Memory Cards

In August of last year, approaching my three-decade anniversary of life, I made the decision to unspool. I googled “trauma-informed therapist” and filled out forms, asking for somebody who would “challenge” me but who would also be kind. After two decades of egomaniacal pastors and teachers, followed by a series of directors and coaches who were all push, I wanted someone who could center compassion over toughness. Someone who would, with care, hold space for my storm, while at the same time encouraging resilience.

For years I jotted down notes in a draft on my computer under the heading “sci-fi script” with brainstormed flashes of images: the rooftop of an apartment building, strange lights and sounds, a teenaged girl and aliens, chronic illness, isolation. In January of this year, I quit my job mid-pandemic with three writing projects knocking in my head, and I chose these notes as my first. I titled the screenplay Traces, inspired by a monologue from the play Brilliant Traces by Cindy Lou Johnson, which starts like this: “Did you ever think that one time, a long time ago, when you were a little child, you were visited by extraterrestrials?” It goes on to describe this feeling — like a memory but not — as a spell that’s been put on you, a spell where “you cannot remember the encounter at all, and you wake up only with this sad kind of longing for something, but you don’t know what.”

I performed this monologue countless times over the years, in innumerable theaters, classes, casting offices. I used it to audition for a drama school in London, my throat swelling with sickness the day of the audition, the scraping soreness making it hurt to speak. London called me in for a second audition on the same day, asking questions as they recorded me on a video camera. I felt if my voice hadn’t disappeared, the school would’ve accepted me.

“It’s about your voice,” an acting teacher told me, scolding, after I recited a poem I wrote with a shaking in my throat. The poem was a letter to my mother, rejecting the chains of a punishing faith she’d shackled me to, followed by a plea for her to see the love I shared with my new girlfriend as something sacred as any cathedral or Bible verse. I had trouble summoning my breath, the familiar fondling of a panic attack brushing at the back of my neck. The teacher told me to perform the poem again, but to use my diaphragm, make eye contact.

What prompted last summer’s therapist-search was memory. I knew that I carried in my body a thicket of terror and calcified remembrance. There were things I remembered that didn’t quite fit together or make sense, and things I couldn’t remember at all. I had a crystalline memory of most of my life, so any notable gaps were deafening. I knew there was a variety of trauma — familial, sexual, emotional — waiting for me to unbury. I knew the authoritarian religious community I’d been raised in had something to do with the freeze response my body continued to experience in any moment of even remote conflict or tension.

In the Julia Roberts-led television show Homecoming there’s a moment where her character’s memory clicks into place, and the on-screen frame goes from a square aspect ratio to wide. Last summer, as my partner and I took one of our rambling, long walks in what felt like the ghost-town of our quarantined city neighborhood, I used that as a way to explain what I hoped would happen to me. I wanted to feel the frame of my own mind elongate. No more inchoate fumes. In Jessica Dore’s words, I wanted to “remember as in, to put back together what has been dis-membered.”

The monologue about the extraterrestrials says all you need to do to remember your alien encounter is get hypnotized. In the first episode of The X-Files, which I watched in the beginning of lockdown, the metaphysically-minded hero Fox Mulder describes regaining the memory of his sister’s alien abduction through hypnosis. In 2018, I visited a hypnotherapist who told me after one of our sessions that she believed me to be a “Star Seed.” Star Seeds, according to Gaia.com, are “traveling souls from other planets who incarnated on Earth to inspire and heal human beings, and to participate in the planet’s evolution,” often accompanied by the feeling that one does not belong in this world or on this planet. “Do you find yourself staring at the night sky?” she asked, and I felt understood, even though I didn’t recover any hidden memories in our sessions.

Next in the monologue — and this is the part that would always get to me, make me cry a little in the audition—it explains that, with knowledge of your extraterrestrial encounter, “even if people think you’re crazy…that’s ok, because in your heart you know what it was that had been locked up for so long, and you are greatly relieved.” I was talking about myself when I recited “I have often wondered what it would feel like to be greatly relieved,” and again when I said the lines “I am not a very healthy person” and “I am, at this point in my life, relying on the long shot.”

When I started writing Traces, I decided to set it in the town where I grew up in Northern Idaho. Several years prior, in a moment of surreal mirroring, I was cast in a theater production of Samuel Hunter’s The Whale, set in that very same small town, playing a teenager angry at her estranged father, feeling trapped, learning to write. My own estranged father showed up to a performance and I broke into at least two dozen pieces. I wrote a poem about the experience and called it “fragments from the belly of the whale,” writing lines like “i want to know where the wound stops / and the living begins.” On my drive back to Los Angeles after the final show, I made an intentional stop at an A&W, a seminal fast food restaurant from my growing-up years, a chain I hadn’t visited since leaving Idaho. The burger was sad and the fries even sadder. The root beer was the only thing that tasted like I remembered. When I started crying in the corner booth, the lines in my mind had blurred so much I wasn’t sure whether the tears were for my character, for the show ending, or for the version of me that still felt as trapped as it did the night my teenaged self “ran away” from home, running the three quarters of a mile to the local A&W, calling a friend on the family cellphone, desperate for saving.

Not long after this play, it reached the point where I couldn’t show up to acting classes or auditions without rage threatening to shred the corners of any scene I was assigned. The bubbling up of decades’ worth of buried emotion was getting harder and harder to ignore, and on top of that, I was angry at tapping into my emotions for art. I felt used — by myself. I didn’t want this pain to be for a character or for someone else’s story. I didn’t want it to be useful, or meaningful. I wanted it to be mine.

It no longer felt viable to channel character as catharsis, not when everything in my life was asking me to please sit down, to please sign up for the uncomfortable work of understanding and unravelling myself. No more shape-shifting or excuses. No more masks. My agent dropped me, and all I felt was relief. “I’m taking a break,” I told people when they inquired about my career, and it sounded like weeks but turned into two years.

Through the EMDR utilized in our sessions, memories I can’t believe I ever forgot spring to mind. Some seem inconsequential, some enormous. Either way, when I describe them aloud, they’re met with a caring yet firm plainspokenness from my therapist. She validates the mountains of hurt, calls abuse by its name. When she does, the closet door of my insides doesn’t swing wide open, but hinges do start to squeak. Gaps of light peak through. The guilt and shame that was handed to me as a child is crushing, so I grasp at her words like a buoy. I want to believe I’m not all shadow; that light and goodness are also a part of my blueprint.

In the last legs of quarantine, I attempted an acting class over Zoom. I chose a scene from The Sinner, about a young woman raised in a fundamentalist Christian home whose PTSD from religious and sexual abuse drives her to do something unforgivable. I chose it for its closeness, and how much it still scares me to reveal this part of myself to a group of my peers. When I said the line, “I never thought I’d have the chance at a normal life,” I recalled younger-me tucked inside the small, Idaho town where I first learned to punish myself for feeling. As heartbroken as the remembrance made me feel, I related too with the relief the character feels when she realizes it’s over now, that she no longer needs to work so hard to keep herself contained.

“All good work is self-revelation,” Sidney Lumet said, and I think he’s right. I’m learning the lines of what vulnerability in life and art can look like while maintaining awareness and boundaries for my own self-regulation. This goes for nearly anything: writing, acting, healing, living. The more I understand myself and process old pain, the more colors available for me to work with as I put the wholeness of myself (not just the tiny pockets I had available to me before) into my work. I’m not doing it for catharsis, I’m doing it for joy: the aliveness I connect to when creativity and expression align.

The end of the monologue fantasizes about an eventual reunion with the extraterrestrial in question: “I will see him and feel connected to him — right away, and he will say, Yes! It was me! It was me who touched you. And I won’t care if he is very small or if he is milky white. I won’t care at all, if I just know he is the one.” It sounds Jesus-like, and most of the time when I performed those words what I meant was I wanted God to reach out and say something. I wanted answers. Now, though, I realize it’s not about the alien. Or, it is, but my idea of the alien was a red herring that kept me gazing at an empty night sky. In reality, the alien is everything that feels strange and foreign and unremembered inside my own chest. It’s meeting that, and, even in a state of unrecognition and apprehension, allowing it to come inside. It’s saying, to all the scary devil parts of me, have a seat. I see you, I love you. I am the one.

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Erin McIntosh

Erin McIntosh resides in Los Angeles, where she works as a writer, actor, and producer.