Jerry M. Burger, Ph.D.

Jerry M. Burger Ph.D.

Returning Home

Is it Wise to Visit a Place Filled with Painful Memories? Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No

Visiting the Past

Posted Apr 05, 2011

Scott Brown, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, recently described a visit he made to a house he lived in as a child. "I actually called the realtor and went in and took the tour," he explained during a 60 Minutes interview. "And relived kind of where everything was...to make sure I wasn't kind of dreaming. And as I left I said, ‘Man, I wish I had the money. I would just buy this thing and burn it down.'"

As Senator Brown explained in his recent memoir, the house had been owned by one of his stepfathers, a man who had physically abused Scott and his mother. Not surprisingly, the memories that surfaced when visiting the former home were anything but pleasant. But why would someone return to a place that held only painful memories? Recent research I conducted provides some answers to this question. That research also suggests that Senator Brown's experience is not so uncommon.

Approximately one out of three American adults over the age of 30 has visited a childhood home. As I describe in my recent book, Returning Home: Reconnecting with Our Childhoods (www.returninghomebook.com), most people have very fond memories about the place they grew up and find the trips pleasant and rewarding. But that is not true for everyone. Twelve percent of the people I interviewed decided to visit a childhood home specifically because their childhoods were not happy. Their reasons varied, but in one way or another they all said they needed to take care of unfinished business. Some needed to grieve for mothers or fathers who had died too young. Others needed to address issues left over from traumatic childhood experiences or abusive relationships with their parents. The trips, they hoped, would be therapeutic.

The results were mixed. For many, particularly those who made the visit to grieve, the experience helped them work through their thoughts and emotions in a way they might not have been able to without making the trip. But for others, the visit was more difficult than they had imagined, and the benefits did not outweigh the emotional toll.

It's difficult to know what to advise about visiting a place with unpleasant memories. If the idea is to gain a better idea of what happened and to work through the emotions associated with the experience, then surrounding yourself with the visual and sensory cues that trigger memories and rekindle past emotions could be helpful. But it is also clear that this strategy does not work for everyone.

Hearing about Senator Brown's experience brought to mind a woman I interviewed for my book. After her mother's death, she tried to enter the house where she had once suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her mother. But the emotions that surfaced were overpowering, and she found herself running from the house never to return. A few years later, her brother called to say that he had hired professionals to destroy what remained of the structure. Although she cried all the time she told the story, she said knowing that the evil house was gone made her very happy.