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  • Embodied Memory, Transcendence, and Telling: Recounting Trauma, Re-establishing the Self
  • Roberta Culbertson (bio)

Memory and Silence

Naive public conceptions of memory, and the attendant assumption that memory takes certain forms and not others, contribute to a curious circumstance surrounding the victimized survivor of violence. The survivor most often, nearly invariably, becomes silent about his victimization, though the experience nevertheless in every case remains somehow fundamental to his existence, and to his unfolding or enfolded conception of himself. This silence is an internal one in which the victim attempts to suppress what is recalled (so as not to relive the victimization countless times), or finds it repressed by some part of himself which functions as a stranger, hiding self from the self’s experience according to unfathomable criteria and requirements. It is external as well: the victim does not tell what she recalls, in part because others do not seem to hear what is said, partly out of a conviction that she will not be believed, and more basically because she simply cannot make the leap to words: “If you were not there, it is difficult to describe or say how it was. It sounds very, very, very. . . . I don’t know if there is [a] word to describe the nightmare one go through . . . how men function under such a stress is one thing, and then how you communicate and express [to] somebody who never knew that such a degree of brutality [is] existing seems like a fantasy.” 1

Yet despite this silence, the momentous nature of threats and harm to the body dictates that violence and trauma nevertheless leave the survivor preoccupied with the memory of it, which itself seems both absent and entirely too present. Most disturbingly, bits of memory, flashing like clipped pieces of film held to the light, appear unbidden and in surprising ways, as if possessed of a life independent of will or consciousness. These undeniable presences nevertheless have an aura of unbelievability: though presenting themselves as clearly past, real, and fully embodied, they appear in nonnarrative forms that seem to meet no standard test for truth or comprehensibility.

Survivor writings make it clear that to be a survivor of one’s violation [End Page 169] is precisely this: to live with the paradox of silence and the present but unreachable force of memory, and a concomitant need to tell what seems untellable. 2 The paradox is based in more than simply the difficulty of reporting events that listeners would rather not hear or believe, or which are too different to be grasped. It is the paradox of a known and felt truth that unfortunately obeys the logic of dreams rather than of speech and so seems as unreachable, as other, as these, and as difficult to communicate and interpret, even to oneself. It is a paradox of the distance of one’s own experience.

No experience is more one’s own than harm to one’s own skin, but none is more locked within that skin, played out within it in actions other than words, in patterns of consciousness below the everyday and the constructions of language. Trapped there, the violation seems to continue in a reverberating present that belies the supposed linearity of time and the possibility of endings. It at once has a certain pastness, is a sort of “memory-knowledge” as Mary Warnock would call it, and is not past, not “memory”—that is, a personal, narrated account of something completed, locatable in time—at all. Perhaps it is not even remembered, but only felt as a presence, or perhaps it shapes current events according to its template, itself unrecognized. 3

The demands of narrative for their part operate in fact as cultural silencers to this sort of memory, descending immediately upon an experience to shape notions of legitimate memory, and silencing the sort of proto-memory described. We lose sight of the body’s own recall of its response to threat and pain, and of the ways in which it “speaks” this pain, because this wordless language is unintelligible to one whose body is not similarly affected, and because without words the experience has a certain shadowy quality, a paradoxical...

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pp. 169-195
Launched on MUSE
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