A life ‘chasing memories’

Karen M. Zabrucky (Professor of Psychology at Georgia State University) describes how a tragic incident influenced her career as a cognitive psychologist.

I decided to major in psychology during my sophomore year in college. I later knew I was most interested in cognition and, in particular, the areas of memory and comprehension. I initially became interested in exploring how difficult-to-understand and inconsistent information affected memory. Later, my interests expanded to include how traumatic events were understood and remembered and how false memories developed.

I received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from Kent State University. Following my undergraduate education, I obtained a master’s degree and PhD in experimental psychology from The University of Toledo (emphasis in cognition), and studied applied cognitive psychology as a postdoctoral fellow at Wayne State. After being a Visiting Assistant Professor at Clemson University, I accepted a tenure track job at Georgia State University, where I have been since 1986.

My freshman year at Kent State was a volatile time in American history, with frequent protests of involvement in the Vietnam War. During the spring of my freshman year, the Ohio National Guard were called in to quiet, control and ultimately disperse student protests against the war, following the increase of such activities on campus due of the expansion of the war into Cambodia. Suddenly, my campus resembled a war zone more than a home away from home, full of army tanks, guardsmen with rifles, bayonets and clubs, helicopters hovering over my dorm at night and a declaration of martial law. I felt very vulnerable and very afraid. I was 18.

On 4 May 1970 the unimaginable happened. The Guard fired live rounds of ammunition into a crowd of students during an anti-war rally. I knew one of the four students killed, Allison Krause. The Guard injured nine students, paralysing one permanently. Little did I realise then that the spring of my freshman year at Kent State, 45 years ago, would forever be a part of one of the most tragic events in the history of American higher education.

There is little doubt that the shootings of college students at Kent State on May 4th 1970 qualifies as a flashbulb memory. Brown and Kulik were among the first researchers to study flashbulb memories, publishing in Cognition in 1977. They and others suggested that flashbulb memories are produced by highly shocking and consequential events, leading researchers to focus on whether flashbulb memories were privileged from forgetting over time (not so much the events per se but the contextual information available when remembering them – for example, where one was, who one was with, the emotions one felt, what one did after hearing or witnessing the event or events). As investigators continued to explore flashbulb memories, it became clear that although flashbulb memories may often be more salient than other memories, they are subject to degradation and distortions.

In May of 2015 I attended the first May 4th memorial service since attending Kent State. My reasons for not attending earlier were due to the uncertainty of my ability to confront my emotions and memories of some 45 years earlier. I prepared myself by going to campus on 3 May 2015, and I walked the areas housing my dormitory, Engleman Hall, as well as the site where the National Guard fired into a crowd of students, Taylor Hall, and the large ‘Commons’ area separating the two buildings.

I walked alone and took pictures of the areas I had walked in May 1970, and was flooded with emotion. As I began my walk from my dorm to Taylor Hall, I noticed I did not see the Liberty Bell, often rung to signal the start of a rally or other important events, right behind my dorm. This icon was a critically important element of my own memories of May 4th.

I remembered with high confidence that the Liberty Bell was directly in back of my dorm and, importantly, at a good distance from Taylor Hall. Yet, while continuing to walk towards Taylor Hall, I eventually came across the Liberty Bell. It was situated behind Taylor, on the other side of the Commons area from my dorm. I felt angry that the university had made a decision to move the Bell closer to Taylor Hall.

The next day, after talking to former students who had attended Kent in the spring of 1970, I discovered that the Liberty Bell had not been moved at all but had, in fact, always been behind Taylor Hall rather than behind my dorm. If it had been near my dorm, being near the Bell at the time of the shootings would have placed it at some distance from Taylor Hall and the shootings (see ‘My first false memory’).

My experience on May 4th, 1970 was incomprehensible and traumatic and I struggled to make sense of the event (see also ‘My second false memory’). During my next year at Kent State, I took a class in which a professor explained how individuals could, indeed, make sense of seemingly incomprehensible information by manipulating crucial details, such as well-placed photographs or strategic titles. The class greatly reinforced my already strong interests in understanding and remembering incomprehensible events in general and those that occurred on that day. For some, experiencing May 4th may have sparked an interest in misplaced aggression and violence but, for me, it broadened and strengthened my attempts to understand and remember incomprehensible and/or traumatic events. I became interested in the malleability and constructive nature of memory and the development of false memories. In sum, a series of converging events and interests surrounding understanding and remembering incomprehensible and traumatic events drove my career and I continue to be fascinated by and explore these topics.

Box text: My first false memory

The group of National Guardsmen who fired rounds of live ammunition into a group of students were situated in front of Taylor Hall. On 4 May 1970 I ran into my elder brother at the Liberty Bell and we talked about events of the last days. Coming across my brother at the Liberty Bell was important, as I was looking for friends and stopped doing so when I saw him. During our conversation my brother and I heard shots and ran towards the sound of the shots and the Guard. What we had heard, of course, were the shots responsible for the killings of four of America’s children as well as the wounding of nine.

My false memory of the location of the Liberty Bell allowed me to feel more distance and safety from the Guard than was true, and I always credited the distance with the fact that I could not have been near the Guard or the students fired on when events unfolded. In 2015 I realised that my memory spared me from the reality of how dangerously close I was.

Box text: My second false memory

After my brother and I heard the shots and ran in their direction, we stopped on the side of the building and my brother asked me not to go further, while he explored the area in front of Taylor Hall and beyond. When he came back he told me not to go further ahead – that is, in the front and other side of Taylor. When he said this I knew the situation was dire, and  I also suspected I knew someone wounded or killed.

Students near me were confused and in shock. Many were crying. There is a gap in my memory and the gap ends with me sitting, along with many other students, on a hill on the side of Taylor Hall where I had previously been but extending downward into the Commons area, surrounded by the National Guard. My memory all of these years was that I had no choice but to be there.

I remember keeping my head down low and crying. |I do not remember talking to anyone. I did not want to look upward as I would be able to see Guard surrounding me and other students in all directions. My false memory was that I had incorrectly assumed and remembered that the Guard had required students in the vicinity to sit down in one place and had surrounded us to maintain order.

My memory included my geology professor, Dr Glenn Frank, a faculty martial, pleading with seated students to listen to the Guard and that if we did not, he feared a massacre. Again, my memory was that the Guard had corralled us to control our actions. Thus, my false memory provided a rationale that I was (once again) safe from harm. I was following the Guards’ orders and was not in danger.

Only when I saw a video containing footage I had never seen, at the May 4th Visitor’s Center on 4 May 2015, was I able to piece together that the crowd formed and sat down in direct protest to orders from the Guard to disperse. I was shocked to think that I had defied the Guard’s orders, particularly following their shootings, and was engaging in a highly dangerous act. In the video I also saw and heard Professor Frank and another individual talk to either leaders or superiors of the Guard and found that they were given a mere five minutes to ‘convince’ students to disperse before there would be further consequences. While watching the video, I felt numb at the severity of the situation as well as by Professor Frank’s voice, begging us to disperse and pleading that he did not want to be a part of a potential massacre. The sound and desperation of his voice were heartbreaking, given the knowledge that he had five minutes to get us off the ground and away from where we were sitting… and students listened… and slowly left. Most of us went back to our dorms, as we were given a very short amount of time to leave campus before it would be closed indefinitely. As I walked back to my dorm, terrified, a Guardsman followed behind me, slapping his club hard across one hand the entire way I was ‘escorted’. It was time to go home

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