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Brass Ring and Repressed Memories

When I was a therapist in training back in the . . . well, a long time ago, we were taught the importance of asking our clients if they’d ever been sexually abused. Particularly in cases where our clients presented with low self-esteem, self destructive behavior or sexual dysfunction, we were encouraged to push a little with that question, since those symptoms were sometimes associated with abuse. While I think the possibility of abuse often needs to be explored, at that time there was so strong a focus on abuse that some therapists went too far. For example, a therapist might say to a client, “People with symptoms like you’re describing were often abused as children. Can you remember that happening to you? No? Maybe you’ve blocked the memory.” Suddenly, the client might remember a traumatic event, often detailed and convincing. Occasionally, this led to the alleged victim confronting the alleged abuser . . . and occasionally, it led to lawsuits and convictions. Sometimes, the memories rising to the surface were real, and sometimes they were unintentional fabrications brought on by the power of the therapist’s suggestion. The problem was (and remains) that there’s rarely a way to tell the difference.

            As a therapist, I worked with two cases involving repressed memories of abuse that were later corroborated by family members. This was probably possible because I worked primarily with adolescents, so there were still other family members around who also remembered the events my clients had “forgotten.” It was this experience that made me a believer in our ability to repress difficult memories, but I also believe our imaginations can just plain make up stuff, especially with a trusted and sincere therapist nudging us along. The older I get, the more I’m aware that my own memories are colored and embellished by my imagination. All I need to do is compare my memory of an event to one of my siblings’ memories of the same event to know that at least one of us has gone off the deep end.

            When I wrote Brass Ring, the concept of False Memory Syndrome was coming to the forefront. Experts were beginning to realize that repressed memories might be faulty, and indeed, many of them were. The pendulum seemed to be swinging in the direction of not believing any recovered memories, and that concerned me. There had to be a middle ground. I didn’t set out to write Brass Ring to make that point, though. I simply wanted to write an entertaining story.

            In Brass Ring, two fortyish sisters have been estranged since childhood. Vanessa vividly remembers being abused as a child and the toll it took on her life. Claire, on the other hand, is a Pollyanna sort of woman who finds the silver lining in every cloud until she witnesses a traumatic event that awakens odd memories: she sees the color green in the side view mirror of her car; she’s haunted by a bloodstain in the shape of Italy; she remembers coloring a picture of a robin and a worm. Gradually, the images come together. . . but I don’t want to give the story away if you haven’t read it, so I won’t say anymore than that.

            I have my very own repressed memory. Every time I pick up a thick ream of paper or a fat book, I get an instantaneous queasy feeling that’s hard to describe. This has happened my entire adult life and I know it’s tied to something I experienced as a child. Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to follow the feeling to unearth the root cause, but the visceral response is too uncomfortable for me to “go there.” I’m sure the memory I’ve tucked away  was no big deal. Most like I was lifting a large book from my bookshelf, glanced out the window, and saw a baby bird fall from its nest. Something totally innocuous that will forever be attached to the feeling of holding something thick and papery in my hand.

            That brings me to my final point: What does it matter? I want to focus on the here and now as well as on the future, not spend my time digging through the past. I know that it’s sometimes necessary to do that digging in order to move forward into a healthy future. In Claire’s case, for example, I believe it became necessary because she couldn’t resolve her feelings about  the present day traumatic event without finding answers to the questions from her childhood. But in many cases, I think the past can–and should–be left right where it is. Behind us.

            What do you think?

23 Comments

  1. Eddie on December 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Hi Diane,
    It matters when the memory is, indeed, a false one, and the parents are cut off from their child for years because of it.
    I can think of at least two instances where my adult friends’ daughters haven’t spoken to them in years because of (very likely) false memories of abuse.
    Of course, no one will know 100% the truth, even the participants.

  2. Debbie hearne on December 11, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Too much pain connected to the past needs to stay in the past. Move forward to a new day and try to be happy and content in the present.

  3. Diane Chamberlain on December 11, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    good to see you, Eddie! That’s very sad and I’m afraid has happened a lot. Most often, the alleged victims honestly believe the accusations they’re making because they’ve ‘uncovered’ memories that feel very real to them. Often no one, not even the accusers, know the real truth.

  4. Margo on December 12, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I am a believer in leaving the past behind and moving forward, with 1 exception…if something haunts us from our past and continually interrupts our daily lives, I think it would be wise to explore it and find out what is preventing us from moving on…particularly if its disruptive to the point where it causes depression or pain. I have never had that happen to me so it’s easier said than done, however a friend of mind has many demons to overcome and she ‘doesn’t’ seek therapy for it…in her case I think she should have some help to live the rest of her life in peace.

  5. Diane Chamberlain on December 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Totally agree, Margo.

  6. Ann on December 13, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Diane and Margo, this is off the subject but I finished reading Homer’s Odyssey. It is a wonderful book – so uplifting. Margo, thanks for the recommendation. Diane, read it, you will not be disappointed.

  7. Margo on December 13, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Ann, isn’t it wonderful!!…I’m so glad you read it and liked it…I loved it so much that I bought several copies to give as C-mas gifts this year, (along with Diane’s (-O:)
    Diane, Ann is right…you will absolutely love it!!
    What are you reading now Ann?…I started a book that was recommended by Brenda called I CAN SEE YOU by Karen Rose…a really, really good mystery that I can’t put down.

  8. Brenda on December 13, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I am a firm believer that the past should be left alone. Most of us have something that has happened to us that was not good. We go on and function. That being said. Exception would be if the victim is not living in reality because of what happened. Children who are abused often repeat the pattern. Addressing that is imperative.

  9. Brenda on December 13, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Loved that book Margo. Rose has dome great books

  10. Diane Chamberlain on December 13, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    I plan to read it, Margo (Homer), but I have some other things I need to read first. . . and then I have to write a book! I’m afraid between January 1st and April, I won’t be reading anything for fun at all. 🙁

  11. Ann on December 13, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Margo, I haven’t started reading anything yet – after Homer I can’t decide what I would enjoy now. Maybe I will read the one you are reading – I love a good mystery.

  12. Margo on December 13, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Ann..it’s really, really good…I CAN SEE YOU by Karen Rose which is a book Brenda recommended…can’t put it down!
    Diane, maybe you can read HOMER before the 1st of the year…it’s a quick read and so enjoyable…you will love it. I know how busy you’ll be after January 1 so I hope you’ll be able to squeeze it in.
    Brenda, thx so much for recommending the Karen Rose book…I’m going to take a look at her others after this one!!
    Would love to know what everyone else is reading right now!

  13. Ann on December 14, 2010 at 8:44 am

    Margo, I put “I Can See You” on hold at the library. It should be there for me today when I go to work! Looking forward to starting reading it tonight when I get home.

  14. Margo on December 14, 2010 at 9:49 am

    You’ll really like it Ann…I’m reading it slowly to grasp everything…you might finish it before me!…so intriguing…Brenda found a good author in Karen Rose.

  15. Margo on December 16, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Have to know…did you get the book Ann?…lots of characters in this one so it’s a slow read for me…trying to keep them all straight in my head…very, very good mystery and hard to put down.
    Anyone else reading something good right now?

  16. Margo on December 16, 2010 at 10:28 am

    P.S…on vacation now till Jan 3 and loving it…have lots of time for reading (-O:

  17. Ann on December 16, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Someone borrowed the book before my hold was pulled!!! I was so disappointed – however another copy came in and it is waiting for me. I will get it Monday. In the meantime I am reading an older mystery by Lisa Gardner – title is Hide. It is really good. One I don’t want to put down. Will keep you posted on how I like the Karen Rose book.

  18. Diane Chamberlain on December 16, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Will you be painting, Margo?

  19. Margo on December 16, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    Diane, Yes…I started a new painting on Monday…another swimmer…it’s quite large and she is swimming at midnight so the water is a dark, dark navy…I’ve already titled this one ‘NIGHT SWIMMER’…love painting in my studio when I’m on vacation…love it!
    Ann, I’ve never read Lisa Gardner so I think I’ll search for this book…I’m always looking for new ones (-O:

  20. Ann on December 17, 2010 at 2:17 am

    Margo, I think you would like “Hide”. I am almost through with it and I still don’t want to put it down.

  21. Margo on December 17, 2010 at 7:20 am

    Thx for the tip Ann…I’m going to look for it!

  22. Louise on April 8, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    It’s ok to say leave the past in the past if you are not the person who is in a state of trauma from abuse and the memory of it, which generally by the way, gets triggered by a difficult event. I am sick and tired of not being believed. The memory of sexual abuse that hit me hard at 19yrs caused devastation to my life. My entire family disowned me because they would not accept it was true. This false memory syndrome seems to me like a convenient scapegoat to aid sexual abusers to avoid the consequences of their actions. Meanwhile peple like me and my children suffer the consequences of blame, ostracization and the long term effects of sexual abuse in childhood. In my experience my family didn’t need support, they had each other.

  23. Diane Chamberlain on April 8, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Thanks for your input, Louise. I completely agree with you and am so sorry for what you went through.

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