Skip to main content

The Indelible Memory of Assault

Research suggests that victims like E. Jean Carroll tend to remember their assaults vividly. I know because I'm one of them.
Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and their supporters protest during a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California, on November 12th, 2017.

Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and their supporters protest during a #MeToo march in Hollywood, California, on November 12th, 2017.

The body does remember.

The writer E. Jean Carroll has recently disclosed her memories of being assaulted by President Donald Trump at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan in 1995 or 1996. While Carroll alternately receives plaudits for her bravery in coming forward, and insults from the White House, the veracity of her story resonates for me, and likely for the millions of women and men globally who have been assaulted, abused, or mistreated.

These truths are permanently etched within us, inscribed in our brains and in our bones. Complete erasure of these traumatic events is impossible, though recovery is attainable.

In her 2000 book, The Body Remembers: The Pyschophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, Babette Rothschild writes, "Somatic memory can be continuous and it can also be 'forgotten,' just like cognitive memory. Some people will recall the traumatizing events in precise detail, able to describe what happened as if they are watching a video."

Following the publication of an excerpt from Carroll's forthcoming What Do We Need Men For? in New York, I have a dual involuntary reaction of compassion and also revulsion: "I understand," and "No, not again."

Those who doubt the veracity of the claims that have formed the basis of the #MeToo movement must be the lucky ones. For those of us not so lucky, we can recall with explicit vividness the precise moment when we were stunned by a violent intrusion on our bodies, our selves. Smells, sounds, phrases, images—any number of small stimuli can reignite the moment.

"Sensory messages from muscles and connective tissue that remember a particular position, action, or intention can be the source of a trigger," writes Rothschild, who also wrote a second volume to The Body Remembers, published in 2017.

For the thousands of women and men who have come forward since the beginning of #MeToo—and the thousands and thousands of others who have not made their terror public—the truth has a daily reckoning within us; often still, untapped, silent.

We don't intentionally dwell on the moments when he threw us against a wall, bit, slapped, or humiliated us. We don't need to. Those moments have a permanent dwelling of their own within us, breathing, temporarily tamed in a daily life but always ready to re-emerge.

Carroll's story can awaken these memories vividly. But there are other triggers too, like watching a video of British Foreign Minister Max Field grabbing a climate change protester by the neck and slamming her against a wall.

In his 2015 book, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, a consultant at the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network and professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine, writes, "Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain currents and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones."

That is not to say that survivors walk around like lifeless zombies constantly on the verge of collapse; rather, many of us are successful mothers, wives, partners, daughters, sisters, and colleagues with full, happy, complicated lives. But the experience of assault has nonetheless marked us against our will.

I was not the victim of a real estate tycoon-turned-president, but 24 years ago, July 4th, 1995, was the last time my then-husband would physically strike me. I can recall the pajamas I wore, the taste of blood in my mouth, the sound of my scream. I remember how the northeastern Wisconsin lakeside air smelled, the light on the floor tiles of a back bedroom in his parents' cottage, the color of the suitcase on the floor spilling out my small children's clothes.

Like Carroll, I wrote a book about it, I Closed My Eyes, a memoir of being married to a man who was violent. It was published 20 years ago this year. Writing that truth helped me to heal; it was a catharsis that helped me finally take full control of my life. Silence had made me feel complicit.

The constant stream of emails and letters for the past 20 years from women and men across the world who read my first book also soothe me, though at the same time they reinforce just how widespread these experiences are. This week I received two new letters, one from a woman in Galveston, Texas, living in a shelter working to get on with her life after leaving her abusive partner. Another came from a man in a Chowchilla, California, prison, who's serving time for killing the brother-in-law who'd abused his sister. He said he understood me.

The truth has no beginning or end. The truth has permanence within us.

I do not like roller coaster rides, scary movies, or sudden loud noises, particularly fireworks. I will never elect to see a violent movie or television series, so I never watched Game Of Thrones. I can barely tolerate the trailers for violent movies I will never see because my heart pounds and I feel waves of panic over the brutality masquerading as entertainment.

Like so many others, I am not limited or debilitated by my experience; only altered. Because I never know what new story or slice of news will open the door to the memory, I try to avoid the stimuli that will make me afraid.

As Carroll continues telling her story—and receives death threats on social media—she and many others among us are undoubtedly facing a visceral reaction to her account of the trauma she endured.

The researchers and experts on trauma suggest that these memories are unusually accurate over time. Those of us who have borne a scarring event know we can no more deny this past than we can deny our very breaths.

The body does remember.


Pacific Standard's Ideas section is your destination for idea-driven features, voracious culture coverage, sharp opinion, and enlightening conversation. Help us shape our ongoing coverage by responding to a short reader survey.