According to The Guardian, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) claim to have identified the gene responsible for memory destruction in mice, apparently with the intention of treating those who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This has created speculation that there might one day be a pill that can delete traumatic memories from the brain, allowing the survivor to live as though the event had never happened. Aside from ethical quandaries about the dangers of playing with the mind – which reminds me of sci-fi films such as Vanilla Sky and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – it also prompts the question: would people really want to get rid of their traumatic memories?
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, the writer from The Guardian article, was violently attacked in the street by three men and subsequently suffered from PTSD. Her symptoms included irrational outbursts of anger, flashbacks, paranoia and sleeplessness, making everyday life difficult for her, before she was given a course of cognitive behavioural therapy through the NHS that helped her to process the trauma. She muses in the article, ‘If you’d been through an experience like that, wouldn’t you take the magic pill?’
It is an interesting question to pose. Without wanting to belittle the trauma that Cosslett suffered, which was undoubtedly extremely disturbing, I think that it is important to note the difference between her situation and that of groups of victims that are traumatised. The attack upon Cosslett was random and she was the only victim. However, in the case of a group of victims, such as the female political prisoners in my study, their trauma is experienced as a group. The violence and suffering of a Civil War extends the nature of the trauma beyond the individual, creating a collective suffering. This fuses all of the experiences of the victims into a sort of mnemonic patchwork-quilt, in which all the victims can recognise their own hardships while recognising that it links into an overarching network of trauma. It is not only a way of identifying who you are, creating a community of those who have suffered together, but a way of standing in opposition to those who have inflicted the trauma and of remembering those who did not survive.
In Cosslett’s situation, the impulse to delete a traumatic memory from the brain is completely understandable: by erasing her memory of the attack, she would erase only a few minutes of her own life, thereby essentially deleting the event from history. However, if erasing the traumatic memory meant erasing your identity within a group and forgetting friends and loved ones who had perished, the choice might be less simple. It would entail obliterating entire lives from your memory, as well as letting go of the principles for which you fought, eradicating the struggle and rendering it pointless. In this case, I think that most people would choose the pain of remembering over the relief of forgetting.