I remember a time when I had memories that didn’t quite mesh with likely events. I don’t know if these memories were a result of very vivid dreams or simple fancy. What became clear to me, over time, was that these memories were not reliable and I ought not to persist in thinking them true. It simply didn’t help me in my life.
In a way, saying that I remember memories is more true than saying those memories are based in reality. Every time we recall a memory it is rewritten.
The mind is a tricky thing and we still don’t know exactly how it works but reliable studies tell us that every time we recall an event we rewrite the memory in the process of recall. That makes me unhappy. Only one person has been there observing my life and recording it for posterity since the beginning of my existence. I’m that guy.
I’m the true keeper of my own history.
One thing I can be sure of is that I was there at the beginning of my life and I’ve been there ever since. So what better witness can I have than my own memories?
How can my memories be wrong? Right?
Fashion magazine sells junk science
Cosmopolitan recently published an article about recovered or repressed memories, encouraging people to believe their problems could be based on forgotten events. The article features a young woman named “Zoe” who describes a sudden memory of sexual assault in the midst of a stressful encounter with police.
Zoe started having flashbacks. Her discomfort took on a new meaning. Intrusive thoughts became a new reality and the reader is asked to gather insight.
That scholarly test you failed, that relationship that ended badly, your own self loathing, your primal and visceral reaction to Donald Trump: it’s all a symptom of past abuse.
Describing another case, Cosmo helps us understand why some of the details of your past abuse will likely be obscured: “‘I hated to be touched as a teen,’ [Gena] says. ‘I’d flinch. I didn’t like hugging. I’d thought I’m just not a touchy-feely person. Honestly, I kind of thought I was a jerk. It finally clicked for me why.’”
We are told these are “breadcrumbs” in understanding how we were victimized as children and turned into a person we don’t like. Decades of self loathing are likely a byproduct of someone who once touched us in a way we can’t remember. It’s not a result of something within our own control.
More disturbingly, Cosmo tells us “regardless of how long it takes for the memory to resurface (if it ever does), survivors are forced to deal not only with the details of their assault but also with a distrust in their own mind.”
Well, isn’t that a conundrum?
We now have a choice between two evils: We can’t trust our own minds but we also can’t trust our minds to tell us what is in our own memories. What is a victim to do?
Why should Cosmopolitan’s “Zoe” be bothered with the voluminous research that debunks her recovered memories? When “Jim Hopper, PhD, a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard Medical School and an expert in recovered memories” tells her that her problems aren’t her fault we should simply applaud and encourage Zoe to somehow exact her belated revenge on the person accused in her recovered memory.
New terminology for an old, disproven theory
The author tells us that “what might be referred to as delayed recall (the term ‘repressed memories’ is controversial among psychologists)” is not a problem for Zoe because some experts assure us the phenomenon is real.
I’m revisiting my false memories right now. I can picture them clearly. Jim Hopper could try to convince me they are true, but I know better.
Unfortunately, many others do not.
I had a vivid dream one night in which demons surrounded me in my bed. I told my roommate about it in the morning and he gave me a baseball bat. That bat is still lying on the ground next to my bed and the demons haven’t bothered me since.
I was a bit worried that I’d wake up in a panic one night and end up smashing my big screen TV by mistake. That hasn’t happened and I feel really stupid with this bat on floor but I still haven’t given it back to my roommate.
Part of me thinks that bat is why the demons haven’t come back. And who’s to say I’m wrong?
I can’t say that my life has evolved in the way I envisioned it when I was a young, idealistic child. If I was asked 30 years ago what I’d be doing today I could never have predicted it. There were some things that didn’t happen that I feel angry about and there are other things that make me proud of who I am as a human being. The simple reality is that if I like who I am today then I am doing alright. Possibly better than most.
The problem with memory
I have, in the past, engaged in recovered memory therapy.
As a result, I spent a year walking around in a state of trauma trying to figure out how to get justice for the sense of unrest I experienced. There were things about my life I didn’t like and I wanted to know how that had happened. I wanted to know who to blame.
One thing I can tell you, as a person with false memories and a sense of justice, the goal of surviving is not hinged to punishment.
After a year I realized something: Whatever happened, whether it did or not, was in the past and my job was to keep living. And the best revenge is living well.
My problems (if they exist) are not isolated to the past and if I did repress something it was probably for a good reason. One thing I know for sure is that I have never forgotten a major event like a sexual assault. My problem for the future is figuring out how to move forward. Hiring a therapist should not be for the purpose of wallowing.
That said, I am a person who has had false memories which were encouraged by therapists. These memories do not define me, they do not give my life meaning, they do not control me or infect my current experience of the world. I am a person with dreams and nightmares. I keep a bat next to my bed for the latter.
I do wonder though.
I wonder who these therapists are really looking out for. Given that they continue to advocate, and even double down, despite no strong evidence for the widespread existence of “recovered memory”, one needs to ask—do they care about their patients or are they just trying to secure a lucrative niche of specialty for themselves?
As a victim of this kind of therapy I can assure you of one thing: it didn’t make my life any better.