Wilton author pens memoir about erased memories
Imagine growing up and not having any childhood memories — not remembering your birthday, school days, vacations, special or even ordinary events that mark your life.
That’s what life is like for Suzanne Farrell Smith, a Wilton author and mother of three boys.
Two traumatic events that happened to Smith when she was young appear to have wiped her mind clear of childhood memories.
Smith’s journey to regain her childhood is the subject of her new book, a memoir titled “The Memory Sessions.”
“I have a lost childhood. Everything in my life is blank until about age 12. My throughline begins around 13,” she told The Bulletin.
Smith believes that when she was young, two events dramatically shaped her life leading her to lose memories of her childhood.
When she was 6, her father, an electrical engineer at the Millstone nuclear plant, was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on I-95 in New London.
In 1985, when she was 8, a devastating fire from Hurricane Gloria nearly destroyed her childhood home in Gales Ferry, a small town north of Groton.
“Those two traumas were so loud and significant, I didn’t retain anything else. Those events contributed to erasing my childhood memory, a deficit I began to recognize in high school,” she said.
As a teen, Smith wrote in her diary that she didn’t remember her past. “I started borrowing memories from my three sisters. They would tell a story and I would tell it to others as if I remembered it,” she said.
While her three older sisters hold on to rich and rewarding memories of their father, Smith recalls nothing of him.
All Smith can remember clearly about her first 12 years of life are two events — the night she was told her father died, and the day of the fire. “My entire childhood was, seemingly, erased,” she said.
While attending Trinity College, Smith’s memory loss bothered her so much she decided to see a counselor, but it didn’t help. Then, as a teacher in New York City, she tried memory lapse counseling, but that didn’t work either.
After her marriage to Justin Smith, an award-winning producer for Dateline on NBC, she attended graduate school, where she was given an assignment to read memoirs on cultural criticism and write an essay about them. “Writing about other people’s memories re-triggered how bothered I was that I couldn’t remember my own childhood memories,” she said.
With a newfound drive, Smith started searching for her lost memories, and wrote about her trials and tribulations in “The Memory Sessions.”
The book details the many attempts Smith went through trying to recover her memory. She endured multiple forms of therapies and exercises, including psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, somatic experiencing, and acupuncture. They had no effect.
Trying to piece together her early life, she says she dug for clues in her mother’s belongings. She created — with objects, photographs, and captions — a physical timeline to compensate for the one that was missing in her memory.
By talking in detail with her mother and sister, Smith eventually figured out who she was even though she didn’t have those memories. “I found, yes, I existed, and found ways to connect with my own childhood even though I didn’t remember it,” she said.
She has even started to feel like she knew her dad. “I now find myself talking to him in a way I could never have done before,” she said.
Smith is the mother of three boys, 7-year old Sebastian, who is going into first grade at Miller-Driscoll School and 5-year-old twins Josiah and Rafferty who are going to Zion’s Hill Preschool this fall.
“I learned things from my mother and sister and felt I could own my childhood rather than borrowing it. I learned enough to discover a throughline in my mind. It helps with my parenting. My kids want to know what I was like as a kid and now I have a few stories I can share,” she said.
“The Memory Sessions” is Smith’s second book. Her first, “The Writing Workshop,” was released in March and is an educational book about the teaching of writing. She is working on her third book.
On Thursday, Sept. 12, Smith will give a talk and sign copies of her book at UCBC Darien, 980 Post Road, from 7 to 9 p.m.