The first time I remember feeling fear, I was standing outside a sweetshop, trying to stroke an Alsatian. The dog barked. I began to cry. I was four.
There was always the backdrop of another kind of fear, too. My mum was a victim of stalking, when I was very little, twice. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of the potential strange man lurking around the corner. The police came with me on a school trip to the Isle of Wight. “Don’t talk to strangers!” we were told on my summer-holiday daycare, when we went walking through St James’s Park.
Another memory: I’m 25 and trying to cross a road in Brooklyn on the way to a party. I lurch forward; my friend puts out her arm. I stop and a yellow taxi cab whips past me by an inch. I stand motionless; my friend’s face pales. I feel sick with a delayed fear that haunts me still today, of my own unpredictability and impatience and recklessness.
No doubt erasing certain memories could be emancipation for some – a life returned, an incarcerating haunting disappearing into a puff of smoke
More recently: the gloved man banging on the frosted glass of my front door, screaming to get in; the nights after we were burgled; the sky-high teen who clawed my friend’s face on a Brighton street in broad daylight.
Fear is an infection that typically goes untreated and spreads rapidly. I still don’t like Alsatians; I’m over-cautious of strangers in the street; I wake assuming there’s someone in the house. As a short adult, I notice the size and height and weight of men; as a woman, I just notice men. I fear walking home alone at night. I fear empty train carriages. Fear is something we try to overcome as both individuals and as a collective. I used to carry an alarm; on Friday, thousands of people walked down Las Ramblas, chanting, “We are not afraid!”
All these fears flashed in front of me like some sort of clichéd montage when I read that scientists in America have found a way to erase the memory of fear. How very Eternal Sunshine, I thought.
They carried out experiments on mice in which they have been able to manipulate their memories – making the memories of some fears less pronounced, while keeping others. They believe this is a breakthrough for victims of trauma and PTSD, where fear is not an evolutionary safety check, a psychological trip switch, but a barrier to wellness. If ignorance is bliss, erasing memory is a balm.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless mind is one of my favourite films – Kate Winslet’s rainbow hair, the dreamlike landscape, the fractured kaleidoscope of memory. Its premise – would you chose to forget the pain of a break-up at the price of the memories of a once-idyllic love? – is perhaps now closer than we thought.
The scientists from the University of California claim the findings will be used not for heartbreak, but to help extreme examples of fear, such as cases of PTSD and trauma and phobia. No doubt erasing certain memories could be emancipation for some – a life returned, an incarcerating haunting disappearing into a puff of smoke.
But what about other fears?
What about the fear of heights or the fear of clowns? What about the fear of failure or the fear of rejection? What about the fear of embarrassment or the fear of social exclusion? What about the fear of terror attacks or falling panes of glass from the sky? What about the fear of getting old or going grey? What about the fear of writer’s block or the fear of not being funny enough on Twitter? What about the fear of being bored or the fear of regrets? What about the crippling fear of not being brave enough, the fear of weakness?
And what about the fear that drives you? The fear that wakes you up early to work harder and take a leap into the darkness? What about the fear that rattles around you like a pinball machine, lighting you up with possibility and excitement? What about the fear that makes you work for your relationship or the fear that reminds you that the people you love most in the world won’t always be there?
And what if even our most painful, fearful memories – the ones we can’t commit to paper, the ones that leak out of us after a bottle of wine – our deepest, most shameful fears, what if they have made us us? I don’t believe anyone should be tormented, especially by the crimes of others – but there’s a part of me that believes fears make us who we are.
And while fear is poison if it infects angry men who turn it into hate, and fear is paralysing if we let it become too big, and fear can be the awful legacy of unthinkable crimes, some fear can also keep us on our toes, can make us walk a bit faster, try a bit harder, breathe a bit deeper, have a better perspective, reassure us that we’ve faced fear and come through on the other side before, so we can do it again. That kind of fear should never be erased.