staged demo of moves.)

But, I've also heard the little twerps in the laundrymat or the grocery store who use the excuse of abuse to prevent their folks from leveling a justified punishment.

A knotty problem that I sure don't know the answer to and I'm not so sure anyone else does, either, but I'd love to hear your comments.

Posted by Red Monkey at September 7, 2005 10:12 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

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