Thursday, May 26, 2011

We Didn't Start the Fire

I may have stumbled on an interesting theory when eating dinner with family two weekends ago. 
I forget (ha) exactly how we got on the subject, but we were talking about memory.  Specifically, early memory.  In the conversation, I recounted an upsetting incident from my AP psychology class in high school.  While we were learning about memory, one of our assignments had been to write a short paper about our earliest memory.  Then we talked about them in class, identifying which parts of the brain may have been involved in their storage, the types of imprinting likely used, etc.  I had a REALLY hard time with this assignment.  I could not really come up with a good early memory.  In the end, I made something up.  Most of what we had talked about with early memory was that it was pretty one dimensional - oftentimes being dominated by just one or two of our senses.  A strong smell of cookies say, and the sight of your kitchen table's yellow gingham tablecloth.  Or the feel of your favorite white blanket, tufted under your fingers, and a memory of seeing snow outside.  I don't even remember what I wrote, but I do remember that I made it up.  It seemed like no one else in my class had a hard time with it.  Most of them picked out memories from somewhere around 2 or 3 years old, some a bit earlier, some a bit later.  Now, I know lots of things that happened to me around that age, but I am certain that the "memories" I have of these things are actually just the memory of someone telling me about these things happening.  I lack that visceral sensory connection to a certain feeling at a certain place in time.  For example, I broke one of my collarbones when I was just a year and a half old, falling off a bench.  I have no memory of this incident, but I could tell the story start to finish like it happened yesterday.  How they didn't know what happened at first, but when my mother was giving me a bath later I just wouldn't stop crying when she touched my shoulder, yadda yadda.  But all that I would tell you is what I have heard.  It was frustrating, I explained to my family, not to know what my earliest memory was.
Later in the conversation, we were talking about some things that had happened when we lived in Parsippany (where I grew up, from birth to age 16).  Somehow, the subject of our house catching on fire came up.  For those who have never heard the story, when I was about five, my mother's white station wagon spontaneously caught fire in our driveway.  Unusually, it was parked only about 6 inches from our garage, which quickly caught fire and spread.  My parents were out somewhere, a movie maybe, or dinner.  Aaron was already at college.  This left just Rachel, Seth and myself.  Apparently, Seth and I had already been put to bed for the evening when our neighbor from across the street, Mrs. Polito, called to tell Rachel she saw smoke coming from our garage.  Rachel apparently then let our dog, Max, out into the fenced in backyard, rushed upstairs to get Seth and I, and whisked us across the street to Mrs. Polito's.  I'm sure at some point, someone called the fire department, though I don't know if it was Rachel or Mrs. Polito.  All that setup is recounted from other people's memories told to me (and perhaps not even 100% accurate timeline wise), but what comes next is my own memory, strong as the day it was created.  I remember standing on the Polito's lawn.  I remember the feel of the grass under my bare feet (no time to grab shoes).  I remember the feel of my cotton nightgown blowing against my legs in the soft night breeze.  I remember the horrible smell of smoke drifting across the street on that air.  And most of all, I remember the paralyzing feeling of fear.  A little bit of fear for myself, though we were out of danger then, a little bit of fear for our 'stuff', if the whole house burned down, but primarily - fear for my dog.  I hadn't seen my sister let the dog out of the house, and even though she assured me that's what she'd done, I remember feeling absolutely convinced that my dog was still trapped in the house and was going to die.  My beautiful, wonderful dog - my best friend for as long as I could remember.  I was so afraid.  I'm certain at some point we were brought inside the Polito's house, and I think at one point I even remember there being hot chocolate, and I remember sirens when the fire trucks came, but these things are all sort of disjointed and out of sequence.  Everything except standing on that lawn fearing for my dog's life.
And when recounting this piece of the memory to family, I realized how much it sounded like the earliest memories of my classmates I had described.  Just two or three senses involved, just a single, powerful snippet.  It occurred to me at that moment that the fire may just be my earliest memory.  Which to me, raises a whole host of interesting questions.  Sometimes, traumatic experiences create 'repressed memories' - where memories of the event are pushed out of explicit (conscious) memory into subconscious memory.  But what usually goes missing is the memory of the event itself.  In this case, I have a very clear memory of the trauma itself, but no memory of anything before it, at least that I can recall as being from such.  I wonder if there has ever been a case where trauma made you lose memories that came before.  Certainly I've never heard of such a thing, unless it's physical trauma (i.e. a brain injury, where parts of the temporal cortex used for storing memories are actually damaged).  It would be an interesting thing to look into, to see if such a thing has been observed clinically.  But furthermore, I wonder about the potential ways in which that event may have shaped my brain.  In my AP Psych class, I wrote a paper about how I had suffered from deep separation anxiety for about 3 years after the fire.  I didn't want my parents to leave the house ever, being convinced something horrible would happen if they did.  On the rare occasion they did go out, I insisted upon being allowed to sleep in their bed, with my brother, until they came home and relocated us back into our own beds.  I think I thought that if something bad were to happen, at least I wouldn't be alone.  Or maybe that my brother could somehow protect me.  To boot, I often found it difficult to sleep, plagued by recurring nightmares of home invasion or kidnapping, or fire.  Or I found it difficult to GET to sleep, thinking I constantly smelled smoke.  I would come downstairs and declare to my parents, "I know I smell smoke!" and would only be satisfied there was none by a walk around all the outlets of the house to show no fires had started. But in the years subsequent to that class, I've actually sort of started to believe it was more than just separation anxiety.  I think it may actually have been a form of PTSD, though certainly a less severe one than happens to adults, especially those of non-contextualizable things like wars or natural disasters.  But still.  PTSD can have longstanding effects on our ability to process things, emotions, etc. or cause us to be more anxious than we ought be.  Mess with our flight or fight instincts a bit.
Anyway, I don't know what all that might mean for me, but its certainly been interesting to think about for a time.  In general, memory is something I always feel like I need to devote more time to, though I think I live more in the past than the average bear already.  Tough to explain what I mean without beginning another long story.  Therefore, this is all, for now.


Clarion Content said...

Fascinating! It is my understanding that there are a lot of examples of "where trauma made [one] lose memories that came before..." Ludlum's Bourne books are based on this very theme.

SongInHerSky said...

hmm, fiction though. wonder if there are real-world examples? let me know if you ever hear about any. :)