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The Forgotten Memory: On Amnesia as a Consequence of Trauma

A few years ago, the images re-appeared. They crashed in my memory like a meteorite, to the extent that my world perception smashed to pieces. Images of an episode of my childhood going back to 1979. Images that the adults had accused me to have invented. Images that I was ordered to silence. Images of pain, unease and query of an eight-year-old girl. Images buried in oblivion that an introspection exercise was suddenly awakening twenty-five years later. They were henceforth standing in front of me: frozen, still numbed by so many years of ignorance, well and truly determined to be seen and heard. And then? How to continue life when the disappeared of the memory reappear without warning in order to be taken care of? How many painful recollections have evaporated to make the life of thousands of victims apparently more bearable?

In 1979, Argentina’s last military dictatorship, known as Proceso, had been ruling the country for three years. Thus, while my school’s headmaster was terrifying me, people were being tortured, suppressed and disappeared on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in a country with which I would, years later, have a unique relationship. Over time, thanks to books, films, encounters and stays in Argentina, I became aware that imprisonment, torture and suffering could provoke amnesia, forgetfulness and oblivion. And I experienced and witnessed how healing and vital remembrance is.

Point of encounter with Argentina

One day, inadvertently, I shook the silence an Argentine woman was maintaining about her illegal detentions during the Proceso. As a result we became close friends; over the years I witnessed her liberating process. Since then, she has perceived me as someone who took her out of her devouring and paralysing silence into her full life. Actually, I only triggered something that was ready to come out. With the benefit of hindsight, I realise how her process helped me to begin mine. My starting point is my encounter with that woman, Paz.

Paz’s immediate amnesia

Like every summer in Buenos Aires, the air was still very heavy in that late afternoon of January 2006. In the common patio area of the small building where I lived, some neighbours and I were gathered around a mate tea with Pedro, the owner of my flat, and his girlfriend Paz whom I did not know. Out of the blue, I asked:

  • Paz is a nickname, isn’t it? Your real name is Luna, right?

All of sudden, she quivered and gazed at me anxiously. Pale with fear, she leaned on Pedro and, in a state of tremulous agitation, sat down.

  • Why Luna?! she asked barely audible.

A leaden silence had fallen over our words still warm from our laughs; even the mate had stopped passing around. Nobody knew what was happening, but everybody could sense that my question had gone deeply into Paz’s heart.

  • Uh… I don’t know, I mumbled, I thought it was your name, I heard it.
  • No, this is impossible, she replied, Luna is… was my sister… she disappeared during the dictatorship. And, she continued hesitant, I was kidnapped too…

Her confession left me dumbfounded. We met later that week and Paz told me something astounding: on the day following our moving conversation in the patio, Gabi (with whom she had been kidnapped in 1976) got in touch with her after twenty-seven years silence! Their last conversation dated back to 1979.

How to continue life when the disappeared of the memory reappear without warning in order to be taken care of?

This is how Paz began to recount me her memories of 1976, she was seventeen then. Knowing that the militaries were looking for her, she had taken refuge at Gabi’s. Leo, Gabi’s boyfriend, was there too. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, they came hurtling in the house, roused them from their beds, hit and insulted them before hurling them into a vehicle. Free fall into a bottomless black hole: Paz immediately fell into a deep sleep. Her companions were dumbstruck. Later, Gabi would write: “Paz is sleeping all the time, literarily sleeping. Three days asleep? Is that possible? In the middle of hell, Paz might have succeeded in creating her own paradise” (Fainstain, 2006). At times, torture would wake her up and then she would go back to sleep. Three days later, she opened her eyes, after being thrown half-naked out of a car in a waste ground. Gabi and Leo were lying next to her.

Gabi’s posterior amnesia

Through Paz, I got to know Gabi via mail and read her autobiography: “Twenty-five years ago, on 19 October 1976, I was kidnapped by Argentine soldiers […]. Three days and three nights that I had been able to erase from my mind and my memory by dint of will. My naked body lying on a wooden plank […]. Electricity causes an unbearable pain. Remembering it is also unbearable” (Fainstain, 2006). Evidently, Gabi’s reaction to pain was different. Unlike Paz, she was aware of what her persecutors inflicted on her youth: fear, torture, rape and humiliation. Shortly after her liberation, Gabi discovered that she was pregnant and decided to abort in Europe. And if that seed of life was hers and Leo’s? They would never know and the couple would not recover from the brutality they had undergone together. After aborting, Gabi returned to Buenos Aires. However, after several attempts in vain to go back to everyday life, she left the country again and forever, alone and in silence. A heavy sealed door to her past, her beloved ones as well as her persecutors, closed behind her. Twenty long years of a voluntary amnesia.

Why Forget?

What causes a human being to become amnesic? What motivates some victims to choose amnesia over another form of response to torture, detention, and fear? What is the delicate border between consciousness and un-consciousness?

According to her own accounts, Paz’s abnormal sleep was generated by her instinct for self-protection rather than by a conscious decision. Sleep isolates and, to a certain extent, protects the victim from an unbearable reality: “Sleep allowed me to do as if all that was not occurring to me”. That way, macabre memories were hampered by the resulting amnesia: “I even came to think that there are still things I probably underwent, like rape, of which I am still unaware”.

Gabi’s amnesia was different; it occurred after the events and was carefully maintained. In the medical jargon this kind of amnesia is referred to as psychogenic amnesia, also known as dissociative amnesia, or more poetically according to Jean Delay as “the written page one does not want to read”. Psychogenic amnesia is, among other things, caused by “the survival mechanisms of the victims in order for them to escape from an intolerable pain” (Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie, 2009). Thus, in Europe, Gabi started a new life, without Argentina or memory. Her past had remained on the other side of the Atlantic because it was putting her survival in danger. “It is as if, in order to survive, a certain extent of anaesthesia, doze, obscurity, silence and oblivion was necessary” (Fainstain, 2007).

The cost of amnesia

However, far from replacing or eliminating, amnesia opacifies and puts back, it creates a void, a blank that nothing or anyone can fill in. Thus, Paz’s short amnesia condemned her experience of oppression to silence for over two decades, which led her to recurrent depressions, a profound loneliness and melancholy. Only her closest relations knew about her detentions by the Argentine armed forces, until my innocent question about her name opened a split into her past that kept growing. Today, she talks about her disappeared sister and tells her story; she contributes to memory and truth projects in Buenos Aires. She has changed her life situation that was perpetuating her suffering and her victim position.

However, far from replacing or eliminating, amnesia opacifies and puts back, it creates a void, a blank that nothing or anyone can fill in.

As for Gabi, her obstinate amnesia had been the fruit of a relentless work, which absorbed a large part of her energy and attention during many years, to finally leave her with a sense of powerlessness and pointlessness.

The Rupture of Amnesia

When and why do survivors come out of amnesia? What breaks the inner silence? How is the retrieval of consciousness dealt with? “Often memories can emerge, partly or entirely, during events that have a very intense emotional impact and are symbolically closely linked to the past violence” (Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie, 2009). One day, a session of Chinese acupuncture brought Gabi back to her past. By sinking into the skin, the needles brushed the memory of pain and, in an irrepressible avalanche, rekindled the past that had been reduced to silence. Once the shielded door of oblivion has opened partway, it is impossible to keep silent and do as if. This is how Gabi decided to write and publish her story.

“After amnesia comes anamnesia, that is to say awareness, a progressive regress to the past that had been hold back, a kind of return of the memory” (Rousso, 2000). Put another way, amnesia and oblivion are temporary remedies that are sometimes necessary not to get crazy. Nevertheless, healing rests upon memory. It is therefore essential to recover one’s own past or, at least, as many puzzle pieces as possible, and know which history one comes from in order for transformation, hence healing, to begin. For what hurts might be hidden by not knowing and will only heal with the process of getting to know. Re-member the past allows one to live in the present and transform, that is to say become towards the unknown future.