Painful Memories and Memorable Pain

Gabi Schaffzin // The following contains spoilers for Amazon’s Homecoming series. Proceed with caution.

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory.

This started after I recently finished bingeing on the Amazon series, Homecoming, a quick but worthwhile watch for the psychological-thriller fan in all of us. Briefly, the show, directed by Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail, features Julia Roberts as the head of a sort of hybrid in-patient trauma counseling/vocational facility for military vets, an immersive six week program between the end of their deployment and (purportedly) their return home. The vets never go home, however, as their traumatic memories are being blocked by a pharmaceutical hidden in their food; after six weeks, they’re ready to redeploy, their PTSD effectively erased.

The show’s premise—that memory can be manipulated to “improve” someone’s life—is not new. Thinking through a number of important science-fiction milestones brings to mind Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (adapted into the 1970 and 2012 films, Total Recall) as an important signpost, as well as Michel Gondry’s 2004 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—both stories feature memory-manipulation-for-hire services, where the former’s premise is based on memory implantation while the latter’s is based on erasure. More recently, an early episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, “The Entire History of You,” highlights the functionality of a “memory grain” which records and replays memories on demand, and Sam Esmail himself has toyed with how memories disappear, reappear, sooth, and assault in the critically acclaimed Mr. Robot (over which I have gushed repeatedly elsewhere).


In a few weeks, I’ll go to the hospital for a minor, routine procedure. The surgeon and anesthesiologist will check in with me beforehand, put a needle in me, and then ask me to count backwards from 100. I’ll last a few beats and then I’ll be in the recovery room where they’ll ask if I want some juice. In between, I won’t be asleep—the physicians would rather have me attentive and able to respond to prompts. But I won’t remember any of the entire ordeal if the chemicals from that needle do their job.

The use of anesthesia in surgery goes back to the middle of the 19th century. In 1846, the first public demonstration of ether as sedative was performed by a dentist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (if you’re ever in town, do yourself a favor and find the “Ether Dome” at MGH—it’s a quick, free, and fantastic visit). One hundred years later, Henry K. Beecher, MGH’s head of anesthesiology at the time (and about whom I’ve written here previously) gave a talk at the celebration to commemorate the event’s centenary, titled “Anesthesia’s Second Power: Probing the Mind.” In it, Beecher recounts the history of various anesthetics and barbiturates in experimental, recreational, and medical uses to place subjects in states ranging from reduced psychosis to triggered euphoria.

Beecher hones in on two example cases from his time as a military doctor during World War II, both featuring severe trauma inflicted on infantryman. The first is about a soldier who found himself nearly crushed to death by an enemy tank but cannot recall the traumatic experience until “he was put half under anesthesia and this blank period [was] probed by a psychiatrist” (166). The second details the treatment of a soldier with a possibly fatal wound. No matter the amount of morphine given to him, the man would not relax enough to be treated until “a small dose of sedative” was given to him (166).

Over the next 60 or so years, the use of “narcotherapy” to treat PTSD became a relatively popular practice. In an article bemoaning its decline in the 21st century, Raymond Denson (2009) explains that narcotherapy provided war “victims of stress, protected by a narcotic shield, [the ability] to recall and describe their traumatic experiences and to release the corresponding emotion. Catharsis and desensitization produced relief, and many were able to return to the battle zone” (199). (Sounds like he was writing for Homecoming.) Eventually, the risks, complications, and costs associated with injecting patients with barbiturates outweighed the possible benefits of a therapy whose results could often be replicated with heavy analysis. Denson, however, argues that “unlike those forms of treatment that use medication only to suppress the symptoms, narcotherapy may claim to have curative potential in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder” (202).

Denson’s recommendations include an orally consumed cocktail of a barbiturate—such as sodium amytal, which has specifically hypnotic properties—and a stimulant, like methylphenidate, to make sure that the subject doesn’t fall fully asleep or lose the capacity to speak clearly. As demonstrated above, what Denson calls for here is nothing new. However, there is something sinister about sending a patient into a state of forgetfulness in order to “help” them remember and expunge. What does it mean when memory is manipulated for the sake of treatment? In the case of Homecoming, memories are removed narcotically in order to remove what might keep a highly trained soldier from getting back on the battlefield. In one compelling and complicating moment in Episode 9, our soldier protagonist, Walter, argues: “If I don’t go, they’ll just find some kid who has no idea what he’s getting himself into, so it’s better this way.”


Shifting gears slightly, physical pain is “useful” in two major ways: it acts to change your behavior in the moment and in the future. In the former scenario, you know to remove your hand from the stove immediately. In the latter, you know never to touch a hot burner again because you don’t want to reproduce that pain. This is the same principle in action in the Homecoming scenario: you’ll return to trauma if it’s gone from your memory. And it’s the same reason that patients with congenital analgesia—the inability of the brain to trigger pain reactions—need extremely close monitoring. Then there are those of us with the opposite problem: chronic pain. When your pain is consistent, your baseline is thrown off. You’re unsure if that sore neck is an injury that must be cared for or just your usual Tuesday. You don’t know if you even can adjust your behavior to alleviate the issue.

On the one hand, then, seeing pain as having utility understands it as a defense mechanism from further trauma. On the other, however, it is extremely risky believing that a victim must remember their trauma so as not to repeat it—this borders on victim blaming and posits suffering as a necessity to growth. Unfortunately, I don’t have any sort of call to action on which to end this piece and I’m actually quite unsure where to go from here. I’d love to hear about your experiences if you’re willing to share them in the comments below. Perhaps we can begin to highlight a multifaceted understanding of the utility of pain, one that helps others come to grips with their choice to forget—or remember.

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