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?