This week has reinforced that the weight of memory is carried by the victim. The perpetrator can choose not to remember.
CW: The following piece discusses sexual violence and physical abuse.
A friend’s father was a senior member of the British military and my friend remembers him as a strict and sometimes brutal disciplinarian. My friend has told me stories about his father sitting at the dinner table with a cane by his side which he did not hesitate to use if you put your elbows on the table. When he and his siblings came home from boarding school during the school holidays, they had to have a meeting with their father, one by one, where they received a cut of the cane for every spelling mistake in their letters home.
Yet, as an elderly man, when my friend’s father joined us for lunch one day, he said – in front of two of his children – that he had only hit his daughter (my friend’s sister) twice. His children snorted loudly with surprise and disbelief, but I think the old man sincerely believed his recollection. He had wiped his now-unacceptable behavior as a father from his memory banks. He contentedly remembers himself as a good parent – his children, not so much.
In one way, this is not surprising. We all have to live with ourselves. Easier to forget the memories that make us uncomfortable, that threaten our view of ourselves as a ‘good’ person. Comedian and truth-teller Hannah Gadsby in a famous speech in 2018 talked about who should draw the line between good men and bad men. She pointed out that “all men believe they are good, and guess what we got? This world. A world full of good men who do very bad things.” She went on to say that “everybody believes they are fundamentally good – it is part of the human condition” including ‘good’ white people, ‘good’ able-bodied people, and ‘good’ straight people.
Maybe that’s why we get so upset and outraged when someone confronts us with our racist, ableist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic behavior – it shakes our image of ourselves as a ‘good’ person. As psychologists say, it doesn’t fit with our self-schema.
We also know that memory is notoriously unreliable. All of us mold our memories to fit our preferred personal narrative. We tell ourselves our own story so often that we come to believe our revisions are the gospel truth. We have to – to do otherwise would be to shatter our psyche into a million pieces. Denial is a protective mechanism. That’s why, perhaps, jails are full of innocent people, according to the inmates. And its why the ‘he said/she said’ versions of the same event that are the inevitable result of accusations of sexual assault become so difficult to unravel.
Until very, very recently, even when there were multiple ‘she saids,’ we tended to believe the ‘good man.’ It took 60 women, telling almost identical stories, over decades, before the allegations against Bill Cosby were taken seriously.
Until very, very recently, even when there were multiple ‘she saids,’ we tended to believe the ‘good man.’ It took 60 women, telling almost identical stories, over decades, before the allegations against Bill Cosby were taken seriously. Oh, and another male comedian pointing it out, of course. The #MeToo movement has moved that dial a bit. Too far, it seems for many ‘good men.’ Loud have been the cries that men won’t be able to hire attractive women anymore or even be in the same room with them alone for fear of accusations. Listening to such protests, one wonders whether the women who know these men would define them as the ‘good men’ they clearly think they are.
But that’s not the only reason that those who behave badly, who may even have committed crimes, do not appear to recall their actions in the same way their victims do. Or even recall them at all.
My friend’s father genuinely did not remember his violence against his children because, to him, it was unimportant. It was discipline, good parenting, a tool he used to teach his children how to behave. He probably didn’t remember whacking them a week later, let alone decades. For his children, who experienced the pain, the fear, the dread, and the unpredictability of their father lashing out, the memory is vivid. They remember it because it was so painful that the man who was meant to love and protect them, who told them he did, in fact, was actually someone to be feared, someone who hurt them.
When Christine Blasey Ford alleged that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were teenagers, she described her memory of the event as ‘indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter.’ He – angrily, teary, shakily, and aggressively – denied all knowledge. Was one of them lying? I have no idea. And that is the problem. When an accusation is made, it takes much courage, particularly if it is made against a prominent and powerful person. If the accusation fails to be proved and, given the rate of conviction for rape this is the most common result, women like me protest – are we saying she was lying? Surely in the ‘he said/she said’ scenario that’s the only conclusion. Either she is lying, making up false and outrageous accusations, or he is.
But what if it’s worse? What if for the victim of assault, abuse, violence, and harassment the experience is so traumatic, the damage so life-changing, it is – as Blasey Ford said – indelible?
But for the perpetrator of the event, especially if they hold fundamental views about their superiority and their victim’s inferiority (parent to child, boy to girl, boss to employee, white cop to black man), is it so minor, so incidental, a bit of fun, a joke, a laugh that they hardly remember it at all?