Connecting the dots, all these years later


Mary Lee Hagert

Traumatic memories still reverberate, even when one doesn’t realize it

 

It was a perfect fall afternoon; golden prairie grasses bent in the breezes and leaves slipped off branches and gently fell on the trails at Afton State Park. 

As my husband and I walked toward the visitor center, I remarked, “It’s a beautiful day to be alive.”

Inside the building, we went our separate ways, and when I exited, my husband wasn’t in sight. 

As I stood there, alone and wondering where he was, an unexplained, yet very familiar feeling of panic began to overtake me. In an instant the splendid autumn scenery had turned menacing. The wind now seemed biting; the sky not nearly as bright.

I was quickly lost in the forest of my own fears. It didn’t matter that a woman jogger passed by and offered a friendly smile, or that a young family cheerily approached the building as I waited. Being “by myself” in a park, even for a couple minutes, left me trembling. 

Then, just as quickly as the trepidation arose, it vanished the moment my husband walked out the door. He had been inside the building the whole time. 

 

Impressions vs. specifics

A few days later, following the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I listened to a radio interview with a clinical psychologist, who explained how traumatic memories are stored. 

The discussion included Republican senators’ questions about the truthfulness of Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her over 30 years ago at a party when they were in high school. 

Ford testified she remembered some very specific details, such as loud music and Kavanaugh covering her mouth to muffle her screams, but she could not recall other facts of the alleged attack. 

Ford admitted she didn’t recollect the location of the house where the alleged assault took place, how she got home from the party, or the precise month and year. The psychologist said that given what medical professionals know about traumatic memories, Ford’s haziness on some specifics actually made it more likely that she was telling the truth. 

The psychologist explained that memories of trauma are more impressions, such as the sound of maniacal laughter or the feeling of someone’s hands trying to remove clothing. 

Afterwards, trauma victims typically bury the memories and constrict their lives to avoid potential triggers, and thus don’t retain some of the pertinent details of the event.

 

Hit like a thunderbolt

As surprising as it sounds, until last week I had never analyzed why I am so petrified of going to a park by myself, or even for a short walk alone around my quiet neighborhood.

As the radio interview continued, personal memories of a traumatic event that I had tried to avoid thinking about for decades came rushing back. 

The incident occurred on a sunny day when I was a college student riding my bicycle back to campus after shopping in the downtown retail district. 

The bike route passed through a city park, where the pathway made a sharp turn under a railroad trestle. At that isolated spot, the paved surface gave way to fine cinders, which were difficult for my bike’s narrow tires to navigate. 

As I slowed to make the curve, a naked man suddenly leapt out of the shrubs and tried to wrestle me off my bike. I remember his heavy breathing, the crunching sound of his footfalls on the cinders, and his hands touching my body as he attempted to shove me off the bicycle. 

Pedaling as rapidly as I could, I somehow managed to remain upright and outpace him. Eventually, he abandoned the pursuit and retreated back to his hiding spot in the bushes. 

The trail ended near the university’s power plant, where workmen were startled to be approached by a sobbing student describing a perilous encounter with an unclothed man. They called the police station, and a cop drove me around the park and adjacent residential neighborhood to see if I could spot the attacker. 

Of course, by then the man had fled the area.

The officer said he had a “feeling” that my assailant was a mentally handicapped young man “who lives near the park and whose parents are having a hard time controlling him.” The cop said he would swing by their house and talk to the family.

That was the last I ever heard from the police department.

 

The essential fact

Later on, I told a few college friends what had happened, and when the guys snickered at the image of a naked man chasing me, I was humiliated and never spoke of the attack again.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and the ensuing discussions about how traumatic incidents remain buried in our consciousness, have coalesced, for the first time, into the realization that that assault is why I am so frightened — all these years later — to be alone outdoors.

I can’t remember if the assault took place when I was a college sophomore or junior, or the month and time of day. Like Professor Ford, I lack some details, but I am certain of what happened. 

The impacts of that horrific event linger deep in my brain and rise up — unbidden — when I am in public spaces ... It doesn’t matter that it took place long ago; the essential fact is that it changed my life forever. 

 

Mary Lee Hagert can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.

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