5.4 An excerpt from Trauma and Memory by Peter Levine


About twenty-five years ago I was visiting my parents in New York City. After a day of museum hopping, I took the uptown D train. It was rush hour and the car was densely packed with family men in various shades of gray, most with newspapers folded neatly under their arms. One particularly tall man caught my attention. As I glanced at him, I experienced a vague visceral feeling of warmth and an uncanny sense of being at ease with this stranger. I experienced this as a particular expansion or spaciousness in my chest and belly, coupled with a faint desire to approach him. Both of us departed the train at 205th street, the last stop in the Bronx. I followed a peculiar impulse in my legs to walk up to him and found myself touching his arm. The name “Arnold” fell unexpectedly from my lips. I don’t know who was more surprised as we stood, perplexed, looking at each other for some moments. It was then that I realized that Arnold and I were classmates in the first grade--some forty years before this chance encounter on the train.

At six years old I was by far the smallest child in the class. I had disproportionately large ears and was frequently bullied. Arnold was the one kid who consistently befriended me. In this way, we had laid the foundation for an enduring emotional relationship. The stored imprint of his kind protection remained dormant in my emotional and procedural memory banks for decades; that is, until the momentary postural and facial recognition cues led me to approach him and discover the emerging context of our shared history.

As I walked up the hill to my parents’ apartment I felt my spine lengthen, as though lifted by an invisible string gently coaxing my head skyward. There was a notable bounce in my step. I was moved by a stream of images and feelings from the first grade. Along with these episodic memories and accompanying sensations of spaciousness in my chest, I was able to reflect on some moments of distress. I remembered how my classmates taunted me with the nickname “Dumbo” (as in the Disney elephant) because of my large ears.

Then, just as I entered the apartment building, I felt a clear physical sensation of strength in my legs and arms, and a swelling pride in my chest. With that procedural awareness, another episodic memory then materialized, recalling the last time I was attacked, some sixty-plus years ago. I had been cornered by two of the cruelest bullies--twins, in fact. I could still see their mean, mocking faces as they forced me out onto Gun Hill Road and into the rush of oncoming traffic. To all of our amazement, I started to swing wildly with my arms, moving defiantly toward them. They stopped dead in their tracks. Their expressions flipped dramatically, from ridicule and scorn to startle and fear, as they ran away. That was the last time I was bullied. After that I was treated with respect and invited to play games with the other kids.

This episode illustrates the enduring importance of procedural and emotional memories as embodied resources that are available to be drawn upon throughout our lives. When I first registered Arnold on the train, my emerging “memory” was a faint implicit one--a strange fascination with him that was utterly devoid of content or context. This procedural memory played out as a lingering gaze, a slight expansion of my chest, an extension of my spine, and then a warm, spacious feeling in my belly. However, as I approached him, and as his name fell from my lips, I was beginning to transition from an implicit, procedural memory (body sensations, postures, motor impulses) to an emotional memory (surprise, curiosity), and then to an episodic memory that I could drift with and reflect upon.

With the doors to the past cracked open, I could more consciously recall snippets, or episodic memories, of that year-long saga: joining the class midway through the year because of my age; registering the discomfort of feeling out of place; sensing how Arnold had supported me to gain my own strength and confidence as a child; and finally reconnecting to how I had triumphed by standing up to the class bullies and gaining the acceptance of the other children. In the midst of these episodic memories, I could feel the readiness and power in my arms and shoulders as I imagined myself striking out against the bullies. It was in this moment that my episodic memory once again evoked the procedural ones of defense, strength, and self-protection. Walking boldly and energetically up the stairs to the apartment, I felt warm, grateful, and proud. I could now describe this episodic memory as a coherent story in a declarative, narrative form. (p. 27-29)

Mark