How Did I Set the Car on Fire? Can I Recover the Memory?

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Reader’s Question

When I was two years old I was burned in a car fire. I was playing and managed to set the car on fire. I do have burns on my body and face, however I am a very confident and happy person. I am well educated and have spent five years in university. Despite my accident and years of medical care, my childhood was very happy and my family is just great.

But I just can’t remember the fire and I really, really want to. No matter how hard I try I can’t remember anything at all. I’m now 23 so the fire was 21 years ago. I am a very strong person and for years I have wanted to remember what happened. Is there any way to remember my past and find out how I set the car on fire?

Psychologist’s Reply

Perhaps you do have memories of the incident but you don’t recognize them as memories. Children, especially children as young as two, don’t remember things the way that adults do. They don’t have complete narratives that they can play back like watching a movie. Kids have emotional memories; they remember what something felt like to them at the time. They have episodic memories; snapshots of a scene that was emotionally charged to them even if the memory does not include the ‘big picture’ of the event. For example, a two-year-old might have an isolated image of the upholstery on fire, but as an adult you might not know that this image stems from that event. A child might have an ‘irrational’ fear of something that caused them pain, a fear that can become generalized on one hand, or disguised on the other. You may have a dream that seems like a flash of a scene, like a postcard. Those kinds of ‘flash’ dreams can represent early memories, as a little child would process them.

It can be dangerous to conclude too much from these flashes or memories. ‘Recovered memories’ is a huge area of therapist liability. You may recall such things, but drawing conclusions from them can easily be erroneous. Remember, a two-year-old does not think in terms of cause and effect. If you remember, say, a cigarette lighter and burning upholstery, you may not be able to conclude that the fire started with the lighter. Those are simply two impressions that you may have had at that time that were emotionally charged for you. They may be related, but you could not deduce that the lighter caused the fire.

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In examining your memory, you need to be able to separate observations from conclusions. This is not easy to do, and we all need help to develop that analytical skill. You can try to do this with a therapist, being careful to share all the dreams and ‘memories’ that you do have.

You can also start by trying to understand what is normal behavior for a two-year-old. If a normal toddler were in a car alone, unsupervised, what would be the things that he could play with? What would be dangerous, what are the possibilities present? You can narrow the range of possibilities by examining them in this way: what was available, what was within the range of normal behavior for a toddler, and what possibilities can you rule out. Therapists are not the only ones who can help you with this line of reasoning. You may, for example, wish to call your fire department and consult with an expert there. You never know what feedback from him will trigger an emotional response or episodic memory from you.

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