Evelina’s Mistake And The Memory Of Trauma

Soon after Thomas’s death in January, 1985 his brother Wilfred made some notes on his life. He got in touch with Dr. Herklots and other former internees and he naturally interviewed Evelina. The date given in his notes for the couple’s entrance into Stanley can only have come from her: May 7, 1942.

It is, in fact, wrong: cast-iron documentary evidence shows that they stayed in town until spring 1943. The May 7 is almost certainly correct, though, and it couldn’t have been obtained from any public domain source at the time, and none of the former internees would have been likely to have remembered it. The evidence here too is overwhelming: all of the healthy[1] people living in the French Hospital were sent into Stanley after the arrest of Selwyn-Clarke on May 2, and 18 of them arrived there on May 7.

That’s how the memory of trauma works: over the years you lose the objective shape of the experience – and Evelina was never interested in the war as history – while its subjective meaning and the huge emotions that are its legacy distribute themselves around the day, the week, the month and the year.  We remember the anniversaries but not always how many we’ve had.

I originally became aware that Thomas had powerful ‘memories’ that determined his life when I watched him putting up the first Christmas tree in our new Windsor home – probably in 1956, when I was six years old. (I became aware of my childhood awareness a few years ago.) Among other things, he was experiencing the Christmas Tree at the Café Wiseman on December 25, 1941,[2] when he went there with the other bakers after the surrender. No doubt there was one in the Catholic-run French Hospital too.  Christmas in Stanley was still Christmas, although trees there were for fuel not decoration.

Other ‘anniversaries’ must have mattered too, although I was never aware of them: August 30 (1945), for example, when the internees first saw Admiral Harcourt’s ships sailing to their rescue….But the only one they ever mentioned was June 29, when they were married in St. Joseph’s. I’ve described in another post the twenty-fifth anniversary celebrations and the role played by the first anniversary plaque they were given by friends in camp.[3]

I’m not saying Thomas was remembering particular trees in the sense that he was consciously comparing the one he was putting up with its 1941 predecessor. It’s a matter of experiencing, and not at the level we usually refer to as ‘conscious’, not of ‘verbal’ memory. Anyone on December 25 moves through all the Christmases that have been significant for them, and Thomas had some unusually powerful meanings for that day.

And how can a person who’s spent three years and eight months slowly starving to death not ‘remember’ this whenever they sit down to a full table, as happily most internees did once the war was over? Every time Thomas and Evelina ate a meal, they ‘remembered’ the food at Stanley, and, without saying a word, they told the story to those at the table with them, and in this way and in so many others, their ‘memories’ became mine.


[1] Some British civilians were allowed to stay there as seriously ill patients.

[2] Fr. Thomas F. Ryan. Jesuits Under Fire In The Siege Of Hong Kong, 1944, 168.

[3] https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/12/16/interlude-silver-wedding-celebration-in-suburbia/

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