This memory was completely lost to me until I was in treatment specifically to deal with my child abuse history the summer of 1983. I called my sister, Cindy, and asked for her help in remembering abuse experiences that I could not remember so that I would be able to then ‘work on’ in them in this very intense out-patient treatment program.
As I was listening to her talk about her memory of this event that I had completely ‘forgotten’, my own memory came back to me as Cindy described her memory, and hit me like a bolt of lightning followed by a clap of thunder. Having had this experience or ‘blocked’ memory return proved to me how completely we can ‘forget’ trauma memories and what it can feel like when and if they return.
My sister decided after she had told me this memory that she would never tell me another one about my mother’s abuse of me. She never has.
The ‘wordless image’ that comes into my mind as I write is of a fully stocked bookcase with obviously visible spaces left empty because some of the volumes are missing. Absent memories can appear in the missing spaces of our life history in the blink of an eye. The only questions that matters are “What might trigger such a trauma memory return and how well are we prepared for such an event should it happen?”
NOTE: By the way, I am not remotely concerned with the subject of ‘false memory retrieval’. That’s just about the silliest thing I can think of that would dissuade us from considering the true issues at hand!
July 1966 – Steve’s diaper – yet another mud puddle memory
We lived in the Jamesway on the mountain homestead the summer of 1966 (coming back from a winter in Tucson) after Steven was born. It was a condition of our life there that we had no running water. Except for a single can kept in use inside, the rest of our 17 battered green Army metal 5-gallon Gerry can water supply was stored on a pallet to the right when we went outside our door.
This summer before my 15th birthday had been the rainiest I remembered during my childhood. I think we saw the sun on four days. A large puddle had formed where we usually parked our vehicles. As Cindy recounted her memory on this late summer afternoon I instantly saw in my mind not only both the pallet with the water cans on it and the puddle, but also saw her standing on the small landing between the steps that went down to the ground and the front door.
Even though my full memory of this experience returned to me as Cindy described what she watched from the door, I can tell the difference inside of myself between how I remember other memories and how I remember this one now. This one is extremely difficult for me to remember. It is in part due to the fact that so many of my child abuse memories were included in my mother’s litany of abuse and are ones that I was beaten repeatedly for throughout my childhood.
I remember these memories through some kind of an immunity filter that means I have been inoculated against the full impact of the original experience of the abuse events themselves. I can choose how close or how distant I want to approach these memories, as if they all have a variety of entry and exit points contained within them. I always can utilize some version of the protection that this inoculation provides me.
I do not, however, have the same kind of protection against this particular memory. It, and I am sure thousands of other ones that are invisible to me, does not provide for me a SAFE PLACE or a secure platform to either view the memory or even to approach it. I can feel the boundary that my original dissociation from this memory created. It is a kind of energy field that disorganizes and disorients both my body and my mind when I think about it.
As I worked in therapy with my treatment center therapist about this experience, we clearly identified an identity that I best call Captain Nemo who secures the boundaries around the memory of this experience. Captain Nemo, of course, is the maligned and melancholic isolationist mastermind from the Jules Verne classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was very impressed with the movie when I watched it as a child. But in my own internal version, Captain also raises exquisite and hard-to-grow orchids! As my daughter says, he even has a pastime!
Captain Nemo is very much present at this moment and comes as close as he possibly can to forbidding me to approach this memory. I am not going to become entangled with him, nor do I wish to tangle with him, over this fact. He is there to do a job and I will continue to let him. He is my gate keeper. He, whoever he is, keeps me safe. I appreciate that. He is extremely competent at what he does, and I respect that. He keeps me from being overwhelmed.
I will also, however, tell you the simple facts about this traumatic abuse event. I had changed my baby brother’s stinky cloth diaper, and because it smelled so badly I ran it out of the house as quickly as I could before I went back inside to dress him. I set the diaper down on the water can pallet near the corner of the house, meaning to return to it as soon as I could to rinse it out. I forgot it.
Some hours later my mother went outside to the outhouse. She had passed by the diaper on her way out because it was invisible coming down the steps. But she saw it instantly when she came back, and literally – all hell broke lose.
What I remember is her out-of-control brutal beating and screaming. I am not going close enough to be able to tell you what she was saying, but I will tell me that she shoved me so far out of balance that I fell to the ground near the huge puddle she was forcing me toward. At the moment I hit the ground she began kicking me, hard, and eventually by dragging me by my hair and arms, kicking me all the while, she got me into the puddle — and she would not let me either stand up or get out.
She had followed me out into the water, forcing me to remain on my hands and knees so that the pebbles on the bottom of the puddle scraped me and burrowed themselves into my skin. She wanted me to crawl around in the puddle and say over and over and over again, “I am a pig! I am a pig! I am a pig!” And I would not do it. The more I resisted the more violent and brutal she became.
That’s it! That’s all I am going to write about this. I’m done now! I refuse to remain here any longer, and will not allow these tears to form in my eyes. This, dear readers, is the gist of this!