Science is getting closer to being able to remove certain memories from the human brain, but just because you can, does it mean you should?
Please note that this post contains a detailed account of sexual assault.
In news that sounds more like the work of science fiction, The Washington Post reported that MIT scientists were able to successfully implant false memories into a mouse’s brain through optogenetics, which uses light to switch activity on and off for each brain cell in a living animal. The study’s authors claim this type of research could one day help treat emotional issues in human beings, including disorders that involve the invasion of unwelcome memories, such as in PTSD.
In fact, this concept has been explored in pop culture, including the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Those of us who have seen the movie remember how Joel (Jim Carrey) tries and fails to erase his memories of a long-term romantic relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet), ultimately reuniting with her and the two of them accepting one another’s flaws. In the original script, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman included scenes of trauma and rape survivors having their memories erased in order to move on from their ordeals. It makes sense that these individuals would choose to forget the lifelong suffering that these memories carry.
However, as a rape survivor, I would not choose to have my memories erased.
I was 13 years old. I spent the night at a friend’s house and her stepfather (who was 31) let us drink with him: Coke and Kentucky Gentleman Bourbon, which I still can’t stand the smell of. My friend got drunk and left the room to mess around with a boy. Her stepfather had rented a porn video, something about gangbanging in the barn. It was the first time I was drunk and the first time I’d seen pornography in a movie.
The rest of that evening is like a movie with missing transitions. In one scene, I’m on the couch and his hands are sliding down my thighs. In the next scene, I’m on my knees on the balcony outside, and even though all I’d ever done was kiss a boy in middle school, I was doing things with him. How did we get here? Then my memory fades out to black and I’m in a computer room as he takes off my nightgown and whispers, “You’re so damn beautiful” and I realize that he is going to have sex with me—all the way, not just a blow job—and I don’t want him to do it. “I’m on the rag,” I said. I had never used that phrase before, but the lie came out easily, even if my voice was shaking. He stops and leaves the room. His wife comes back to the apartment within an hour.
For the next nine months, I keep the secret. He made us sound like co-conspirators protecting his marriage from failing and his son from being raised by a single parent. Whenever I visited, he leered at me—once, he stood near the opening of my friend’s bedroom door (which had been damaged and wouldn’t close all the way) and jerked himself off as he watched me dress. If we were in a car alone, he would slide his hand over my breasts and under my shorts. I had a boyfriend, a loving mother, friends who would have listened, but I never told anyone. Not until he cornered me in a Kmart and told me we needed to finish what we had started. I was 14, getting ready to enter high school—the same school where his stepdaughter would graduate from.
My mother had sensed that something was off with me for months. In September, when she quietly confronted me about finding a pack of cigarettes in my bedroom, I confessed everything, begging her not to tell anyone so that he wouldn’t get in trouble. I only wanted for him to leave me alone. But my mother was brave and she reported him. I spent my freshman year of high school talking to social workers, a therapist, and a county prosecutor.
He denied everything, of course. Because there was no physical evidence, because I was drunk, it was my word against his—he pleaded out to fourth degree sex offense (as in, the charge they give to 19-year-olds with 14-year-old girlfriends—even though he was well above the age cut-off for such a charge) and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He served a few months in county lock-up, on weekends only, so that he wouldn’t lose his job. He’s also on the state’s sex offender registry.
In Lucille Clifton’s poem “Mercy” she addresses the conflicting feelings of a rape survivor: “how grateful I was when he decided / not to replace his fingers with his thing.” She goes on to write about the evolution of her consciousness and how her feelings of gratitude change: “i was so grateful / then and now grateful how sick i am / how mad.”
As I read, I recognize the shifts in my own thoughts and the ways in which my emotions both parallel and diverge from her experience:
Grateful that it was only his fingers and not a penis.
Sick at my own gratitude. Shamed by my sickness.
Angry at him for putting me through all of this. Angry at myself for not being able to stop him or his fingers or his mouth.
But if I chose to forget the rape, I would erase the therapy that helped me come to terms with my misplaced sense of complicity, my confusion, grief, and the loss of my friendship with his stepdaughter and my (ex)boyfriend who couldn’t understand why “he got to touch you and I didn’t.”
It would take years for me to understand that he had raped me on the balcony that night in January and that everything he had done after had been a violation to my body. It would take even longer for me to connect the trauma of the rape to the uncle who had exposed himself to me when I was 8 years old, forcing my mother to kick him out of our house—and to realize that his violation had made it even more likely that I would be raped years later.
Where would the erasing start? When I was 8? When I was 13?
When would it stop? There is no part of my life that is not touched by what happened with these men. I have to explain it to new long-term partners, who often struggle with their own reactions. I have to explain it to friends, who are simultaneously consoling and unsure of how to console me. I have to negotiate family gatherings where my uncle may attend, deciding if it is worth my sanity and well-being to be present with him in the same room. In high school, I had to accept a Journalism Award, beating out upperclass editors who had competed for the same prize, with my rapist watching from the audience as his stepdaughter also accepted honors. Even now, I check the registry to make sure that we are not in the same city.
I choose to remember because I am now able to connect with other survivors. Surviving pushed me to become a feminist, practicing activism through writing about social justice and equality. I also wrote an essay for the anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. My words connect me to the people in my life who have also survived this kind of trauma and need help remembering what many would rather forget.
The consequences of the rape reverberate throughout my life and always will—but I choose to remember in honor of those who can never forget. I choose to remember my own courage in finding the strength to tell my story when I was 14: to my mother, to the social worker, the therapist, the courts. I choose to recognize the courage it takes to tell you this story now—and neither my memory nor my words will be silenced.
Allison McCarthy is a documentation specialist and freelance writer. Her work has been featured in print and online publications such as The Guardian, AlterNet, Ms., Bitch, Girlistic,