People who suffered abuse in childhood, however, tend to either remember things vividly, or have little memory of their childhoods at all. I fall into the former category: clear and vivid recall. Researchers caution us that very early childhood memories that unfold in a cohesive pattern, like a movie, are most likely false because real memories formed in the pre- or early verbal stage tend to be retained in “snapshots.” They also say that females are more likely to have early recall (true recall) that males but that is attributed to the way in which their mothers interacted with them: normal mothers tend to more fulsome in their communication with their daughters, thereby creating a more colourful, complete memory in the child.
There is much about childhood memory and memory retrieval that researchers do not yet know but one thing is for certain: they have not done extensive studies on ACoNs, people who were abused by their parents—and primarily their mothers—to determine how early childhood trauma at the hand of their parents has affected the retention and retrieval of memories. What follows is NOT scientifically validated information, merely my personal speculations on the subject.
I often use myself as an example in this blog because my case, my situation, is the one I know best. My mother was a neglectful, physically and emotionally abusive parent. I have only one memory before the age of three, and it has been validated by my father as a real memory. I experience the memory in first person—like a dream—and it started out as a series of snapshots. At first they were too fleeting to actually hold long enough to explore. But over time I was able to “grab” a snapshot here and there and examine it. Finally, after a few years, I presented to my father a narrative, pulled together as an adult, made from those snapshots. And he said that it happened and that the truck I remember he sold when I was around 2 years old.
For a while each revisit of the memory brought a detail hadn’t noticed before—I knew, for example, that I was in a truck—like a semi—but I had no clear details of either the interior or exterior. Subsequent recollections of the memory revealed the truck was dark blue, the upholstery was tan and textured like corduroy, there was a knob on the steering wheel, and the air-horn was activated by a beaded brass chain that was draped like a swag from the roof of the cab. The first part of the memory I could access was me, both hands on the chain, my feet pulled up so I was hanging on the chain, and the sound of the air horn. My father later told me that I loved pulling air horn chain, I would ride with him to the sawmill when he took logs in. That piece of information—the sawmill—suddenly evoked the smell of freshly-cut lumber and the smell of pitch. Closing my eyes I saw a fat, round little pot-bellied stove with a fire burning in it and beside it a pile of pine lumber off cuts—the source of the pitch smell. None of the houses we had lived in had pot-bellied stoves like the one I could see in my mind—but the office in the sawmill did. In another recall of the memory I was riding in the truck, standing on the seat, and saw a dead cow in a ditch and it was more or less on its back, the body bloated, its legs sticking up in the air. My father specifically remembered that when I asked him about it—he knew who owned the cow and said he had explained to me that the cow would pop like a balloon if someone poked it, which I found rather gross.
Additional visits from the memory brought added clarification because once I could access it without it flitting away I could stitch together the various related snapshots and “see” it long enough to examine it. I learned I was wearing corduroy pants—dark blue—but never determined what kind of coat or shirt I was wearing. My father always wore a plaid Pendleton jacket, so I may have just stuck that on him in this memory. I realized the interior of the truck, the dash, was painted metal—grey metal—and that this was a “city cab,” i.e., it did not have a sleeper. I remember my grandmother’s house as it was then—with a chimney going up the side of the house and no picture windows and that it was painted a kind of industrial pea-green. All details my father confirmed. (We moved away from that house shortly after I turned 2 and did not return until after the house had been remodelled and the fireplace removed and picture windows installed on that side of the house.)
It was many years after we left the farm that I started having those fleeting little flashes of what I took to be either a memory or a dream (although I was awake). It took over of year of trying to capture those flashes long enough extract something my mind could hold onto for more than a fraction of a second. Once I was able to do that, however, it became increasingly easier to stop one of the snapshots as it raced through my consciousness. And ultimately, I was able to present to my father a pastiche of these little snapshots, a collage of memory fragments stitched together by reason, and get the shock of my life: it was not a product of my “vivid imagination,” to quote my mother, it was a real memory from the age of 2, shortly after my brother was born (I was 22 months when he was born).
This was not a traumatic memory and that may explain why I was able to access it at easily as I did. But when I examined the detail that I was eventually able to capture, I began to realize that I had very few memories from my childhood, most of them were bad memories, and most of them were skeletal in scope. I remembered a dress that my mother had sewed for me for a school pageant-type event, that I liked very much. For a time it was my favourite dress and then it became relegated to the back of the closet, I did not want to see it anymore, and I was glad to come home from school one day and find my closet had been raided and the offending dress had been give to the Goodwill. But I could not remember why that dress had fallen out of favour. And try as I might, I could not raise anything other than a sense of revulsion when I tried to examine what little I remembered of the dress.
Then one day, years later (2009, to be exact), I went out to my kitchen to make myself a sandwich. I made it, took one bite out of it, decided I didn’t want it after all, and took a paper towel from the roll and folded it around the sandwich in preparation for putting it in the refrigerator. And suddenly I was 13 years old again, standing in my mother’s kitchen and she had a sandwich in her hand—with one bite out of it and wrapped in a paper towel—and she was screaming at me. In a matter of seconds the whole scene flashed through my head—being hit, waking up on the floor, being terrified of being late for school—it was all there like it had just happened that morning. And I knew it wasn’t a fake memory because once it was in my consciousness, I remembered the whole thing.
My first act was to sit down at the computer and write it down. Fingers flying, I wrote as fast as I could and, right in the middle of my reminiscences, another memory popped up. I wanted to write about it next, but it slipped away. While I wrote that first memory, perhaps an hour of typing time, half a dozen more memories flitted through my mind, most of them little fragments of memory that needed capturing and examining, like my memory of the truck.
As I finished writing The Sandwich, another memory popped into my head. I had called the school nurse to help me avoid getting marked tardy—something that would get me a beating if it showed up on my report card—and having the nurse come to mind sparked another memory, this one about a toothache. I started writing about that and more tantalizing bits of my childhood emerged from hiding and swirled around in my head, each one more provocative than the one before. Some were actual memories, presented and absorbed in a single flash, others were fragments that needed chasing and teasing out: all of them were pieces of my lost childhood.
Eventually I placed a notepad and pen to the right of the computer while I wrote. While writing The Toothache I was inundated with memories, almost as if a door into my past had suddenly opened and a torrent of forgotten experiences came flooding out. I would stop typing just long enough to jot down some key words—enough to call the memory back—then resume writing on the current topic. Over a period of a few weeks I recovered 46 memories from my childhood, 46 memories that had been utterly lost to me until I focussed on capturing and examining that first memory fragment.
I have given a lot of thought to the process I experienced and discovered a few things I consider to be important. First of all, even if we think we have forgotten our childhoods, odds are that we have not—we simply do not have access to the memories. Why we can’t access them is a question I cannot definitively answer, but I believe it has to do with our emotional stability, our ability to revisit events that involve a child in deep emotional pain and not break down. Since I went through a couple of profound depressions that included suicidal thoughts (and two attempts), I believe my subconscious mind kept these events from my conscious mind until I was emotionally stable enough to revisit these events without breaking down.
Another thing I learned is that remembering these things is like a chain of events. The memories came back to me in no particular order—in one memory I might be nine years old, in the next, seventeen, and in the next, seven. They seem random until you realize that each memory had something in common with the next—and that link was not necessarily obvious. Writing about that toothache brought the nurse to mind and from that I recovered several memories in which she featured. From this I realized that the recovery of lost memories may be facilitated by taking a memory from your past and examining it closely—the more details you can recall the more chances you have of a link to another missing memory: each detail is a potential link to another memory that, in some way, shares that link.
What I found that was most important to me, however, was that in revisiting those old traumas, I became free of their emotional power. I sobbed through the writing of virtually every one of them and, re-reading them later, I cried again. And again. And then I realized that, because I was safe while writing and re-reading them, because I was not in the grip of the fear that characterized my interactions with my mother, those tears were healing. I eventually got to the point where I could read the memories from a semi-detached position: no longer feeling the pain of that abused child but feeling pain for her. It was a dramatic and therapeutic shift in my perspective.
I am sure a qualified therapist might be able to come up with an explanation for this phenomena, and her explanation may be very different from my own. But this is what I think: I think that my subconscious mind protected me from memories that had the potential to drive me to utter despair. When I no longer needed that protection, it started releasing the memories, a bit at a time, to my conscious mind. I think it is significant that the first memory to be recovered was 1) not traumatic, 2) from an almost pre-verbal time (so the memory was largely visual), 3) that the memory was literally seen from the eyes of the child (I did not see myself, like watching a movie, I was a character in that movie and could see things only from that perspective), and 4) it presented in disconnected fragments that I had to apply myself to seizing and examining. I spent nearly a year on this memory, piecing it together, confirming it with my father, examining the details like colours and textures and even smells. And then, because I didn’t know what to do to elicit more memories, the memory retrieval process went dormant. Until I inadvertently replicated a pivotal moment in the abuse I endured as a child—my mother knocked me unconscious and left me on the kitchen floor and went off to work—triggered by the shared image of a paper towel-wrapped sandwich with one bite out of it.
The value of links became instantly obvious to me. Nearly fifty years had passed since the incident with the sandwich but that image was iconic. It was the bridge between then and now—and the key to unlocking the memory of that particular episode of abuse. And each detail from each memory was a potential key for unlocking other memories.
Eventually memories just poured out of me. I didn’t need links or prompts or triggers, they just came. I had to make notes about each one so I could call the memory back when I was ready to write it down. I had 46 retrieved memories by the time their release had tapered off to a trickle.
So what does this mean for you? It means that you can re-process the memories of childhood abuse from the perspective of an adult who 1) knows she is safe from the abuser; 2) knows how it ended—she didn’t die of shame or embarrassment or from an assault; 3) knows she will not be hurt this time around; 4) can now see, objectively, that the child is not at fault and who actually was. By revisiting these events today you can be properly outraged at an adult who would abuse a child, allow abuse of a child, encourage or abet the abuse of a child. You can see, from the more objective perspective of an observing adult, that the child was victimized and see how she was hurt and how those who did it were wrong. You can feel the feelings of that time, sure in the knowledge of the outcome. You can find parts of your childhood which are now lost to you by finding links from existing memories and reprocess them so that those memories are no longer sources of shame, pain, and terror.
Don’t expect to recover all of your childhood, however. Some things were never properly encoded by our brains in the first place and so they never went into long term memory storage. Some things your subconscious may continue to keep away from you due to their potential for causing you harm, even today. I, for example, have been terrified of putting my face in water since earliest childhood and am still unable to access the event(s) that triggered this fear. It could be the event took place so early in my existence that it was never encoded for proper memory (pre-verbal memories pretty much disappear before we reach adolescence) and since I cannot remember ever not having this fear, that is a distinct possibility. I know, from stories told me by my father and stepmother, that my father moved out of the family home, at my mother’s behest, when I was eight. He was gone the better part of a year—he had weekend visitation and saw me and my brother every second weekend during that year. He moved back in and broke up with his girlfriend when my mother decided to halt the divorce proceedings. And I have no recollection of him being gone from the home at all. I have many other memories around this age, but none of them include my father not living with us. Things were very volatile between my parents at this time so maybe my subconscious is shielding me from some devastating piece of information—and maybe my memory of this period has been conflated with a memory from two years later, when my father again moved out at my mother’s behest, took up with the old girlfriend, and never moved back in. I remember that one—I remember telling a teacher that my parents were getting a divorce, a scandalous thing in 1957, as an explanation for my being distracted in class. This I remember: the first separation I do not.
For me, the worst part of remembering and reprocessing was the realization that, at the time of the original events, I was so bound by fear that I could not make any choices other than the ones I did. I was so thoroughly terrorized by my mother that I responded mindlessly to that fear and made choices based on keeping information from her so that I would not suffer further at her hands. In making these kinds of choices I effectively victimized myself—not deliberately, of course, but those choices put me in harm’s way more than once. Growing up this way, I continued to make bad choices because I viewed myself as having only bad choices to choose from and I had even more limited goals: all I really wanted was to feel loved. And I made a lot of bad choices in pursuit of that goal.
But I find that now, years after I retrieved these memories and made myself journal them and process them, they have lost the power to hurt me. I no longer shy away from them, squirm in re-reading them, or even identify with that child. I am no longer that terrorized child, afraid of everything and nothing, perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wouldn’t even go so far as to hold myself up as a paragon of healing from childhood abuse, but I would say that I have successfully figured some things out, that I have moved forward, and that I have discovered some useful tools, like recovering lost childhood memories through seeking out linking details in those things I can recall.
You might want to give it a try…