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How We Remember Distant Trauma

by Kurt Schmidt

I’m not sure why I remember traumatic events so vividly and am so hazy about the details of many happy family events. Perhaps it’s my age — eighty-three. It bothers me that, eventually, my mind might become a giant cesspool of trauma clogged with anxiety-producing memories.

Dr. Ted Huey, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia University, says there is a misconception that emotion and trauma are bad for memory. He says, "The way our brain tags what's important to be remembered is emotion." During these emotionally charged moments, the brain is flagging the moment as important but not necessarily able to focus on parsing out the most important details. What ends up happening is that trauma survivors sometimes have very vivid memories of strange details. For example, someone might remember the sweater their attacker was wearing or their smell but not his or her face or what kind of car they were driving. "That's because even though the memories are very vivid and your memory is actually turned up very high…you're not kind of thinking calmly and rationally about what I should remember and what I shouldn't remember."

Picture of a small toy fire truck sitting on the top of the porch stairs.
Image credit: Canva

That got me wondering why my mind sometimes revisits the long-ago trauma of a five-year-old. On that day, I didn’t intend to ignore my mother’s instructions, especially with Dad away in the Army and her having to monitor my sister and me alone. But Johnny Johansen and I pedaled our fire trucks outside our apartment block’s inner courtyard through one of the red brick archway exits onto the sidewalk on Lexington Street. Having traveled to forbidden territory, I thought my red fire truck needed a mechanical tune-up. So I tipped it onto its side, kneeled on the sidewalk, and began tinkering. Johnny did the same. Men’s voices made me look up at a car parked near us. Inside were three men in suits and business hats with wide brims. They had drowsy eyes. One of them rolled down his window. He said, “Hey, kids. You want some candy?” I didn’t answer but stopped tinkering with my fire truck. “We have some candy here in the car,” the man said. “Why don’t cha come in with us and have some?” Some instinct made me afraid. When the man opened the car door and began to get out, I turned to Johnny and said, “Run!” I sped through the archway to the courtyard and left Johnny as he headed for his apartment. After vaulting up three flights of stairs, I gasped for breath and explained to my mother what happened. We saw two of these men supporting a third from our kitchen window. The three moved slowly into the courtyard to an apartment entrance on the other side. Soon, two men returned across the courtyard and out to their car. They drove away. Mom and I went down to Lexington Street and retrieved the fire trucks. She told me in a quiet voice that I’d done the right thing. I think she was afraid, too. I remember vividly the wide-brim hats and the drowsy eyes and that the speaker’s voice seemed more dangerous than benevolent. I’d rather remember the details of joyful events but fear that I’m too weighed down by events like this and those of my abusive father when he was alive. Evidence that I should see a psychotherapist.

At about the same age, I got out of bed early one morning before Mom, went to the kitchen, and climbed on top of the stove to retrieve a box of wooden matches. I climbed down and took the matches to the middle of the living room. I sat on the polished hardwood floor. I removed a match from the box. I scratched the match against the box. I watched the flame burst and continue as it slowly proceeded down the match toward my fingers. I blew out the flame and dropped the smoking remnant on the floor. I repeated this intrigue until a large pile of burnt matches was on the floor. After putting the matchbox back on top of the stove, I found a dustpan, swept up the mess, and deposited it in a wastebasket. I returned with a cloth to erase the black spot on the floor. The burn circle was permanent. I went to my room, retrieved my toy dump truck, and returned to the living room. I placed the truck on the floor over the burn mark. I returned to my bed and pretended to be asleep.

Image of a flame burning horizontally across the floor.
Image credit: Eduardo Soares on Unsplash

Later, I heard Mom calling me. When I came out to the living room, she had rolled my truck away from the burn spot. “How did this happen?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe the truck leaked oil from the engine.”

Oddly, I don’t remember what happened then. She may have whopped me. She may have lectured me about playing with fire. She may have gone to her bedroom and sobbed about having a son who was a pyromaniac. Years later, I do remember her saying she’d had bad dreams about fire ever since she was a child. Perhaps, in this instance, she was too traumatized to take any emphatic action that I would remember.

Because trauma tends to imprint on memory, even at five, I remember a certain kindergarten moment as my most humiliating conflict with authority at this formative age.

I was wearing a pale polo shirt and khaki shorts. It was the last day of school before summer vacation, and the teacher said, “I’ll be working at my desk today. I want you all to play quietly. I do not want you to interrupt me for any reason.”

She had a “Don’t mess with me” look on her face that made me afraid. As time passed, I rolled a toy dump truck across the floor and wondered what to do about my need to pee. I felt small leaks begin. When it was time to leave, she instructed us to line up near the door. Glancing at the lineup, she noticed the wet spot on my khaki shorts and said loudly, “Kurt, did you pee your pants?”

My choice was to cry or lie. I said, “No, I just sweated a lot today.”

The other kids giggled. I would remember my shame and the ogre’s accusatory voice forever.

One psychiatrist writes, "Neuroscience research tells us that memories formed under the influence of intense emotion are indelible in the way that memories of a routine day are not."

I think I need a lobotomy.


Black and white photo of the author, Kurt Schmidt.
Kurt Schmidt

Kurt Schmidt’s memoirs and essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Bacopa Literary Review, Storyhouse, Please See Me, Discretionary Love, Eclectica Magazine, the "Adelaide Literary Award Anthology," and others. Ten years after being expelled from the U. S. Naval Academy, he authored the novel "Annapolis Misfit" (Crown). Last year Kurt flew in a small plane piloted by his son, although he was anxious that his son was newly licensed and inexperienced. Kurt is currently finishing a 30-year chronicle about parenting a risk-taker.

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