The word ‘trauma’ — meaning a terrible event we live through that cannot be remembered but which generates painful related symptoms — captures an acute paradox in our relationship to our own histories: some of what is most significant in our lives is inaccessible to day to day memory; the more important something is, the less we may be able to recall it.
There seems to be a threshold of pain above which our minds won’t go in order to retrieve an event. We’ll recall with ease the pleasant childhood spring morning thirty years ago by the river bank when we swam and fed the ducks; but we’ll be sincerely unable to remember a moment that same day when our troubled father abruptly lost his temper over an apparent triviality and, from nowhere, slapped us extremely hard across the cheek and left us to walk home alone. The memory-retrieving part of our minds is like an eye that clenches shut in the presence of a flash, and closes down when asked to archive and then recover incidents of intense fury or terror, ridicule or shame. The difficulties may be very large — a bomb, a physical violation — or apparently more modest — mockery, an unexplained burst of fury, a prolonged absence. Yet what defines a trauma is not so much an objective score on a scale of awfulness as a subjective impression that an incident is too difficult for us to make sense of; is too much at odds with our models of reality and poses too great a risk to our hopes of ourselves and those we want to love.
Though we may be nominally protected by our ignorance of our traumas, the overall impact of our disconnection has the power to derail our lives. We may not have kept in mind that our father was a deeply vengeful and frightening man, but it’s on exactly this basis that we have begun to fear all men and to despise our whole being. We may not remember our mother’s terrifying competitiveness but its submerged presence is what has bred in us a deleteriously shy manner and a habit of removing ourselves from any position where we may triumph and be admired by others. Problems don’t go away because they have been sent to a catacomb: they have a greater impact precisely because they can’t be brought to consciousness and resolved through conversation and sympathetic analysis.
The challenge of recovering from trauma is that we can’t on command remember what we do not know we have even forgotten. We need to proceed indirectly, awakening ourselves to the possibility of buried difficulties on the basis of a range of otherwise inexplicable present-day fears and tics. When there is no obvious reason for our body dysmorphia or shyness, impotence or insomnia, paranoia or despair, we should start to dig — in the presence of those who love us and understand our minds — to prevent our stories from being controlled by figures of our personal histories who did not have our interests at heart.
We need to retrieve as much of our pasts as will be required to embark on the free adult lives we deserve.