I’m thinking of a song. You know this song. Everyone does. Some of you already think you know the song I’m thinking of. This is because most memories are recalled by association. The third sentence of this paragraph has an implied meaning: that the song is universally known and recognized. Right away, your brain starts rifling through its memory banks making a list of songs that “everyone knows.” Some of you may have correctly identified the song I have in mind. Most of you have not.
The song is not, “Imagine.” Now your brain has more information with which to update the list of potential songs. If “Imagine” was on your list it can now be forgotten, maybe to be replaced by “Happy Birthday.” (Also not it.)
Suppose none of you have guessed the song I have in mind? I am certain you know the song. I am certain the song is stored in your brain both, as a standalone memory, and as an associative hashtag linked to other memories. If I’m right that you haven’t guessed the song then it is not in your conscious mind. You are not, in this moment, aware of the song, or any of its associated memories. Without more clues, you can’t even know that this song (memory) exists anywhere in your brain. Is it lost? Hidden? Forgotten? Dormant?
If I give you more information, then through association, you will eventually recall the song.
Have you ever thought of a melody, maybe even caught yourself humming it, or just hearing it in your head, but not recognizing it? It just feels vaguely familiar. What is that phenomenon? Is it a memory? A partial memory? A characteristic or trait of a memory? You may or may not be interested in identifying the melody. If not, then you may soon enough be done with it and move on to other thoughts and memories, not needing to identify it or give it any credence. Or you might be curious. What is that melody?
Not being a scientist, I don’t have the language to describe how all this works. But we all know how to do it. To follow our memories and see where they lead us. To recall other associated memories, impressions, or fragments. This process is innate. Let’s call it normal, even.
We all have thousands of memories, maybe millions or billions. We can’t possibly be conscious of all of them at any one time. It’s reasonable to assume that some of the memories that were stored in our brains at the time of experience may never be recalled again. We usually call these memories “forgotten.” But what does that mean? Are they gone or hidden? Replaced or erased?
How many times have you had a new memory? Meaning an old memory, something from long ago, that just appeared in your mind for the first time? Whoa, I just remembered… I had forgotten about… I hadn’t ever remembered… Was it out of the blue or triggered by something?
Everything I’m describing is universal. This is the nature of memory. With all this in mind, the idea of “recovered” memories shouldn’t be controversial or hard to understand. In my case, I had to recover two specific memories, in order to finally heal from my childhood trauma.
As I was approaching my forties, Pam and I entered into couples therapy. It was a great experience that helped us establish some fundamental ways of existing in, and furthering, a healthy relationship. We also established that I had some personal work to do. I have a history of mood swings, depression, anxiety, and occasional paranoia. I continued seeing our therapist, Henry, by myself and we soon determined that my childhood was worth exploring in a way I had never done before.
I grew up believing that my childhood was typical. Because it was. For that time and place. My relationship to my parents was reflected back to me in all of my friends’ families. The parents were always angry and fighting with each other and sometimes with us. They were emotionally unavailable and often physically absent. Neglect was rampant. A certain amount of corporal punishment was considered normal (nothing too extreme!). There was fighting among siblings. Most of us were in constant trouble at school. Some of us, especially the older kids, had frequent encounters with police and store security guards.
We began smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, sneaking pills from our parents’ medicine cabinets, all around the age of 9 or 10 years old. There was a tremendous amount of acting up on the school buses, at school, after school. During my 7th grade, we had organized fights in a clearing in the woods after school let out. At one of these, I was goaded into a fistfight with one of my best friends simply because all of us were expected to fight. We beat the crap out of each other only to end up crossing paths at the penny candy store a couple of hours later, bloodied and covered with dirt. We acted as if nothing had happened. This was just childhood.
Franklin was a weird mix of country life — the local industry was dairy farming — and suburban gothic horror. One day I would ride my bike with Frankie to a local fishing hole for a quick dip and to bring home some sunfish to scale, clean, and cook. The next day we’d head off to the Fernandez grocery store and walk out with a shopping bag full of stolen matches, lighters, lighter fluid, cigarettes, cigars, pipes, chewing tobacco, snuff, basically anything associated with fire. I once walked out of Bradlees with a package of highways flairs tucked into the waistband of my pants.
This was all very interesting to talk about with Henry, so thought I. Henry, though, kept asking about in-home experiences. What about my relationship with my parents? My siblings? To which I would usually say something like, “I don’t remember much about that.”
Sure, I could come up with some stuff. Karl banging my head against a wall. Ethel locking me out of the house. My father locking us in the basement with a pot of pea soup because we didn’t want to eat it. “You can’t come out until you’ve eaten the whole pot.” His expletive-ridden rages while throwing and breaking things. That time when Karl and I were fighting over who got to play with the wooden slat from the broken chair so he decided to beat us both with it. Ethel just generally screaming and crying hysterically.
Talking about these things with Henry, although they required prompting, wasn’t difficult. I just took it for granted that that was what childhood looked like. These memories have never been difficult to access or ponder. I just never wanted to go there. They weren’t emotionally loaded. It felt more like, yeah, been there, done that, what else can we talk about? Should we talk about the animal torture that my friend Mark used to like to tell me about?
Henry wanted to use hypnosis so I agreed. Our first session went like this: I’m laying on his couch with my eyes closed. Henry, in a soft voice, gently guides me into a state of deep relaxation. I go there. I’m feeling dreamy but aware of where I am and what we’re doing. I begin to have a memory. It’s blurry at first, I’m not sure where I am or what’s happening. I’m laying down, not on the couch with Henry but in a bed. I am very young but I have no concept of my exact age. A dark figure approaches the bed. I can’t make out who it is. They’re blurry but they keep getting closer. Suddenly, the figure is leaning over me and I can see him! It’s my father and he’s carrying a knife. He’s coming to kill me! I sit up and say to Henry, “I don’t think this is working.”
I wasn’t remembering, not really. I wasn’t under hypnosis, not really. I was so relaxed I fell into the hypnagogic state— the transitional period between being awake and falling asleep. During this state, the mind fluctuates between imagination, hallucination, and dreaming. The image of my father looming over me in bed, brandishing a knife, was a combination of my imagination, a memory of being afraid of my father, and a partial memory of what happened to me in the chicken coop. I did not know that third part at the time. I was only able to figure that out later.
Abandoned chicken coop; running; shouting; trying to get away; not being able to; a flash of white underpants; jackknife; black. This is a key memory. It is not complete. I didn’t remember it all at once.
Memory: abandoned chicken coop. Think about something else.
Memory: a flash of white. Think about something else.
Memory: abandoned chicken coop, I’m afraid, running. Think about something else.
Memory: it’s dark, I’m shouting, running, trapped. Think about something else.
Memory: Frances and Carl. Think about something else.
Memory: jackknife, a flash of white. Think about something else.
These memories have always been with me, usually as disparate, isolated memories, but sometimes two or three of them were strung together. They were infrequent but familiar. I just never chose to look at them. They weren’t lost. They were denied. They were displaced. They were hiding in plain sight.
It took several years of therapy before they came all at once:
Memory: Abandoned chicken coop; running; shouting; trying to get away; not being able to; a flash of white underpants; jackknife; black.
Remembering them that time, in that grouping, was different. That time there was an emotional response, a panic, an existential threat. Think about something else or you will die! Will die! Will die! Will die! Complete with racing heart, adrenaline surge, sweating all over, desperation, urge to flee. No! I cannot do this. I cannot go there. I am not ready.
I stood before that threshold for a long time.
Dream: I’m in a wooden barn-like building. I’m on a balcony in a dark room. Below I see four hallways converging on the space below me. There is a dark figure standing there, looking up at me. I am not afraid. I am curious. He looks familiar. I know him. We stand there for a minute, just looking. I hear faint voices. A lot of people speaking at once but distant. The sound is growing louder as if the people speaking are coming closer. There is light streaming from the four hallways towards the figure below. Shadows appear. The voices are growing louder still they aren’t talking, they are shouting. They are angry. Hordes of them coming through each of the hallways. They are all carrying things. Farm tools, hoes, rakes, shovels, pitchforks. Oh, fuck! They’re coming for me! This is all for me! The dark figure holds an arm out towards me. Oh shit! He’s holding a knife! It’s for me! I know what’s happening. It hits me all at once. I’m supposed to kill myself. The crowd of people, who are now visible, surrounding the figure, are here for me. If I don’t kill myself, they will. The fear hits hard. I feel it in my body, the panic. My imminent death. It feels like I’ve jumped off the Empire State building and I’m about to hit the ground. I wake up screaming.
I cannot tell you how many variations of this dream I have woken from in a panic. I haven’t written most of them down and I have dozens of variations in my journals.
Many of my therapy sessions ended the same way. I’d be talking, remembering, connecting dots, beginning to see and feel things long pushed aside. Feeling like I’m making progress, I’m remembering more, I’m getting closer to something important. To some missing information. A missing key that will explain these dreams. That will explain my paranoid episodes. So many times, I was so close. And then nothing.
Unlike in my dreams, when I got to that panic in my therapy sessions, my brain would just shut down. Like an off switch. I was there and then I wasn’t. I was here and then I wasn’t. Where am I? What were we talking about? Oh, right. I was on the threshold of… something important.
Oh, look at that. It’s 10 minutes before the hour. Our time is up. Well. That was interesting. I guess that was enough for today. I’ll see you next week.