On May 25, it was two years since the tragic murder of George Floyd. It seems like just a flash moment since I wrote my blog marking the one-year anniversary. “Pandemic time”, like “trauma time”, has a quality of hazy unreality to it, And much as we are better coming to understand the mechanisms of traumatic memory, it nonetheless continues to feel summarily weird. The sensational reporting about the trial of Floyd’s killer cluttered the news for much of this year, so the reverberations of that historical moment have never been far from consciousness for me. I frequently hear myself say, whether in response to another or myself, rattled by some traumatic activation, that “trauma is not remembered, it is relived.”
I do find myself afraid that Floyd will be forgotten, will evaporate into irrelevance or simple non-existence. That is perhaps my own feeling being relived. Floyd being so neglected, with a constellation of experiences: poverty, color, addiction and so many additional insults and atrocities of these last two years, it is not an unreasonable concern, even in real-time. I don’t want the cataclysm of Floyd’s death washed away in the undertow of these dramatic years.
The nature of trauma is also a strange pendulation of remembering and forgetting, another mysterious alteration of traumatic memory. I have always found it perplexing that I have so little memory of my life. I have observed the same in many survivors of trauma and neglect.
I do find myself afraid that Floyd will be forgotten, will evaporate into irrelevance or simple non-existence.
I remember years ago in a trauma conference, hearing a lecture about this strange phenomenon of remembering and forgetting, even with “grand” historical scale trauma. It is as if we would prefer to erase events from awareness, whitewash or re-touch our story to make it more palatable or bearable. Imagine denying the holocaust, and yet there are those that do! More often, we don’t know we do this. Many survivors of severe trauma are surprised and shocked by memory that arises unbidden later in life, in a process that is so confusing and feels so out of control, that it is hard to know what to believe.
Neglect is so riddled with the feeling of being forgotten, and the predominance of emptiness, of there being nothing to remember or forget, that it becomes a kind of Gordian knot or koan. I have many, many years of journals, ragged and faded. I have toted them with me through the seemingly discrete phases and decades of my long life, from place to place. Yet, I have never opened a single one, no would I consider throwing them away. Perhaps they are a kind of evidence that I did exist or have a past, perhaps they symbolize the ambivalence of remembering and forgetting, knowing and not knowing. I do know that with each passing anniversary of a major event, such as the death of George Floyd, I fear anew that it, that he will be forgotten, that any lesson will be lost, or his life and death in vain.
In a fascinating book I read some years ago, Denial by Jessica Stein, she describes her own elusive trauma story. As a young teen, she and her sister were violently sexually assaulted by a stranger. They were together, so she had the atypical experience of having her trauma witnessed and shared, from beginning to end. The assault was reported to the police, so their story was formally documented and filed with authorities. However, in spite of the precise record of the event, both with the police and her sister’s memory, the entire experience vanished from the author’s conscious memory. It simply evaporated.
Interestingly, Stein grew up to become a scholar and an expert on the subject of terrorism. She graduated from a prestigious university with advanced degrees and travelled the world researching and interviewing, writing and teaching about terrorists. She had no idea why she had this abiding interest in these horrifying and despicable individuals- until, in her 40s, she “remembered” her trauma. The rest of the book is about that. I highly recommend it.
I do harbor the fear that the way memory can be of use, like to prevent a recurrence, or to honor the sacrifice of the sufferer, will be lost. I did hurriedly buy the recent biography of George Floyd, timed exquisitely for release right around the anniversary date. I have not finished it, but so far, I find it to have an unsavory opportunistic flavor, as if the authors stand to advance themselves by memorializing him. Uggghh.
Neglect is so riddled with the feeling of being forgotten, and the predominance of emptiness, of there being nothing to remember or forget, that it becomes a kind of Gordian knot or koan.
This complex tangle of remembering and forgetting can raise for me the evocative question of forgiveness. Where does that fit? I so admire John Lewis in his ability to forgive George Wallace, who’s resounding historic words, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” stained and shaped the racist US national climate for some years. When Wallace sought his forgiveness, Lewis granted it, later saying, “When I met George Wallace, I had to forgive him because to do otherwise — to hate him — would only perpetuate the evil system we sought to destroy.” How do you do that? And yet adamantly, Lewis adds, we forgive but never forget.
I don’t suppose I am ready to forgive the sadistic and brutal murder of George Floyd. But I do fervently want to keep the memory alive and breathing, and redouble the effort to eradicate trauma and neglect on every scale.
This complex tangle of remembering and forgetting can raise for me the evocative question of forgiveness. Where does that fit?
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.