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Disaster Memory and Dismemory

The psychology of remembering and forgetting catastrophe.

Key points

  • Disaster memories cannot be complete or entirely accurate, helping and hindering post-disaster healing.
  • Ways of remembering and memorializing avoided disasters could support disaster memory.
  • Fiction helps to understand what we might seek for disaster memory and dismemory.

One character’s words at the beginning of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (1944) are, “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is sentimental, it is dimly lit, it is not realistic.” Disaster memory can be similar within the rapidity of situations unfolding and traumatic experiences. Is this memory situation necessarily negative?

Coping with and surviving disaster means living in and with its aftermath, including memories. Not all experiences are desirable to remember, particularly in their full detail. They can impede the long path to recovery and living again while recalling and commemorating who and what one has lost. Memory guides this roller-coaster, and it guides memory.

Memory becomes a reality when we do not wish to retain, revisit or re-feature aspects of a disaster. Not remembering and misremembering can be valuable and needed.

 Ilan Kelman
How does time create disaster memory and dismemory?
Source: Ilan Kelman

Reliability and Desirability of Memory

Memory, notoriously unreliable and welcomingly unreliable, is an ever-present trope in fiction. The characters in the trilogy of Matrix movies (1999-2003) wonder if their lack of remembering reality means that it makes no difference: what they think they are experiencing and remembering is reality, so what they do not remember is irrelevant. For disaster experiences, revisiting the memory of death and destruction can be destructive and despairing. Survivors failing to escape the vividness when awake or dreaming might never maneuver beyond the horror.

In Philip K. Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale (1966), a company sells implanted fake memories. One client’s memory becomes muddled when his requests for false memories are based on his actual but now suppressed past. Dick’s writings are steeped in disorientation, conflating reality, memory, and fantasy, typically due to the characters taking drugs, presumed to reflect his own experimentations. His wavering worlds are peopled by cut-outs grasping at flimsy memories of what was, what could be, and what will be.

He anticipates the movie Arrival (2016), in which Amy Adams’ character learns to use flexible notions of time and memory. She unknowingly (or perhaps without admitting it) drifts between pasts and futures, lacking clarity about the choices in front of her. She nonetheless exploits future memories to avert planetary calamity.

Science fiction overlaps with science. In A Brief History of Time (1988), Stephen W. Hawking inquires, “Why do we remember the past but not the future? The laws of science do not distinguish between the past and the future.” Our memories, though, currently do. For disasters, the power of capturing and controlling memory prevails. Disaster survivors deserve to live with their memories on their terms to mold their futures.

Reliability and Desirability of Dismemory

Memento (2000) is a movie in which Guy Pearce’s character cannot form short-term memories. His character functions easily day-to-day, speaking, walking, driving, and fighting. He recalls fragments from his life while losing happenings from five minutes and five hours ago. To grab control, he generates his own mementos with polaroid pictures and tattoos. Others play his circumstances to manipulate him. In response, he deliberately manipulates himself to manufacture an artificial remembered reality.

His words resonate with disaster survivors: “I have to believe in a world outside my mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them." After all, he intones, “If we can’t make memories, we can’t heal.” These memories do not have to be complete or entirely accurate—especially since this latter quotation is neither complete nor entirely accurate in the context of disasters.

One post-disaster way of helping to heal for some, especially slow healing or “shealing,” is not remembering everything, instead forgetting aspects of the devastation and tragedy. Hopefully, this “active forgetting” is neither denial nor collective forgetting. Otherwise, how could we learn from the mistakes that created the disaster in order to improve and avoid disaster recurrence? For some people, media publicity and retelling of disaster experiences aid them in their life, whereas others are harmed by it. Some seek prominent and continual memorialisation, while others evade it.

As Maroon 5 sings in Memories (2019), “‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories / And the memories bring back, memories bring back you.” Depictions and memorials, what is and is not included, can create collective memories and collective forgettings of disaster. Some wish for more, and some wish for less. Some align with collective memories, and some diverge. Who should judge individuals’ choices? Who has the right to criticise selectivity in recollection?

Disaster dismemory has been the topic of a research project (since 2012), a conference (2015), and an anthology (2020). They drew on the baseline that cultural memory and its representation can re-form or bypass disaster possibilities. We ought to tap into the positive parts of disaster (dis)memory to avoid future disasters without (re-)creating problems for people who need to or who prefer to forget.

Remembering Disaster and Disaster Avoided

In fact, memory can never be complete or entirely accurate. And we are successful at actively forgetting disasters that did not arise. Work is never-ending to avoid disasters, which saves lives, protects livelihoods and infrastructure, and stops disruption. These actions are rarely acknowledged, let alone remembered. Yet they have huge meanings given the disasters that did not occur, even if few remember them.

This dismemory, misrepresentation, and unexpression of what has not been experienced evoke critique about communicating and commemorating actions that stopped disasters from happening. It happens all the time in fiction, as with Arrival, so where are the celebrations in reality? Few heroes are identifiable since it requires collective action. The dispersed decisions and long-term interactions required to avoid disasters morph the possibility of memory for it, making it a memory process—sentimental, dimly lit, and not realistic.

It is a memory menagerie for disaster dodged. And then disaster memories dominate. Just as we create disaster and the disaster creates us, we create disaster memory, and disaster memory creates us.


Bonati, S., A. Salgueiro, D. Encarnação, F. Fernandes, I. Sousa, E. Fábia, and C. De Sousa (eds.). 2020. (Dis)Memory Of Disasters. A Multidisciplinary Approach / (Des)Memória De Desastre. Uma Abordagem Multidisciplinar. Centro de Investigação Em Estudos Regionais e Locais da Universidade da Madeira, Funchal, Portugal.

Mika, K. and I. Kelman. 2020. "Shealing: Post-disaster slow healing and later recovery." Area, vol. 52, no. 3, pp. 646-653.

Monteil, C., J. Barclay, and A. Hicks. 2020. Remembering, Forgetting, and Absencing Disasters in the Post-disaster Recovery Process. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, vol. 11, pp. 287-299.

Podloski, B. and I. Kelman. 2022. "Potential non-disasters of 2021". Disaster Prevention and Management, forthcoming.

Walshe, R., G.C.D. Adamson, and I. Kelman. 2020. "Helices of disaster memory: How forgetting and remembering influence tropical cyclone response in Mauritius". International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, vol. 50, article 101901.