Monday, 22 April 2013

Liz Coley talks about Questions without answers

Today’s guest blog is by author Liz Coley who has travelled widely and visited over 13 different countries including the United Kingdom, Belize, Canada, Greece, Croatia, France and Italy.  She is the author of numerous short stories and seven novels, the most recent being Pretty Girl-13. 

The worst crimes of humankind take place behind closed doors, secretly and often unpunished. The victims are children, silenced by terror, threats, trauma, misplaced love or the refusal of others to hear and believe. The perpetrators are trusted friends, relations, parents, babysitters, priests—only infinitesimally rarely are they strangers. It is nearly inconceivable to the ordinary person that another human being could sexual abuse an infant or child. What kind of degenerate species are we? Don’t we have natural rules and conscience and a moral sense? Yet it happens daily to our innocents. The burden of their stories is too weighty to bear, the legacy of psychic scars too deep.

But this isn’t why I wrote Pretty Girl-13.

In the 1970’s, a sensational story erupted in print and television of a woman given the pseudonym Sybil. Perhaps exaggerated, perhaps dramatized, it nonetheless captured the imagination of a generation and brought into clear focus one of the most extreme reactions to childhood physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse—the splintering of the forming personality into self-protective chambers, alternate personalities. In the psychiatric community, a huge debate ensued about multiple personality disorder—real or pretend. Recovered memories or implanted memories? Created by trauma or suggestibility? The number of diagnoses multiplied exponentially in the United States (but not abroad). Was it a previously unrecognized or misdiagnosed condition or a psychiatric bandwagon? (Consider the contemporary debate about the rise in autism diagnoses.) Decades later, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) used by mental health professionals to classify physical and psychological conditions of the mind. Physical evidence abounds that early abuse causes changes in brain volume. In DID there is significant shrinkage specifically in the hippocampal region, which is the memory center of the brain, and the amygdala, which is involved in emotional learning and long-term memory processing. The neuroimaging work by several researchers, including Dr. A. A. T. Simone Reinders of Kings College London, shows actual changes in brain activity during personality switching and provides objective evidence of different mental states. Still, passionate skeptics exist.

But this isn’t why I wrote Pretty Girl-13.

In 2011, the United States went to war in the Middle East, sending hundreds of thousands of our young adults inadequately armored into harm’s way. Firsthand, they grasped the expression “shell-shocked” as sudden death and dismemberment from improvised explosive devices became the regular order of the day. The soldiers of WWI who waited helplessly in
trenches to be blown to bits were an unrecognized experiment in surviving post-traumatic stress syndrome. “Buck up, lad. That’s over now. Stiff upper lip,” was supposed to get them through. We see the terrible legacy of PTSD in the population of Vietnam veterans who couldn’t return to normality and found their lives spiraling downhill. The soldiers of our modern wars are returning to a mental health system inadequately staffed and prepared to deal with their psychic wounds. Too old to develop protective compartments in their memories, they look for ways to dampen and process the traumatic effects of helpless horror, bereavement, and guilt. There is one suicide a day.

But this isn’t why I wrote Pretty Girl-13.

Authors don’t write messages. They write stories to pose and possibly answer questions—but mostly to pose them. As a bit of a futurist, the questions I like to ask anticipate where we are going in science and medicine, things we will have to deal with eventually.

I had been reading in a scientific digest magazine an article about the new field of optogenetics, which has evolved in a decade from a futuristic speculation by famed Francis Crick (1999) to the “Method of the Year” and a “Breakthrough of the Decade” in 2010. When I wrote my story in 2009, the term “optogenetics” was only three years old. Some early successes in using laser light to switch modified genes on and off were being reported even in popular magazines. Reading the original scientific articles was somewhat heavy going, but with a background in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, I understood the implications and was dazzled by the progress. Animal models had already suggested optogenetics could work as a cure for forms of neural blindness, epilepsy, and Parkinson Disease. If memory and learning neurons could be isolated, could they also be controlled?

And that’s why I wrote Pretty Girl-13, to ask the question: if you could erase memories of the most terrible things that haunt you, should you do it? Would you still be you? Would you be better or worse, stronger or weaker? How does self-hood and identity depend on memory? Maybe the answer depends on who you were to begin with. My protagonist Angie tries it both ways. It is up to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

No comments: