True or false – The Recovered Memory Debate, Part I

***Sexual Abuse / Rape Triggers********

I want to write a post on the issue of dissociation and recovered memories and I know that the moment I press “Publish” I´m guaranteed to have a shitstorm coming my way. The debate about whether or not recovered memories are real or not is a goddamn mine field.

I´m no neuroscientist. I´m not even a psychologist. I´m a philosopher who also studies history and who has written an essay on the rise and fall of Freud´s “seduction theory” last semester, which provided me, if nothing else, with a painfully clear view of how much different concepts such as repression and dissociation are being conflated and how much definitions (such as definitions of the term “trauma”) tend to vary. Moreover, I´m a mentally instable person who has experiences both with false and real recovered memories and who still believes that she ought to be remembering more of her childhood.

I will first outline my experiences with recovered memories, so you see where I´m coming from.

True Memories

So. I´m roughly sixteen years old, I´m sitting in my room and thinking about a childhood friend, let´s call her Chasey. I have been thinking a lot about her lately, with a sense of nostalgia. More than nostalgia. I´ve been acutely sentimental, thinking about what a pity it is that we lost touch after fifth grade, and how special and awesome she was. And as I sit there, out of nowhere I remember a fairly ugly incident; a situation in which Chasey wasn´t nice and awesome at all. On some summer day she and a mutual friend locked me out of their flat (parents were away). I asked them to at least give me back my backpack, which was still in there. They emptied my backpack on the balcony and started to throw down its content piece by piece. In the end, they actually made me say things in exchange for my stuff. Thankfully, they got this idea only when they had just one piece left.

I knew straight away that this memory was accurate. I never had the slightest doubts; I even remembered some of my thoughts and feelings at the time. I cannot really tell you what makes me so sure. It might be very hard to scientifically prove that this something that made me so sure exists and is valid. It sounds like I´m appealing to mysticism, but all I can do is describe my experience.

My memory of the day and the follow-up of this situation is incomplete. My memory starts with us being somewhere outside, they already display a certain hostility towards me. Next memory is us standing in front of my house. I know the key is in my backpack at Chasey´s place; they are pissed off and tell me to get it. Next memory is me standing in front of Chasey´s home, nobody´s there. I know what happens next, but I have no images of it in my mind. I try to climb the balcony, because the door up there is open, but I fail. The next image is that Chasey and her friend are there, too. They climb the balcony, but they don´t bother helping me climb it, too. They start throwing down my stuff. I only notice now, but the entire memory is silent. I don´t remember what is being said for the most part; I just remember me yelling at them something like  “Are you crazy?” when they threw down my key, and I remember what they made me say, verbatim. I remember what must have been said, like that they forbade me to cross my fingers when I say what they want to hear; but I don´t remember them saying it. I don´t remember walking home alone, but I know I did.

I was going to say that the next thing I remember is being at a sports club we all attended that evening, but I just remembered that I had been very unsure if I wanted to go there. I wanted to, sure, but I was scared they could take away my stuff again. So I decided to not take anything with me. It is interesting that little things can still be added after such a long time. I have to say, though, that once again I have no concrete images. I just know it happened, the way you remember the plot of a movie even though you don´t remember the exact images and scenes.

And this is how the plot continues: At the sports club we get along splendidly; so splendidly, indeed, that we all want to have a sleepover at Chasey´s place. My next vivid memory, however,  is us standing in front of my door, imploring my mother that I can stay at Chasey´s and our cheering when she says yes. Now that I think of it, it might be we pulled the same thing when talking to that friend´s grandmother, but I´m not sure. It would be so easy to contaminate this real, accurate memory with false pictures which, although in line with the plot, are pure fabrications my mind is producing right now.

There is a hole in the plot, now. All that I am left with is images. It is dark, we are in Chasey´s living room, it´s past our bedtime. For some reason there is a tent propped up in the room. I guess we somehow persuaded the grown-ups we could sleep in there. Now I´d really love to tell the story, but I am clueless. I know I´m in that tent, worried that they might somehow lock me in there. So apparently we´re not getting along anymore, once again. I´m pretty sure they must have said mean things to me.

Next hole in the plot, and it is morning. We are outside, walking to the playground. They get on the swings, I have to wait. They walk on before I have had time on the swings. There´s a few sparse images and feelings, not much plot. So I´m at a huge risk of constructing a story here. I believe I remember walking behind them and understanding that they really didn´t want me around, so at some point I must have gone home. The end.

So, back to age sixteen. I know this happened. Remembering it has completely turned around my view on Chasey. I wonder why I idolized her so much all the time. Because now that the floodgates are open, I also start to remember other incidents when Chasey was mean to me, or at least didn´t stop her clique from being mean to me. Most of those memories are just shreds and images, or some sentences spoken. I might remember us being at a specific playground, but I don´t remember exactly who was there aside from the persons who play a role in this specific memory. I remember what was being said; I remember single thoughts, feelings and motivations I had, but I don´t remember when in my life it happened. Those memories might have a plot which I somehow know;  but I cannot fit them into the larger plot that is my life story. I can only conclude, construct that it must have happened towards the end of fourth grade. Also, if I want to get those memories into an order, I need to use circumstancial evidence. Even though they are basically part of the same plot, that is, being bullied by my best friend, they are disconnected from one another.

False Memories

The typical false memory story goes like that: Girl sees therapist over random issue, therapist convinces her she has been sexually abused as a child, she starts to see creepy images of child abuse and penises in her head, he tells her those are all real memories and that her doubts are mere resistance, eventually she believes it and loses her family over that.

My story was a bit different. I managed to develop false memories without the “assistance” of a therapist. That fact still frightens me (which might explain my snappy tone in the paragraph above), since I apparently became crazy without any external, crazy-making factors. When I read about false memories I only ever encounter stories where the therapist convinced the patient that she was abused. I seem to be a special brand of either crazy or evil if I managed to convince myself I was raped as a child all on my own.

I don´t want to go into the possible reasons for my false memories right now. I want to bring out the difference between the experiences of recovering real and false memories. So I will try to suspend judgement and leave out my ugly feelings about what happened. Okay then.

I´m still sixteen. It´s just a few weeks after I remembered the nasty incidents involving Chasey. I have a nightmare in which I am at home and get raped by an intruder. I will go into that dream at some point because I still believe it was meaningful, but right now is not the time. So when I woke up I was already convinced that this dream had to be important in some way. There are reasons for that, but it´s a fairly long story I will tell at some other point. The important thing here is that I started out with a bias: This dream is important.

I might not have been wrong. I still believe something about this dream was significant. My bias, however, also covered what part of the dream had to be important: The man who had raped me, and the fact that he had raped me.

I spent some time wondering who that man could be, I arrived at absurd, delusional ideas like that I was actually an orphan from an Eastern European war zone whose parents had been killed by that man. I did not seriously believe in any of those ideas, I was merely letting my thoughts wonder, toying with tragic plots, a bit like I was deciding which character I wanted to be in a video game or a role play.

Again, a few weeks later: I´m on holiday with my father and I start to toy with the idea that I might have childhood amnesia. That I might have forgotten some real bad traumatic event.

The idea didn´t scare me. It electrified me.

I was desperately eager to get back my memory. I felt like I was close to resolving the riddle that was my life. Finally everything would make sense! I felt a strange, deep yearning for something long lost, and I felt like I was about to get it back. I can still feel that yearning, it´s almost physical, and the allure of digging and digging until something has to come up is still just as strong. And I still feel that very same excitement when I stumble upon something that looks like evidence; when I feel that things are finally falling into place.

I don´t remember (how ironic) how it transpired, but I quickly had a plot in place: Some time when I was a kid I went to an abandoned ruin where my mum had told me not to go. I was alone, I encountered a man who looked like the guy from my nightmare, he raped me and I went back home and didn´t tell anybody because I had been to the ruin against my mother´s will.

It is the kind of story which, though it might happen in reality, too, could be straight out of a Hollywood movie. This is the first thing that distinguishes it from my memories of Chasey: It is pure drama material. The memory about Chasey, on the other hand, is incredibly mundane. There is no classical conflict, no misgivings, no innocence destroyed, not even a coherent storyline with intriguing twists, turns and escalations. Just a shabby blue children´s backpack, a key tied to a black shoelace, some clothes and a bit of pre-teen cruelty. Some aspects are even bizarre, they stick out like a sore thumb. If you made a movie about this experience, the first thing you´d do is throw out the tent because nobody would find it plausible. And yet it was there, even though it doesn´t make for a good story. Can´t help it. The false memory, though, was as plausible and coherent as it gets.

The most important thing that distiguished the true and the false memory, though, is the one that´s hardest to prove: In the case of the true memory, I knew straight away it was true. I didn´t even question its accuracy. I cannot really say it was recognition. I was just convinced it had happened, like you are convinced that there is a computer screen in front of you without further questioning. I knew it the way you know that the sky is blue.

With the false memory, though…this was missing. I didn´t feel that sense of belonging, the sense that this experience had been part of the sum of my experiences. So what I tried to do was remember the event, now that this obsessional idea had entered my head. I was basically trying to prove that this story had happened to me.

And immediately pictures came up. Pictures of the ruin, pictures of a sunny, lonely day. Even pictures of that guy walking into the ruin. No pictures of the rape, which lead me to the conclusion that I had zoned out. Later, when I believed I had Dissociative Identity Disorder, I assumed “an alter had taken over”.

I did have an emotional connection to those pictures. To the atmosphere in that ruin, to the atmosphere of a lonely sunny day. Which might not be entirely surprising, since I had been at that ruin on a sunny day. I hadn´t been alone, though. Chasey had been with me. The sense of fear and danger that accompanied those pictures does not come as a surprise, either. We had been forbidden to go there, after all.

It could also be that the pictures can be explained in an entirely different fashion. It doesn´t really matter, to be honest, interesting as it may be. The point is that I was producing visual evidence for a pre-fabricated plot. That is not to say I made up the plot on purpose and then deluded myself that it was true. The plot merely popped up in my head. I have a knack for dramatic stuff. It was a typical writer´s thing, I guess, just that it wasn´t an idea for a future novel, but for my past life. I guess it would be a good idea to investigate that dreamy state in which every crude tale (see the war story) can seem plausible for a moment, and why, at this point of my life, I tried to merge fantasy and reality. I cannot do that in this post, though.

Ironically, those false memories spured a whole lot of real, previously forgotten memories. Half of yesterday´s laundry list is owed to the memories that came up when I was starting to search for evidence of childhood sexual abuse in my past. Before I had started to dig I had believed that my childhood had been idyllic and happy and that I had only started to experience problems when puberty had set in. And that was simply wrong. I had had severe misconceptions about my childhood, and the truth was brought up because of my zealous attempts to prove the accuracy of a false memory. It doesn´t get much more ironic than that, really.

Those real memories appeared just like the one about Chasey. I suddenly just recalled stuff and knew it was true. Take the underpants thing. I remembered both a plot (there was a lengthy time in my childhood when I complained about my underpants not being comfortable) and there were pictures or scenes (I am on holiday with my mother and I rage and want to cry because I´m so uncomfortable.). They were associated with each other already; thinking about one brings up the other, even though I cannot consciously perceive the associative mechanism. When I got fixated on the false plot, though, it took a bit of a mental effort (though not too much since I´m quite good with fantasy) to produce images. It still does.

Another difference I would like to point out is my reaction to people questioning the accuracy of my true and my false memories.

When my parents claimed they “did not remember” the episode where my father hit me, I thought: “Come on you guys, who do you think you´re fooling? I know it happened, and I´m pretty sure so do you!” I´m so sure it happened that if it really isn´t true – I must batshit insane.

When somebody questioned my false memories, I would get extremely defensive, often aggressive, and I´d frantically try to provide evidence that they had to be true. You might find that behavior in people who know something happened and who are upset that nobody believes them. In my case, though, I didn´t know it had happened. My anger did not come from certain knowledge, but from a sense of deep insecurity, and, in a way even from a hidden, buried knowledge that my memories were not real. I do not fully understand why I needed them to be real so bad, but I did.

Another thing I notice is that I was incredibly unflexible when it came to the false plot. It had to have transpired in just the way I thought. When looking through childhood pictures I concluded from remarkable changes in my facial expression between two holidays that the rape must have had taken place between those dates. They were only a month apart, so I placed it in November in early fourth grade. The false pictures had given me the idea that it had been a sunny day, though, and from some other source I had taken the idea that it had been a Saturday. I actually looked up old weather data to confirm if there had been a sunny November Saturday in the year I was looking for. Thankfully that was the case. I don´t know to what lengths I would have gone to explain the discrepancy if there hadn´t. In retrospect my behavior reminds me of the desperate attempts of schizophrenics to stick to their delusions despite all contrary evidence. I wonder if what happened to me was related in some way.

I will continue these reflections another time, because, to be honest, I´m quite exhausted. I want to write about why I still feel like I don´t remember enough of my childhood, and I want to clarify my own position in the memory wars.

I´d be curious for my readers´experiences with memories, forgotten, recovered or normal, and how they feel their memory process works. I never know how many or detailed memories you are “supposed” to have, or if I have few or many memories compared to others, so any contributions are welcome.




One Response to “True or false – The Recovered Memory Debate, Part I”

  1. My wife has d.i.d. I’m pretty involved in her healing process, but neither I nor her counselor focus on “recovering memories.” We just work with what she does remember. There’s plenty there and plenty of evidence of emotional trauma in how she and the little girls act and think.

    My concern with the majority of therapists and patients who focus on recovering memories is that it prejudices a person to believe he/she MUST recover something, anything, or their trauma is “invalid.” Heck, I had a mostly wonderful childhood, and at 45 years old I remember less and less of it every year. The gaps in my memory don’t tell me I had trauma and neither do the gaps in my wife’s childhood. It’s the way that she treated me for 24 years that told me something was wrong.

    Sorry I’m not the kind of responder that you wanted. Good luck to you.


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