Friday, 26 July 2013

Memory Games

Inferno. I read it the other week, after my mother pestered me to do so. There were a lot of things that bothered me with the novel, mostly to do with the writing style itself and Brown's condescending attitude towards women through his male characters. The two main female characters are defined by appearance, sexual assault and childlessness.

I will admit that I have grieved the fact that I lost my daughter, and I will make no argument against rape or attempted rape being a terrifying and life-changing ordeal. And though it may feel like we are defined by those events as we go through the process of recovery, to reduce us to them fulfills all our fears, and to reduce characters to them reinforces the myths and sense of failure that many women feel.

Brown's writing isn't empathetic or even sympathetic. We don't feel anything for Sienna, it seems rather more than a "logical" piece of the puzzle. But human reactions are rarely "logical" or "measured", and everything about Sienna's experience feels contrived, and a male trivialisation of a very real issue.

However, I didn't intend to write a detailed analysis of gender inequality in the novels of Dan Brown. It really isn't worth my time or attention. What I wanted to write about was an idea that I found even more disturbing than what I've already described. The idea of memory manipulation.

Brown suggests in his novel that benzodiazepines are being used experimentally to induce short term memory loss as a treatment for patients of sexual assault. I sincerely hope that this is fictional. For a start, one of the most well-known benzodiazepines is rohypnol, more often used as a facilitator of sexual assault rather than treatment.

My first issue with this suggestion is the statement that sexual assault is "permanently debilitating", which yet again dis-empowers those women who have experienced rape or other serious sexual crimes. Yes, the trauma seriously affects daily life, but with the correct support, we have the power to carry on. Not even "carry on", which holds the same negative connotations as "struggle" and "survive", but to live our lives fully and with vigour. It isn't a quick-fix solution, and there will be bad days as well as the good, but although there are some things that are still a challenge for me and it's taken eight years to get to this point, there is nothing I can't do that I could do before. It has not taken any ability away from me, permanently or otherwise. And to suggest that it does yet again reinforces the message of power for the perpetrator and is extremely disrespectful and belittling to the hundreds of thousands of women who continue and the wonderful volunteers and support workers who assist them in their journey.

And breathe.

The next problem with the suggestion is the memory itself. In the first few days, in the first few years, in fact, my two biggest wishes were that I could either turn back time so that it had never happened, or that I could wipe the memories from my head forever. Because it's not just the memory that sits there in the back of your mind where you have to actively recall it, somewhat like thinking about your seventh birthday party, or what you did last weekend. No, it is on constant replay, triggered by textures, sights, sounds and smells. It's not just a memory but something you actively relive, feeling the pain like you did the first time. Even recalling it now is making the back of my head throb where it was smashed on the pavement, and my throat feel like I'm being strangled again. It's manageable, I've learnt to cope. But those mechanisms and defences take time to develop.

The truth is, though, that the things I can't recall are the most terrifying. I don't know exact times, but there must be at least half an hour that's unaccounted for. All I know is that in that time, he left me on the pavement after strangling me, presumably thinking I was dead. Did he rape me again? Did he do something else to me? I have no idea because I have no memories or recollections to go with that time period. Even silly things, like not remembering the name of the work colleague that introduced us, or not remembering where I had my dance class the day before, send shivers down my spine.

It comes back to trust. And control. Most of these things come back to trust and control at the end of the day. Because, in these situations, you realise that you can't trust anyone outside yourself... and suddenly, you can't even trust yourself or your own memories. And the one thing that you still had some control over - your own mind - is not your own either.

So, ethically speaking, how would you go about erasing someone's memories? Would you erase them straight off and not even tell them what had happened? Would you erase that from their minds completely? And what would you tell them? What sort of detrimental effect would that have on the patient and how would you deal with any resulting health issues without letting them know? And if you were to allow them to know the facts, then how would that impact them emotionally? Would they deny their feelings or dismiss them as ridiculous because their memory loss meant they felt undeserving of such reactions? Especially if the choice to have the memories removed was their own.

And time frames make this even more delicate as an issue. For the drugs to affect short term memory, they need to be administered in the first 48 hours, when the patient is likely still in shock. How do you assess whether something is "permanently debilitating" in that time scale? 

On a related (or rather, inverted) note, has anyone read this article in the Guardian? Apparently, a false memory has been implanted in a mouse's brain, and the researchers plan to use this to warn legal experts about the unreliability of human memory. The article actually cites sexual abuse claims as an example of false memories, which yet again undermines the reality of the situation and implies widespread prevalence of an issue that is comparatively rare in relation to false reports of other crime.

In both cases, understanding of how our brains work is essential for future treatment. So often, emotional and psychological wellbeing is dismissed due to lack of medical and scientific understanding, and the fact that it (and its results) can't be seen in the same way as physical health. But we need to consider carefully the impact that this research has and how it is used. In both cases, sexual assault has been cited as possible use (even if one case is in a novel!), yet the authors seem to completely misunderstand the basic truths of the experience.

No comments:

Post a Comment