My sister and I have a shared memory that one of us remembers absolutely wrong.
Bev is five years older than me, but we would still do things together growing up. One of the things we loved to do was put a record on the console hi-fi, (ask your parents) play a song and sing into hairbrushes, because hairbrushes are microphones, naturally. This would be to a song by The Beatles, or Journey, something we both liked.
I have a vivid memory of singing along to AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds,” a fairly graphic song released in 1976 about a killer for hire. Our mom came in disgusted that they were glorifying murder like that. Bev looked at her and said, “Three words, mom. Mac. The. Knife.” This is a fairly graphic song released in 1959 about a killer for hire. Realizing she had no comeback to this, she turned and left the room.
I told that story to a group of friends recently, Bev among them. We all laughed because the opportunity to zing a parent like that is very rare and very funny.
But Bev frowned, “No, that’s not what happened.”
“We were in the car singing along to The Beatles, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” on the radio. Everything else is the same, mom said that, I said Mac the Knife, all that, but we were in the car, and it wasn’t Dirty Deeds.”
I was flummoxed. “It absolutely was Dirty Deeds. We were in the living room like we always were.”
Then Bev made a very excellent point.
“I hate AC/DC, that’s your thing. I would never have sung along with them.”
I do a lot of research for my articles. Sometimes it’s scholarly texts, sometimes it’s Facebook Messenger.
She is 100% correct, she does hate AC/DC, (on that point anyway, she is grievously wrong) so it is very unlikely my recall of this is accurate. But the thing that bothers me is, even after she described what likely happened, even after the completely reasonable argument of why it could not have happened my way, I still see it how I always have – living room, hairbrushes, AC/DC. One of us is simply wrong.
But neither of us is lying.
I am 100% certain that my version is right. I can see it, I can hear the song, our painful adolescent attempts to copy Bonn Scott’s un-copy-able voice, I can see the hairbrush in front of my mouth reflected in the living room window. I can see my mother pound into the room and angrily interrupt, and I can see Bev’s raised eyebrows and grin as she delivered the verbal body-blow that ended the argument.
I remember it exactly like that.
Except I am more than likely, 100% wrong.
It seems like a contradiction, but it’s really not. I’m not lying when I say I see that scene play out exactly as I describe.
In preparing this article, I spent some time talking to my psychiatrist about the implications of memory fluidity. I had to come to peace with my own issues around this before I could try to offer any comfort to you. But she has, as always, helped me work through it.
Because that’s really the thing, isn’t it? That’s the easiest way to dismiss an accusation, to devalue an experience, especially if it happened long ago, in childhood, teenage years, is to simply say, memory is fluid, you have a vivid imagination, you saw a TV show and made it real in your head, etc. until no one believes it, and eventually, maybe you don’t even believe it.
Memory is fluid, eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable, that is a fact. But what does that mean for survivors?
I used the example with my sister because it’s funny, and I wanted to work into this a little gently. But it is also apt. I remember it exactly as I always have. I don’t remember being in a car. I don’t remember Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. I remember the living room, hairbrushes, and AC/DC. I am likely completely wrong.
But, and this is important, I am wrong about the details, the where, when, what song, but I am right about the important part of the story. A taboo song, a mother trying to shut it down, Bev winning the argument before it even started. We are in complete agreement about these details.
The actual, important event, is correctly remembered.
This is important to me because memory has played such a critical role in my “story” and even my identity.
I was abused by various people, including a brother, throughout my childhood. I have no memory of not being angry, of not feeling rage and fear and blinding, white-hot hatred, for him. I remember specific events.
I have identified as a survivor since my 20s. When the book “The Courage to Heal” came out, it was a revelation. I was validated, seen, and I was not alone. I remember going to an all-day event and watching women much older than me walking from lecture to lecture carrying stuffed comfort animals. I remember wishing I’d thought of it, and realized that I would not have had the courage to carry it in public if I had. Allowing myself the self-care I needed was nearly two decades away. But here I had a community, a large group of kindred spirits who had been victimized to one degree or another, all equally valid, all worthy of love and care.
I remember sitting alone at the lunch break and falling to pieces. All of these women are here for each other. All of these women are here for each other, because all of these women have been brutalized and broken, to some degree or another. I felt hurt, wounded, exposed, and heartsick.
In the coming years I came to terms with my alcoholism, my depression, and finally landed the correct diagnosis of bipolar II, which became bipolar I a few years later.
But the abuse, that was first. That was in the late ‘80s with the release of that one book, the first time I heard the term “survivor.” And I am forever grateful to Ellen Bass for that.
When my father confronted my brother after I’d spent a horrible afternoon telling my parents what had happened, dad asked him why he did it. Dad told me later that he hung his head and said, “I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.” These are not the words of an innocent person. The words of an innocent person are, “What are you talking about? How dare you! How dare you accuse me of something so horrific! So vile! How dare you!”
With that tacit confession, I should have no longer doubted what I recalled.
“I hate AC/DC. It was in the car, not the living room.”
It’s not only a single detail being confused here. It is the entire scenario. Except for the “punch line,” every single thing I recall is wrong.
I have my memories, and more importantly, I have an admission of guilt and diaries and poems that go back to nine-years-old. I have “source material,” if you will.
And even still, I had doubts sometimes.
What of the women who don’t have anything but their memories? What of the women for whom this is a “he said/she said” situation?
What of the women who completely and utterly disassociated while it was happening, to the point that it’s a black nothing in their memory? Don’t think that’s possible? Here’s another story.
When I was 16, I bought my first vehicle, a yellow Toyota truck with a camper shell. I took it out for a spin with several of my friends, laughing and having fun in the back of what was basically a playhouse for teenagers.
I was on a four-lane street with a large grassy median.
Here’s what I remember next. A car swerved in front of me within inches of my fender. I remember seeing the jackass in the back seat turn around laughing as I tried to keep control. Next, I was on the median, the entire left side of my truck on the curb, my rims had bent and ripped my tires to shreds. My friends were trying to open my door and get me out. When I came to, when I started to get my higher functions back, my hands were so tightly gripped on the wheel that I could barely remove them, and I was aware very slowly of the shooting pain up my arms as I had apparently used them as shock absorbers during the crash. My friends finally coaxed me to unlock the door. I got out, lost control of my legs, fell to the ground, and just…shook.
My friends said I was amazing, I kept control of the truck, I had no choice but to crash the way I did, but I skidded along on my rims and came to a safe, controlled stop.
To this day, I have zero memory of any of that.
My brain simply went on some sort of autopilot, I guess literally this time. It was so horrible that my memory said “Well, I’m out. I’ll be back here with Smell until this is all done.”
This happened during a car accident. Imagine what our brains can do when we’re being raped, abused, beaten, molested, imagine how far away we can leave our brains and hide, or even rewrite, something life-shatteringly horrible.
Memory can get muddled, that’s a fact. Those of us who are survivors become extremely good at disassociation. I have been a pro since I was a child; it’s an escape, it’s a world you control, you are essentially a god. It can also make for a rich creative life.
But these things can be, and are, used against us. How do we know what is real? How do we know what really happened, was is AC/DC or The Beatles? Is it a total blackout from mental self-defense, did it spring from a vivid imagination?
I can’t answer these questions for you but I can tell you this.
My memories are real. Maybe not minute details, maybe not the room, the surroundings, the time of day. But the events – what actually happened – are drilled into my head. The more traumatic the event, the more likely we remember. Or sometimes it simply never writes to memory. Like my accident, that 3 or 4 minutes is not there.
I have the details surrounding the event wrong. It was The Beatles, it was in the car, this could not be more different from my memory. But the core of it, the actual, meaningful event, was correct.
Friends, men and women alike, if you have a memory of abuse, if that memory causes your heart to hurt, I suggest that it is probably correct. At the very least it should be examined, try to find a therapist to help you work through it. I’m including some resources you can use as well.
Please, do not let anyone tell you it’s not true, you are misremembering, or worse, that you are lying. If it hurts to think about, look at it.
Memory is foggy and imprecise. But it is not to be ignored because the curtains were blue and not yellow.
Please take care of yourselves. Be gentle with yourselves.
Carry a stuffed comfort animal if you need to.
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Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network
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National Suicide Prevention Hotline
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