What good is there in remembering trauma?

Photo: Sandy mirage across dry sea bed.

Would you erase devastating memories if given the chance? By blocking a memory-sustaining enzyme, scientists in America and Israel have successfully eliminated long-term memories in rats. Until now, long-term memories were thought to develop with structural changes in the synaptic connections between neurons, making it difficult to imagine removing painful memories without damaging the brain. With this new line of research, it is now possible to envision drugs that can erase what we don’t want to remember.

Imagine a wonder drug capable of wiping out painful, recalcitrant memories of traumatic events such as sexual assault, warfare, childhood abuse, natural disasters, and even life-threatening car accidents—virtually any event causing post traumatic stress disorder. Who wouldn’t want the opportunity? Such traumas can lead to addictions and other destructive behaviors as the survivor attempts to avoid remembering. Energy that could be directed towards creating a meaningful life is swallowed by mind-numbing pursuits serving only the desire to forget. Mental illness is often the outcome.

Why is this so? Are these universal responses to trauma? Or is self-destruction and mental illness more likely in societies where social isolation and emotional detachment have become the norm? Most Americans aren’t comfortable hearing the memories of combat, rape, or a parent’s abuse, and forgetting sometimes becomes the only option for trauma survivors. Judith Herman a specialist in the effects of trauma wrote in her book Trauma and Recovery: “In the absence of strong political movements for human rights, the active process of bearing witness inevitably gives way to the active process of forgetting.” Do we really need a drug to help us forget trauma, or do those who have been traumatized need help remembering, someone to listen to them tell their stories, gaining assurance in the process that their futures will be safe?

Forgetting rarely cures. Typically, overcoming trauma involves sharing traumatic memories in a safe and supportive environment. Rather than a pill, a return to the social fold is needed, and the promise that acceptance will be there, regardless of what is remembered and the misplaced shame that is felt.

The effects of trauma extend far beyond haunting memories. Feelings of helplessness, meaninglessness, guilt, shame, and betrayal preoccupy trauma survivors. It is unlikely such feelings will disappear with erased memories, since healing typically takes far more than forgetting to overcome trauma. Herman identifies three stages required for healing. First, the trauma survivor establishes safety. Next, the trauma is remembered, which includes a period of mourning for what was lost through traumatic events. Finally, connections are restored between survivor and community.

The last step is perhaps the most significant. It is why one central issue in disaster management is the restoration of social support. When trauma is endured alone, or events are silenced or denied by others, memories of the event fester in the survivor’s mind. Attempting to forget may seem to be the only recourse. But without support and validation, the very sense of self is lost.

Becoming a person requires telling the stories of our lives—especially the painful, life-altering stories. Psychologist Jerome Bruner in Making Stories asks, “Don’t we, too, have to tell the event in order to find out whether, after all, ‘this is the kind of person I really mean to be’?” By telling the trauma story, a person witnesses feelings of helplessness and betrayal, but also begins to see other, more life-affirming traits that contribute to survival, resiliency, and eventually, hope.

Some argue trauma memories are worse than the originating traumatic event. If we believe this is true, then certainly a pill that could end trauma’s interminable suffering would be the most humane path. But what if these memories are debilitating because the story is not shared? Rather than relying on a memory-erasing pill, we need to reach beyond the social norms that silence trauma survivors and keep so many alone with their memories.

Book References

Bruner, Jerome. 2002. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life. New York: Farar, Straus and Giroux.

Herman, Judith. 1997. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.

© 2009 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

  • RobinWren

    Just want you to know that after i wrote a lengthy thoughtful comment, your double registration procedure not only was too complicated to follow, taking through facebook AND forcing me to register for disqus, but then it lost my comment. If you are wondering why you get. Few comments on your terrific blog, this may be the reason….it completely and utterly discourages anyone from trying! Great blog though…but i cannot bear to rewrite my comments on this post today. Another time perhaps.

    • I am so sorry for your frustration! That sounds like such a waste of your time and efforts. I really appreciate you letting me know. I’ve had problems with other comment systems, and thought DISQUS would be my solution. It seems like this system might not be the answer either. Again, my apologies.