pieces of light

The horror remembered

To the Wellcome Collection for Shona Illingworth‘s moving and thoughtful installation, ‘The Watch Man’. The piece, which forms part of the current exhibition on War and Medicine, recreates the experience of a war veteran who witnessed one of the most shocking events of the Second World War. I was particularly struck by the way that Illingworth used sound and film together, and sometimes working at cross-purposes, to create the sense of a past alive in the present. A feature of a traumatized mind is that its fragments of remembered horror lie close to the surface of consciousness, at least until such time as they can be ordered into coherent representations of what happened. 
All of this fits well with the idea that memories are constructed out of fragments of sensory experience combined with more schematic knowledge about one’s own life. This was one of the themes of our subsequent discussion yesterday at the Wellcome. I was part of a group of social scientists, artists, journalists and filmmakers who had been invited to discuss some key questions around war and memory. Another important factor in the making of the piece, Illingworth told us, was the idea that our capacity to suppress traumatic memories becomes weaker as we get older—hence the particularly vivid experiences of the old man at the centre of the piece. 
All of which got me wondering again about how traumatic memories function in childhood. We were treated to a fascinating talk by my Durham colleague Catherine Panter-Brick, who has been running a research project with children affected by militarised violence in Afghanistan. We also had a compelling talk by the photo-journalist Tom Stoddart from Getty Images, who showed some of the photos he has taken in Kosovo, Sarajevo, Goma, in post 9/11 New York, and elsewhere. As children are rarely spared from such atrocities, many of these pictures show young faces. 

There is a common understanding, probably stemming from psychoanalytic theory, that traumatic memories work differently to ordinary remembering. In their recent review of psychological research in the area, Ingrid Cordón and colleagues suggest that memories for traumatic events are forgotten and recalled in similar ways to memories for happier ones. In one study of children who had suffered a documented trauma such as sexual abuse or kidnapping, traumas that had happened before the age of around three were only sketchily recalled, if at all. Even with older children, there is little evidence that traumatic events are remembered in a fundamentally different way to everyday ones. Those that are recalled are often recalled for longer, but that may just be because traumatic events are distinctive, and distinctive events, good or bad, stick in one’s mind. This leads us to a paradox, because it is indisputable that traumas mess you up. Childhood sexual abuse, for example, is reported by a substantial majority of psychiatric patients troubled by hearing voices. However it is that traumatic events have their effects, it can’t be through anything that is accessible to consciousness. Whatever influences they have on our behaviour or future mental health, we don’t seem to recall them any differently to anything else.

Which brings it home to me how much more we need to learn and understand about memory following trauma. Young children’s memory is fragmentary anyway, and even psychologically undamaged kids must strive to create coherence just as a traumatized mind must. I will be blogging more on these topics in the months to come; as ever, I would welcome any thoughts. 

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