On Forgetting and Trauma

[Trigger Warning: Violence and Sexual Assault]

For those of you who have been reading my blog for nearly four years, you may know that its content is mostly lighthearted and optimistic (with very few exceptions). Today though I felt the need to write about my research. Some of you may not know that my literary and theoretical specialization is on memory and trauma studies.

My dissertation is a cross-examination of Videla and Pinochet’s dictatorship and the concentration camp experience in Western and Eastern Europe. The main question, however, that has always been of interest to me is how/what we remember and how/what we forget. Trauma affects memory far more than we like to think. Does that mean that what survivors and victims forget should be deemed more important than what they remember?

“In order to remember one must have forgotten; the forgotten is always an integral part of memory,” cultural theorist, Gunnthorunn Gudmundsdóttir, emphasizes in her last book, Representations of Forgetting in Life, Writing and Fiction. Gudmunsdóttir is speaking from the perspective of the repetitive nature of memory. Memory is indeed shaped by forgetting. Our memory creates a series of gaps for a reason. The hippocampus, which is the center of emotion, memory and the autonomic nervous system of our brain, allows us to remember based on emotions. What trauma victims forget is not the wound inflicted, but the details surrounding it.

From all the testimonies I’ve read, one thing has always struck me, victims shape their stories around a significant episode in their lives. For the Argentine women who were viciously raped by officers, it was the names these officers called them whilst being raped. For the Holocaust survivors, it was the witty story they said to the Nazi SS guard before entering the camps or the smell of burnt flesh as they spent hours working outside. Each event was shaped by a sensorial and emotional experience.

Holocaust survivors have forgotten the fact that there was a music band in Auschwitz.

Holocaust survivors have forgotten the specific details of conversations they had between prisoners or guards.

Argentine and Chilean survivors have forgotten the details of the games they played in detention centers in order to pass time.

None of these victims forget the truth, the real truth: the fact that inhumane and atrocious acts were committed against them.

Non-victims though want to forget.

Amnesia and Amnesty are closely intertwined etymologically from the Ancient Greek,  ἀμνηστία and ἀμνησία (a-mneme= to not remember). While a political power gives amnesty to perpetrators, they encourage the collective forgetting of crimes against humanity. They encourage us that because victims did not “fully remember”, we can completely forget.

In today’s world where some of us choose to not listen to the testimonies of victims, we must not fall into a collective amnesia where we forget the crimes committed against survivors. We must believe survivors. We must believe their words, their experiences, and their honest attempts at recollecting such traumatic events.

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