Debate: We ask trauma victims if they would really want to take a pill to erase their worst memory

From traumatic accidents to excruciating embarrassment, scientists have developed an astonishing treatment that could erase them from your mind for good.

Dutch researchers found that betablockers, normally used to treat heart disease, could put a stop to hurtful memories. But psychologists say this raises disturbing ethical questions about what makes us human.

We asked five people whether or not they would eradicate their worst memory.

Jill Saward

Rape victim: Jill Saward

Jill Saward, 44, was the victim of the Ealing Vicarage rape in 1986, when she was attacked by a gang of burglars. She is now married and lives in the Midlands with her husband Gavin.

When I first heard about the ‘magic’ memory pill I thought it sounded a positive prospect.

I know what it’s like to live with something you’d sooner forget.

It took me three-and-a-half years to come to terms with the violent rape I endured 23 years ago.

I was only 21 and the event was the most horrific and traumatic of my life, and it has coloured everything since.

But if I was offered the chance, would I erase that memory? Never. Truly awful as that experience was, it has made me who I am today — and while I don’t want to live with that memory, I don’t want to forget it either.

Experiences shape who we are and who we become; even awful memories teach you things — to appreciate life and see different perspectives.

Without knowledge of my rape, I wouldn’t be able to help other people who have been through similar events — which is what I do as a campaigner for victims of violence.

Now, aged 44, what happened to me on that day is just a very distant memory.

Ealing vicarage rape story

Daily Mail story on August 3, 1998

And though it took me a long time to recover, I did that without any medical intervention. I talked things through and thought it over a lot by myself, and that helped me eventually to file the memory away on my own.

Once I was able to acknowledge what had happened, the pain went away.

Wiping memories works on the opposite premise — that people will feel better only by denying to themselves what happened.

But I think avoiding issues is the wrong approach — I have met many people who didn’t deal with a bad experience straight away and then suffered much more later on in life.

Memories which haven’t been properly dealt with can prove devastating. They haunt people in horrific ways. Victims would be better helped by investment in emotional support rather than developing apparent quick-fix solutions.

There are practical problems with wiping memories, too. In the trial of the men who attacked me, the judge gave them lenient sentences because I didn’t seem traumatised — so does that mean that if victims were instantly healed their attackers would be punished less severely?

If erasing memories became commonplace it would create a culture where hurt didn’t matter because it could be fixed instantly — and that would make people less sensitive to others’ needs.

There is also the question of where you draw the line: who decides which experiences need eradicating?

I can obviously appreciate the appeal of wiping a memory. When life is really painful and someone offers an easy solution, of course you’d be interested.

But as I know, with time, healing can happen naturally and victims really can reach a point where they want to live with, not without, their memory.

Tim Lott

Left out at school: Tim Lott

Tim Lott, 52, writer and journalist.

Oddly enough, the worst moment I can remember is something that many people would dismiss as trivial or perhaps childish.

But then it came at a time when I still had a child’s thin skin, which is perhaps why it was so agonising.

The scene was a small classroom when I was 11 years old. I had taken my 11-plus and passed — I was headed for the local grammar school.

I was well behaved, clever and conscientious. Thus when the day in the final year came when the honours were handed out, in the form of prefects’ badges, or monitors’ duties, or something that recognised you as a useful and capable member of the primary school community, I was excited.

There were 25 of us in the class. I had already braced myself for the fact that I might not be made a prefect — there were only eight or so of those — so I was resigned to being a monitor or, at worst, a ‘helper’, which was a kind of sub-monitor who might do something trivial like switch on the fish tank in the morning.

But I wasn’t that fussed — so long as I was part of the team, as I knew without any shadow of doubt I would be.

I remember as they read out the names of the prefects feeling a slight sense of disappointment that I hadn’t been chosen.

When I didn’t make the monitors either, I felt miserable, but nothing that a hug from my mum and dad wouldn’t make good.

But when I turned out to be one of only two pupils excluded entirely from the whole process — the other being a notoriously difficult, violent and academically challenged ‘slum boy’ — I went numb with shock.


Humiliation: But Tim believes the pain helped him learn

I seemed to feel something right at the heart of my very self fracture. Perhaps it was my sense of self worth. Perhaps it was my vanity.

Either way, I remember clearly the sensation of absolute nullity, when it dawned on me that in front of all my classmates, I had been publicly excluded and, in my mind, humiliated.

When I got home, I cried the blackest tears of my life. I had been branded a fool and an outsider.

Do I wish I could get rid of the memory? No — because then I would understand myself less and some deeper part of me would remember all the same.

Do I wish it had never happened at all? Now that’s a tougher question, because in some strange way, that seemingly trivial event may have made me partly who I am.

But whether it helped create the best part of me — and how connected the best part of me is to the worst part — remains obscure.

But my instinct tells me that pain is the most profound way there is of learning. That’s probably why it’s there.

Jenni Murray

Failed interview: Jenni Murray

Jenni Murray, 58, broadcaster.

It was, I hoped, going to be the first day of the life I longed for. The careers advice people had tried to put me off. ‘

You’ll never get into the BBC,’ they’d warned.

‘They only take a couple of people to train as journalists — they’re invariably Oxbridge Firsts and always male.

‘And you won’t stand a chance on the studio managers’ course — not from a red-brick university with no technical know-how.’

Undaunted, I applied and I did get an interview for the studio manager’s course. Extensive swotting was required.

I took every book from the library on radio transmission, how a microphone worked, how sound was balanced, recorded and edited.

I may have been a mere student of French and Drama at a Northern University, but I wasn’t an electrical engineer’s daughter for nothing.

They would have to take me on. I took the train from Hull to ‘the smoke’, shaking with trepidation and poring over the books — a last-minute cram.

Frankly, what I didn’t know about the technical requirements of a studio manager was not worth knowing.

All I had to do now was convince the interviewer I really did want to be behind the scenes and not a showy-offy type in front of the mike and I’d be quids in.

The interview in the hallowed Portland Place HQ went like a dream until the killer question. What was the Prime Minister doing that very day?

I floundered in the most humiliating manner. So keen had I been to master the technology, I’d forgotten to read the papers.

He told me right away I’d failed. The BBC expected all staff to be on top of current affairs. How could I have been such an idiot? I wanted to crawl home and forget it ever happened.

Don’t know why I’m telling you, as I still burn with shame. Best forgotten, really! So no question, I’d happily have this memory wiped.

Bethan Cole

Had adbortion: Bethan Cole

Bethan Cole, 37, fashion and beauty journalist.

I remember it like it was yesterday. Being wheeled on a trolley into a strip-lit operating theatre where I was to undergo an abortion. The anaesthetist telling me after this injection I would shortly be out like a light.

Those few, last fleeting moments where I was pregnant. Then nothing. It was, without a doubt, one of the three worst days of my life.

The memory is like scar tissue now: and on occasion I choose to examine it and replay what happened. When I do, it is as vivid as a freshly watched film.

But given the choice, I would never take a pill to erase that memory. Because that memory makes me who I am. It makes me stronger. It makes me wiser. And, perhaps crucially, it makes me more compassionate to others who have experienced the same thing.

Maybe if I’d experienced extreme and horrific torture, like fingernails being pulled out, I would feel differently and want it erased for ever. Abortion is also horrific, but perhaps in a more mundane, less screeching, shrieking, shocking way. It is a painless procedure. Yet the ramifications of this procedure are almost too much for the emotions to bear.

However, for me, it had to happen at that point in my life. What’s more, I choose to carry that memory with me. However hard the lump of scar tissue is to bear.

For sure, remembering can be as painful as experiencing. In fact sometimes memory can be more potent, more phantasmagorical, more visceral than the actual event itself.

As time passes, it may become a dim recollection rather than a memory. Memory has a half-life, it trails into the ether.

Whatever you do, though, whatever pill you take, you still cannot revise the fact that this thing actually happened to you. Removing the memory will not remove the fact it took place.

Ultimately that is good. Remembering in this case is a prophylactic — it helps to guard against the same thing occurring again. Remembering bonds you with the others who remember similar things.

I chose to write about my abortion to provide some kind of solace to all the other women out there who’ve had them but are unable to talk about it.

Samantha Sandall

Bali flashbacks: Samantha Sandall

Samantha Sandall, 29, was caught up in the Bali bombing, which killed 202 people in 2002.

Even now, I have flashbacks when I can remember the taste of dust in my mouth and rubble in my hair after the massive bomb blast which rocked the bar.

After climbing over the shattered glass that littered the club in a blind panic, I vividly recall coming out onto the street, which was a scene of utter devastation and horror.

The pictures of terribly injured people will stay with me for ever and although time has made it more bearable, I am often woken in the night by the images.

Fortunately, myself and my friends — we’d gone to Bali on holiday — were not injured. But for months afterwards I felt tearful and exhausted for no reason and needed sleeping pills to try to escape the images that flooded back every time I shut my eyes.

It might sound strange, but given a choice, I would not like these terrible memories to be taken away by a pill.

In fact, today I would say that while Bali hasn’t defined me as a person, in some ways it has enriched my life. For example, the reason I escaped dying was because moments before the bomb blast I had gone to the loo.

Even now, if I am having a bad day I will remember that — I remember that I am incredibly lucky. I also feel that erasing a memory wouldn’t be coming to terms with what has happened.


Horror: Two injured tourists stumble past flames following the 2002 Bali blasts

Part of someone’s personality is built on the strength of knowing that however bad something is, you can survive and that life goes on. Taking a pill would mean you never deal properly with something that has happened.

Memories are linked — how could a pill take away the pictures of injured people I saw and the memory of when I saw my mum for the first time afterwards and fell into her arms sobbing with relief.

Memories help us live our lives to the full and make sense of our worlds and, to me, even the most painful memories are valuable.