When Eileen looked into her daughter's blue eyes, she was struck by the resemblance to her childhood best friend, who'd been killed at eight years old. The case had never been solved. But at that moment, looking at her daughter, Eileen had a terrifying flashback of the murder in vivid detail. The screaming, the rape, the crushed skull…and the killer. Who, she remembered with sickening clarity, was her father. Over twenty years later, her father was found guilty of the murder based on these “repressed memories.” But, as psychologist Elizabeth Loftus asks in her article “Myth of the Repressed Memory,” were Eileen's memories actually real?
First, a primer on memory. We start forming memories around nine months old, when the frontal cortex develops. Like language, memory is housed in the brain, within the temporal lobes. We figured this out in 1953, when a well-meaning surgeon cut out the temporal lobes of “Patient H.M.” to stop his seizures. Luckily, his epilepsy was cured, but unluckily, he also suffered severe short-term memory loss. Not “where did I just put my phone?” memory loss; he was completely unable to create new memories. If a stranger rang his doorbell, H.M. would answer and have a polite conversation. If the stranger then shut the door and opened it ten seconds later, H.M. would answer and have a polite conversation all over again. And so on.
Over time, we've learned a great deal about the neurological aspects of memory, its origin in the hippocampus, and processing and storing in the surrounding cortex. Through MRI and PET studies, we can now pinpoint the exact areas of memory formation and retrieval. We now know a lot about how we create memories.
What we don't understand is how we lose them.
I'm not referring to dementia here or the loss of memory through neurofibrillary tangles, brain atrophy, or other neurological dysfunction. I'm talking about “memory repression,” losing memory due to an emotionally traumatic event, just as the prosecutors claimed that Eileen did. The prickly question of “blocking” or repressing memories is not just murky, it's downright controversial. Vitriolic debates about memory repression have raged on for years between neuroscientists and psychologists.
Freud started it. Most of us have learned about Freud and his theory of the conscious and subconscious. Freud also had theories about memory. He posited that humans repress unpleasant or negative thoughts into the subconscious, leaving only functional, more constructive thoughts in the conscious mind. Thus, if an event is too traumatic for the brain to process, the memory is blocked or pushed into the subconscious.
“Hogwash!” the neuroscientists say.
“Isn't!” the neuropsychologists yell back. And thus we have a stand-off.
The truth is: no one really knows. It is clear that survivors of sexual abuse and other severe trauma at a young age may not fully remember these events. They may recall them later in life as flashbacks, just as war veterans who suffer PTSD. Blocked childhood trauma is one of the pervasive theories behind dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder), where patients enter a fugue-like state and lose time, sometimes spent as an alternate personality.
In Little Black Lies, my psychological thriller, Dr. Zoe Goldman is a psychiatrist who is well-versed in Freud and the theories of memory. When Zoe was only four, her mother died in a house fire. She remembers only fragments of that fateful night, and like other PTSD patients, still suffers nightmares from it. Working with her psychiatrist—yes, a psychiatrist sees a psychiatrist—she tries to recover memories through hypnosis (a fairly debunked method at memory retrieval, and in fact one which Eileen may have utilized). To make matters worse, her adoptive mother is declining from dementia and cannot provide reliable memories to help her daughter.
Little Black Lies is a mystery about the mystery of memory, the perilous boundary between what our brain allows us to remember and what we cannot help but forget.
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Sandra Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York, for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan and lives at home with her husband, two children, and their impetuous yellow lab, Delilah. Little Black Lies (Grand Central Publishing) is her first novel. Like her on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter!