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Amnesia/Memory Recall of Pre-Trauma Childhood
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afterandalasia wrote in little_details
Hello again, little-details. It's been a while (and a change of name) since I posted here, so hopefully I'm getting this right.

Setting: A mash-up historical period, with some elements from later Medieval and some post-Medieval, vaguely Scandinavian in feel, with magic in existence but very rare (other than the abundant presence of dragons). (For those who know the fandoms, this is an attempt to weave together the films How To Train Your Dragon and Frozen.)


Background on the character (cut for length and potential triggers relating to non-consensual violence and child trauma):

The character has magical powers and was entirely comfortable using them as a child. However, in an accident when she was eight, she almost caused the death of her younger sister. Her parents went to the priesthood of the city for help, and on finding out that the girl had magical powers they ordered her to be banished. (To be precise, her father manages to have her banished rather than killed, and the girl is aware of this.)

She is rescued by one of the people who live in the wild country and are vague enemies of the city, and lives for them with three years, now hiding her magic. During this time, she has to learn a new language (albeit one related to her previous one), as well as a whole set of survival skills. These people actively discourage her from thinking about her past.

At the age of eleven, her powers become stronger and start to lash out without her intending to use them. At this point, she is also ostracised from the semi-sedentary 'village' and forced to live by herself in the wild country. She has the occasional run-ins with people after this time, but most would be hostile to her and there has been at least one occasion where her magic killed one of them who attacked her. While there have been violent incidents, there have been no sexually violent (or any sexual) incidents.

At the age of eighteen, she finally has a good encounter with someone, who helps to set her broken ankle, brings her food and teaches her their language. For a few months, she only interacts with this person, and after that is bought back to his village as a result of serious events. About a year after this, they return to her city of origin, chance to meet her sister, and the backstory comes out.

Now, my actual questions:

1) The character was a princess when she lived in her home city (until the age of eight). What is the chance that she doesn't remember/really understand this by the age of nineteen? She has some memories from before the age of eight, but if I'm researching right they would likely be more episodic and isolated, and if she remembers the events that led to her banishment then they could well be hyper-clear. Is there any way that this could overshadow or even 'force out' most of her other memories of that time?

2) She remembers her sister's name, but is unwilling to talk about it. What is the chance that she does not remember her parents' names (until prompted by her sister)?

3) How likely is it that she will recognise the palace, but not really know that she used to live there? Or if she does remember, is it possible that she doesn't know in what capacity she lived there, such that other people might assume she was a servant?

4) On the other side, her sister was five when they were separated, and has been told for the last eleven years that her sister was kidnapped and believed lost. She has been discouraged from talking about her. When they meet again, what is the chance that the younger sister would recognise the elder? The elder sister has very distinctive white-blonde hair and a very similar facial structure to both the younger sister and their mother. Even if it is a momentary incredulous greeting that the elder sister reacts to (thus confirming her identity), would it be possible that the younger could see this apparent stranger and blurt out her sister's name?


I know that there are broader issues of resocialisation that come into play here, as well as the more general effects of the trauma about what happened, but I think that I've got those. It's this specific set-up that I'm struggling to get quite right.


Research Done:
Looked through little_details; this response indicates that a seven year old would not retain much in the way of memory; this post about memories retained by a six-year old remark that it is based on being encouraged to remember;

More generally, I've googled "development of memory", "childhood memory development", "childhood trauma amnesia" and a few variations thereon. This article on amnesia, dissociation and childhood trauma is good for overall trends, but it's not clear whether the amnesia could extent to events outside the trauma. I've tried looking through PubMed, but most of the trauma spoken about is childhood abuse or sexual abuse, and the responses being viewed are more extreme.

I've also done research on feral children (not the same circumstances, but it does help for some of the social aspects), and I know more about PTSD than I would like to from both research and personal experience.


I love the existence of this community. You're all amazing.

I can only speak to the first one. This is my personal experience, not research. I have virtually NO memories before three weeks past my eight birthday.

I don't remember people, places, pets, nothing. I occasionally have what I call emotional flashes, which is that I remember feeling a certain way, but I never have any memory of why I felt that way, or with whom I might have shared that event.

Even less often, I have a visual flash of say, eating fried bologna with mashed potatoes (haute cuisine, let me tell you), or "voting" in the 1976 election (I remember I "voted" for Ford, because we had the same last name. I would have been six or seven then.

If I knew people back then, I don't remember them, and I know (because my mother told me) that my mother and I lived with some people for an extended time, so they would have been prominent in my life.

All that to say I think it's certainly possible that she would not consciously remember having lived in the palace. She may have a visceral response to it, but not understand why she's having that response. She may have no response at all.

Hope that little bit of my past helps build the story.

Thank you so much for sharing this. That's actually great for what I'm after here, which is basically not really knowing who she is until she gets confronted with it. You're a star.

Yay! Nice to know my past is good for something. lol

Personal experience - I don't remember much of anything from my childhood; I doubt I would recognize my best friends from grade school with any more than vague familiarity if I saw a picture of them then, and would not have any idea who they were if they came up to me and introduced themselves now.

I do, however, remember places at least well enough that I could recognize at least part of most of the houses we stayed in (there were five or six over the time I grew up), but not necessarily *from the street* except where there were major landmarks to orient myself by. The house right before the cliff next to the grocery store, the house right at the bottom of the small hill where the street curved, yes. The row house in the middle of the block of other row houses? I'd have to VERY lucky. Another important factor is how often I went outside the house; I remember the back yards much better than the fronts, because I spent more time there.

If it were me, I'd say she probably wouldn't recognize the castle from the outside (although she might guess, if there was a particular view you could only get from the castle or if she spent a lot of time in a tower - there aren't many things that let you see a city from that height). On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if she recognized a courtyard she spent a lot of time in if it hadn't been changed much, or 'somehow knew' about a quirk of architecture that created a perfect hiding spot, or some other bit of the castle she frequented that would have been interesting or significant to a kid her age before she left.

Ooh, this is great, and you have an excellent point that she might not recognise the palace from the outside because she's so used to being inside. Thinking back, the houses in which I lived until I was six are, yeah, pretty vague. I remember the bathroom of one from the night that I had terrible food poisoning, but that's about it.

Thanks for this!

(Note: discussion of a murder mystery book follows, but I don't think I'm spoiling the whodunnit.) Agatha Christie's book 'Sleeping Murder' does something like this about traumatic childhood memories. A character thinks she's having a ghost story experience when she knows about blocked-up doors and overgrown garden paths in a house she's never visited before, but it turns out that she lived in the house as a small child. The character also witnessed a murder in that house, which is the main plot of the book.

Ooh, that's really interesting, actually. Good to know!

I think there must be quite a wide range of possible answers here, so you might be able to choose what fits your story best. My earliest recollection was seeing my baby brother for the first time when I was nearly two, and being unable to find the words to ask why my mother didn't seem upset that the hospital people had given her a baby with no hair who couldn't even sit up. I had also noticed that she had a box of "grown-up sweeties" and hoping she would give me one. Emotionally important but not traumatic, which I think is how it stuck.

After that, though, it's jumbled fragments for quite a bit. I didn't remember my 12 year old cousin coming to stay, although apparently I climbed into bed with her every night. By three/ four, I've got quite a lot of connected mental scenes and can remember people, general routines, places I visited frequently and specific incidents, including a very unpleasant one I'll not describe here in more detail.

By the time I was 8 or 9 my memory was functioning more or less the way it does now.

My brother doesn't remember much before we moved house when he was 5 and I've met some people who don't remember much in detail before 11 so I'm guessing it varies quite a lot.

I was an early talker and my mother says started using relatively complex grammar fairly early. (On the other hand, I was ten before I mastered using a pair of scissors.) I was once told that we remember things in language, so I don't know if this makes a difference.

Grown-ups tend to look like either a pair of knees (I was a sixites baby) or a pair of trousers when you are that small, so they could be hard to recognise later!


Apologies for the delay in replying. I suspected there would be a range of answers, and while it seemed possible to me I sort of wanted to check if it passed muster with others (and see if there was anyone who had more knowledge of this as an academic area, I suppose, who could weigh in).

Personally, I only have snippets for... well, most of my childhood, I suppose, but my memory is somewhat poor in general. My struggle is whether she would have the concepts like 'princess' after such a time.

The character is good enough with language to pick up the one that the finding-character teaches her, but she was taught multiple languages when she was a child and that might be helping her there. It does rather suggest that if her parents said things along the lines of "That is/isn't how a princess should behave", the word would stick with her. So that could be an issue.

The more I think on the recognition, the more I think I can get away with it. One character has a very distinctive white streak in their hair; the other looks a lot like their mother (if you've seen the commentary going round about how similar Anna, Elsa and their mother look in Frozen? I'm going to be relying on that, to be honest) and with the hair, it would be enough for the younger sister to have a moment and blurt out the name, even if she doesn't believe it straight away.

I have very clear memories going back to the age of six; could draw you a map of the area we lived in, remember my school at that time perfectly, picture things photographically clearly, remember everyone I knew... in a nutshell, my memories from between the ages of six and eight are hardly any different than memories of things from adulthood. To me it seems highly unlikely that someone would be unable to remember something like their parents' names or not having lived in a certain place at that age - but given what other posters are saying, it seems to vary a lot.

Before the age of six, it's very fragmented. I can remember specific incidents as if they happened yesterday, but they're just that: isolated incidents.

Another note, though: I have mild Asperger's, and I have read that people on the autistic spectrum are inclined to have much clearer memories from their early years. So I'm not certain whether what I'm saying is typical or not.

Sorry for the delay in replying, and thanks for your input!

As you say, it looks like there is some range, and for the sake of storytelling it looks like I'm going to have to lean to the 'less memory' side of things.

Oddly, it's no problem that she rememebrs living in the castle - people would just guess that she was a servant, because obviously there are a lot of servants but only two princesses.

You're more than welcome! :)

Although it might also be partly an Aspie thing, I know that my very earliest memories tend to be of objects, textures, smells, etc. Could it be something like this that triggers a flashback for your character and sparks other memories?

It's possible that she will get some flashes, yes, and I was planning to have her recall something over a particular food which she and her sister used to share when they were children. But for the most part, she doesn't need to recollect too much for the makings of the plot - the 'important' memories, as it were, are the ones of the accident with her sister and her resultant banishment, and I'm fairly sure those aren't going anywhere.