All Is Not Forgotten
(St Martins Press)
Alan Forrester is an upscale psychotherapist in an upscale community in the suburbs of Connecticut. His clientele includes the well-off country-club set in town, their families and friends. Also, once a week, he heads upstate to counsel the killers and murderers and rapists at the Connecticut Connecticut Department of Corrections, the high-security prison in Somers. Why?
As unpleasant as it is to pass a day with violent offenders, I believe I am serving a vital role. Our prisons are overflowing with the mentally ill. Whether the illness led them to commit their crimes, or the prison environment created their illness, is not always easily determined.
"And for my purposes largely irrelevant," he concludes. "In any case, I understand the criminal mind."
§ § §
One of Forrester's specialties involves Post Traumatic Stress. When we set out to type up this review, I noted "PTST." I wasn't sure if that was the correct abbreviation, so I looked it up. According to the Acronym Finder online, PTST represents "Pop Tarts Suck Toasted." (And after that, according to the IRS, "Prohibited Tax Shelter Transaction." I prefer the first.)
But if you are into shrinkery, and are not a mere absent-minded book reviewer, what we should have been looking for is "PTSD," Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (with or without a hyphen). It's what happens when you or I or anyone get walloped by something we are in no way prepared for, something that will, guaranteed, change one's life, from top to bottom. (At least, that's what it did to me. These shakes you see here didn't get here on their own.)
In All Is Not Forgotten we find a shit-load of traumas, in the most unexpected places. The most painful one is the one that starts the book, in full-vivid, scary, awful 3-D (this Walker can write) rape of an angelic seventeen-year-old high school student named Jenny Kramer. It's so authentic and compelling that around page fifteen (or even less) you might, just as I did, lay aside the book for awhile . . . not so sure that you want to sailor on. I mean this reality business can be just too much. In this case: not only too much for the victim, but too much for reader, perhaps even for the author.
I waited a few weeks, and finally returned to the scene. And am glad that I did. Because Walker doesn't stop to berate the reader with the mere horror of it; she goes on to create a virulent if not compelling story; one that touches on violation, surely, but also crammed with subsequent trickier, fascinating questions.
How far should we go to shield the violated or burned or victimized from trauma? If it is a rescue operation, who needs to be rescued, and how?
Also, who needs to be investigated? What kind of guilt (and subsequently power) devolves to or on the father, the detectives, the mother, the suspects, the victim . . . and the psychiatrist?
We know that Jenny went through trauma, but as the story and the suspicion spread (during the many months that the culprit is not found), there come new traumas, new suspects, new searches, new unresolved feelings. For instance, a hundred of so youngsters were at the party the evening that Jenny was dragged into the woods at the back of her house. Who knew, or, who pretended that they didn't know? Who might have been a co-conspirator? Which other men (not just juveniles) could have been involved?
The detectives on the case? Can they be said to develop PTSD as the search drags on, with a rabid, high-powered, traumatised father not leaving them alone for a moment, one who vows that whoever did it will be caught right now. Everyone standing in the way is going to suffer from his rage.
And the psychiatrist? Doesn't he also catch the disease - - - disease of guilt, fear, what we might call "secondary trauma," the sickness of an unresolved crime. Our shrink - - - one who is trained to stand apart from everything, the trauma, the guilt, the thundering anger - - - here seems to catch the lingering sickness, one that makes him, like others, do some very odd things in the pursuit of an alternative truth, creating forces that may lead us away from the real truth in order to protect his own family.
He assures us again and again that he is good at his profession, and on the question of justifications: "I admit as well to acknowledging to myself, in a somewhat whimsical manner, that I would be extremely adept at justifications, given my deep arsenal of psychological knowledge."
But Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who's going to take care of those who should be taking care of us? This power we give to those who are supposed to be tending our mental boxes - - - doesn't it entail responsibility? What's to be done when those supposedly on the sidelines start playing with this entrenched power, making outcomes that suit them and not the rest of us?
§ § §
All Is Not Forgotten is filled with a unique plotting. What might have been just a simple(!) case of the violation of an innocent turns into a plague that takes over the whole town. The shrink, Dr. Forrester, begins to pull strings and create doubt - - - enough to begin the process of shielding his own son who, too, was at the party (along with all the other drunken stoned teenagers). Jason was there wearing a red shirt that a few may remember; he was out in the woods, too for a time, doing a drug deal.
Father, the psychiatrist, one who always knows how to ask the right questions, begins his cross-examination of his son, his beautiful athletic swimming-team blonde-haired seventeen-year-old who may have done something on that crucial night.
"I need to know what you were doing in those woods."
My son lied. He looked me square in the eye as he did it. He thought he could deceive me. I am underestimated in my own home.
I wasn't near the woods. I never left the house.
"Jason. Please. You were seen."
I wasn't there! I swear.
"And there's not one person except that drug dealer who will say otherwise?"
No! I swear!
"And the sweatshirt. Why was it on the floor of your closet?"
I don't know. My room's a mess. I throw stuff in the closet when I get home sometimes.
I was again struck by the power of my bond to this weak, mediocre liar. I was disgusted by him in that moment. And yet I still persisted in my plan to protect him at all cost. At very dear cost. I could feel self-loathing creep into my bones. And l could not bear to think about the effort it would require to forgive myself one day. So I did not.
"He seemed to understand the boundaries I had set. The limits on my willingness to lie for him and cover for him. The fact that I was doing this only because I believed him to be innocent of the rape. I did not tell him it would not have mattered. "
§ § §
Interwoven with all this is a fascinating controversy - - - a real live one - - - going on right now in the psychiatrical community . . . as we speak. It is called CBT: "cognitive behavior therapy." Those who study it have found that, for instance, after treating burn victims with heavy doses of morphine, the very memory of the event that produced such pain can be washed away; that the victim could be made to forget the trauma that produced such pain. And, evidently, if a victim (burn, trauma, rape) is delivered to the hospital quickly enough, and is injected with Benzatral, the whole kaboodle can be erased from the brain.
Although, as Forrester explains, it ain't really gone. It is, rather, stuck in another file in the brain.
The treatment was given, the combination of drugs, had caused the memories to be filed in a place that was disconnected from any emotion, and from the other memories of the party. Without having these trails of crumbs to lead her [Jenny] back, the memories of the rape were lost inside her brain. The missing car keys.
Hidden, but unfortunately, not hidden forever. Stuck away, a jack-in-the-box, to burst forth from some completely unexpected direction months, or even years, afterwards. Which is what happens to her.
I'm here because I was raped. I'm the girl you probably all read about. I was given some drugs to help me forget what happened, and now I don't remember it. It was hard not remembering. Too hard. I tried to commit suicide.
Nine months after, she cuts her wrists. Deeply; critically; almost fatally.
It is a truism that a single event in a single day can spread, turning everything topsy-turvy, begin to interfere in the lives of everyone . . . even the most innocent.
Murder, suicide, accidental death, trauma. It will not merely touch those who were at the epicenter for slowly the acid begins to leak out, moving relentlessly over all the town, poisoning all, turning a perfect ideal community into one diseased, so that those on the very edges may, too, themselves, have to be destroyed.