ESSAY- Bad memories: The perils of keeping them buried
I was running in bed, knees pumping. I panted and groaned– or so my roommate told me. She'd been telling me this every morning for weeks. I remembered nothing, knew only that I was exhausted, like I hadn't slept at all.
Then, one night, I felt her fingers grasp my shoulder, shaking me into awareness.
Because she did that, I can tell you what happened just a few months before that moment:
At home, in our living room, I was feeling light-hearted– about to bound into the kitchen– when my mother stopped me by saying she had news about Patty Sullivan.
I hadn't seen Patty in three years, not since our high school graduation. We'd been childhood friends– having sleep overs, joining Girl Scouts. She taught me to play the easy part of the duet "Heart and Soul" on her piano. She was Irish, with remarkably fair skin. Even now, I can picture those pale fingers on the keyboard.
As I was still smiling, Mum said, "It's bad news. Really bad news."
How bad could it be? Why was she telling me in stages?
"She died. She was stabbed to death."
My mother was saying these words, but they didn't sink in. I didn't get it, couldn't imagine such a thing. She said it happened at Patty's school, C.W. Post College on Long Island.
Over her family's objections, Patty had stayed in her dormitory after spring semester ended, planning to attend summer school. It was June, and the dorm was empty– just Patty. Well, Patty and the psychopath who murdered her.
There were write-ups about this, day after day, in the newspapers. I avoided them, not wanting to know any details.
As summer passed, I filled the time with a job and preparations for my upcoming year in Paris at the Sorbonne. When September arrived, my classmates and I boarded the SS France and set off across the Atlantic. None of them were from my hometown, and nobody knew I had a friend who had recently died.
One evening, while aboard ship, I watched a movie. I can't recall the name of it, but central to the plot was the stabbing death of a young girl. I couldn't handle it, fled the theater, and found myself running aimlessly through the long ship's maze of corridors until I ended up at the Tourist Class bar.
I was relieved to find one of our professors there, an American man much older than I was. I'd hoped for some wisdom from him. His eyes were bloodshot, and he was the kind of person whose hands shook as he lit cigarette after cigarette. I started to cry and told him what had just happened, and about my friend who had recently been murdered.
This was not a situation he was prepared to deal with. As I palmed the tears from my cheeks, he said, "Well, mademoiselle, you'll just have to forget about it. Forget the whole thing."
I thought that was the dumbest advice anyone had ever given me. Forget it? Forget that Patty Sullivan had been murdered? Oh, sure.
We made our way to Paris, and, for about six weeks, I drove my roommate crazy by mumbling and thrashing in my sleep. I recalled nothing about any dreams.
Sitting in cafés, or congregating before a class, my friends and I would discuss my restless sleep and try to figure out what was going on in my brain.
One of them– a guy who was majoring in psychology and therefore our expert in such matters– questioned me closely. Had something traumatic happened to me recently? I thought hard, but the only thing I could recall was that my father had died when I was 16. But, at a distance of five years, that didn't account for what was going on.
The psych major suggested that my roommate wake me up during one of these nocturnal episodes.
And so, that night, she took his advice. She shook me awake. I sat straight up and said, "Patty Sullivan's dead."
In my dream, I had been running, trying to get to Patty to save her from the maniac with the knife. I arrived at her door, a black door with four panels. I pounded on it. It didn't open. But from cracks around all four panels, blood began seeping out. As my roommate shook my shoulder, I was looking, in horror, at the blood on my fists.
For a month and a half, I had apparently spent every night running, trying to save Patty from her fate.
I had taken to heart the quaking professor's advice to "forget the whole thing."
This incident came back to me vividly last spring when I thought about the enormous network of family and friends who knew someone who died in the Virginia Tech massacre. I kept thinking, "Oh my God– all those nightmares."
I don't know how the mind works, and I don't know how I managed to bury such a fresh memory.
Here's what I do know: You'd better give those memories some light and air, or they will pound on you from within, demanding to be known and confronted.