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After childhood trauma, sisters use art and science to explore how memory can morph

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you ever talk about the past with a sibling, you might find that sometimes memories don't quite line up. Maybe one sibling remembers something the other doesn't or they remember completely different parts of an event. The sisters in our next story wanted to know why, with such closely shared experiences, they recalled things differently. As part of our series on the science of siblings, here's NPR's Gabriel Spitzer. And please be aware this story refers to child sexual abuse.

GABRIEL SPITZER, BYLINE: A few years ago, when Sofie Elliott was 28, she moved to Regensburg, Germany, and rented an apartment right next door to her big sister, Simone. It was the first time they'd lived in the same place since they were teenagers. Simone, who's three years older, says there was a lot of catching up to do.

SIMONE: It was beautiful to relive some of those moments. And especially for me, being so far from home for so long, it just sort of reminded me of where I came from.

SOFIE ELLIOTT: Then it kind of became, like, a habit. We would go out and have dinner or a cocktail. And we would just get into, how did we get here?

SPITZER: But the sisters found that their memories didn't always square, like the weekend ski trips with their dad.

SIMONE: So he would pack us into the, in my opinion or in my memory, the Astro van.

ELLIOTT: I say it's the black truck. I would swear on it (laughter).

SIMONE: And I would put my hand in fire and say we were in a red Astro van, and I could swear on that.

ELLIOTT: (Laughter).

SPITZER: One time around Christmas, they were heading into the mountains when the song "Caroling, Caroling" came on the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLING, CAROLING")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) Caroling, caroling through the town.

SIMONE: Sofie and I...

ELLIOTT: Loved it.

SIMONE: ...Loved singing this song. And we were, you know, very animated children. And so we were sitting in the back seat of the red Astro van...

ELLIOTT: The black truck.

SIMONE: And we remember this moment that we bonked heads...

ELLIOTT: In the middle of that chorus.

SIMONE: Ding, dong, ding - pew.

SPITZER: As the grown-up sisters reminisced, they kept running into a version of the Astro van versus truck problem. Simone says it was their first clue that memory isn't just about pulling a file from a mental archive.

SIMONE: I always imagined memory as, like, a VHS cassette that you rewind, press play, and then suddenly I was back in Kenmore with my sister, riding on our tricycles down the street.

SPITZER: Over the months of the pandemic, the sisters worked through their memories, and they found themselves coming back to one memory in particular. It was a big one.

ELLIOTT: Simone and I both experienced sexual assault by the same perpetrator.

SPITZER: This was not a family member.

ELLIOTT: I think I was 7 or 8. You were, like, 10, 11. And neither of us knew about it from each other until years and years and years later.

SPITZER: Even as adults, the sisters say they still hadn't really processed the experience. The younger Sofie, like a lot of people who have been through trauma, doesn't have a complete memory of the event. But she does remember very specific bits and pieces.

ELLIOTT: I remember the particles drifting in the air when it happened. I remember the room I was in. I remember so many things, but not every detail.

SPITZER: If Sofie was grasping for details, the elder Simone's memory was, if anything, too vivid.

SIMONE: I remember very different things. I remember the words that were said to me - so his words were very manipulative - and the tone that he was taking with me and the way that he would look at me and the way that he would convince me that this is something very special.

SPITZER: Simone and Sofie told no one, and each sister coped in her own way. Simone moved to Europe as a teenager to pursue professional dance, but also to put the memories behind her. Sofie is also a dancer. She says she struggled with alcohol as a young adult and carried a lot of anger. But together in Germany, they realized how important it was to fill in the missing pieces of one another's story.

SIMONE: There was just so much to unpack. And it was so vital to hear each other's perspectives on this event and the way that we dealt with it or didn't deal with it at the time and how that sort of shaped the way that we handle situations now.

ELLIOTT: We're really frank with each other. And sometimes Simone would be like, well, why do you think you're doing that (laughter)? And I would say, well, you know, I don't know. Wait, no, I know. And then we talk about it.

SIMONE: It wasn't heavy to talk about it. It was refreshing to talk about it.

SPITZER: The sisters wondered, is it weird that their memories of this trauma were incomplete? Is this a family thing or is there something more universal going on here? That's what was on their minds when they got a call with an offer. It was a huge break for a young dancer/choreographer, the chance to create a full-length modern dance performance.

SIMONE: That was sort of always a dream of ours, was to creatively work with each other.

SPITZER: With this blank canvas, the sisters decided to explore how memory can twist and morph. And they began to dig into what the experts know.

SIMONE: So as we started to research, I came across Daniel Schacter's book, "The Seven Sins Of Memory."

DANIEL SCHACTER: "Seven Sins Of Memory" is the title of a book I wrote about 20 years ago and recently updated.

SPITZER: Daniel Schacter is a neuroscientist and psychologist at Harvard. What he calls sins are really the shortcuts and workarounds the human brain uses to retrieve memories, things like suggestibility, where a memory is skewed by later outside influences. So while two people might agree on a memory the day after...

SCHACTER: Ten years later, people have retrieved that event for different reasons at different times in different states. And that can create a divergence in how people remember that same event.

SPITZER: As the sisters read Schacter's book, they say it brought things into focus. Remembering isn't like rewatching a recording, it's more like a complicated construction project.

SCHACTER: When we recall an event, we're combining that with general knowledge of the world, our current beliefs and goals.

SPITZER: Age matters here, too, depending on how developed our brains were when the events happened.

SCHACTER: And what we recall is an emergent property of all of those factors.

SPITZER: The research validated what the sisters were working through and "The Seven Sins" gave them language for it. Simone had an idea. They called up Schacter at Harvard.

SCHACTER: I was both pleased and shocked because about the last thing I'd ever thought would happen is that someone would put together a dance performance based on the book.

SPITZER: Sofie and Simone called the performance "I Forgot To Remember." They based it on Schacter's work and on their own memories. One scene in particular is inspired by Sofie's patchy memories of the childhood abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMONE: We started with the dancers circling behind the audience in darkness.

SPITZER: The dancers moved stealthily, like a stubborn memory that vanishes when you try to look at it.

SIMONE: The audience, they would sort of turn their head, noticing that something was behind them, but the figure was already gone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPITZER: Audience members said the performance rang true and even chimed in with their own experiences. For Simone and Sofie, the project taught them to see their memories both as an artist and like a scientist.

ELLIOTT: Take that memory out of your head, give it some space from you. Sit in someone else's chair, look at it from all these different angles, and you're able to analyze it without so much emotional height to it.

SIMONE: And once we saw it clearly, it was much easier to let it go.

SPITZER: As sisters, Simone and Sofie say they found some peace with their past and came to see how, in a way, all remembering is a creative act.

Gabriel Spitzer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.