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Memory Reconsolidation and Dead Man Walking

By Josh Liveright /
Sep 28, 2018
4.3 ·
Memory Reconsolidation and Dead Man Walking

How many men have come forward and confessed to committing rape or sexual assault in the public eye?

That was a rhetorical question. We all know the answer. Zero.

In my work, there's a relatively new way of clearing trauma called memory reconsolidation. One of my teachers, Courtney Armstrong, uses this approach to collaborate with her clients to rewrite their trauma stories. From her website:

"Recent brain research has revealed new clues to better guide us in the process of resolving traumatic memories. The key lies in creating what is called a mismatch experience, or new meaning experience. The memory network has the capacity to change when we recall the memory and simultaneously evoke a new experience that changes the meaning of the experience. A mismatch experience can be any experience that causes a trauma survivor to feel competent, worthwhile, safe, empowered, or resourceful. Scientists call this process memory reconsolidation."

Memory reconsolidation is a big part of the healing work I do in Rapid Resolution Therapy. It's resourcing the deeper mind of my clients and clearing away the troubling memories so they feel unstuck and can get on with their lives.

Another thought occurred to me this morning. First a quote...

"Rewriting memories allows you to update them but the purpose of forgetting is not just so you can clean off the hard drive ... The ability to forget the unpleasant things allows us to create a story about ourselves that we can live with."

I thought of Kavanaugh and all the men who, I am positing here, have potentially forgotten or re-written their rape or sexual assault stories. Not as victims, as perpetrators. Men who have successfully buried "the unpleasant things" that allowed them to create a story about themselves, a story they could "live with". A story fully supported by the white patriarchal culture. A story fully on display yesterday.

Kavanaugh likely has buried or erased a memory that is so deeply embedded, perhaps hidden, that it would take a situation akin to walking to his own execution to allow that implicit memory to surface again.

I thought of Sean Penn in the film Dead Man Walking. In case you forget the plot or haven't seen it, here's the simple storyline:

Matthew Poncelet (Penn) is sentenced to death for raping a teenage girl and killing both her and her boyfriend. He insists he's innocent and that someone else committed the crime. Poncelet asks Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) to be his spiritual advisor. Just before he is taken from his cell, Poncelet comes clean to Sister Helen admitting he raped the girl and killed the couple. Poncelet is then executed by lethal injection.

The intriguing aspect of the film is that we almost believe that Poncelet didn't do it throughout most of the story. Because he believes it.

This plot occurred to me yesterday as I watched the hearing, observing a man who was clearly subverting something bubbling up inside him. The truth.

Did we get the truth? No. We got a desperate display of someone hanging on for dear life to the story of privilege. There was no way he could do anything else so he avoided the truth at all costs. Keeping the memory at bay. The tension in his face, the histrionics, the pleas - if only people understood how he's the victim, how he's going through hell - clear indicators of how he will never let his own transgressions get the best of him. He will never quit! And he had his allies there, all the other privileged white men on the committee, coming to his rescue, sympathizing, empathizing because they too have much to hide. After all, what kind of world do they maintain? A culture of endless war, torture, corruption, unbridled immoral capitalism, all in the name of God and country. Keeping women and all disenfranchised people in their place so that the free market can reign. Making sure the story of deserve and entitlement remains intact. The story of white male dominance.

So no, complicity and humility was not on display after Dr. Blasey Ford's testimony yesterday. It was complete and utter resistance to change. Yes, BK and his ilk are the resisters.

We are the change agents.

Back to my initial question I pose another, perhaps harder question, how do we make it possible for men like BK to come clean? Would that be useful? Not to let them off the hook but to move forward into a new story. Conveniently in Dead Man Walking, Poncelet appeals to the boy's father for forgiveness and tells the girl's parents he hopes his death brings them peace. The murdered boy's father attends the execution still filled with hate, but shortly after begins to pray with Sister Helen... thus wrapping up a rather moving redemption tale.

Not sure we're there yet but I throw this out there because I know so many of us are tired of the story we're living.

There's another possibility too, as pointed out by my partner this morning over coffee, perhaps what BK did was akin to a memory like brushing his teeth, so it didn't stick, was just a normal every day activity, it's just what you do, why would he even think about it. Or, he clearly remembers it and is flat out lying like many of the old white men on the committee do on a daily basis.

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