The River of Forgetting – Book Review

Healing is feeling my story as beautiful despite all the pain and struggle. – from The River of Forgetting, page 244 –

Jane Rowan’s life was upended at the age of 52 when a fragment of memory left her confused and stunned. She was a scientist, working as a college professor, divorced with a college aged son. Her memories of childhood, until this point, were unremarkable, but mostly positive. And then this memory, pulled from the darkest corners of her mind – her three year old self, sitting on a toilet with pain between her legs and the echo of voices urging silence. This moment would send Rowan on a search for answers and a long, painful journey to recover her inner child’s voice.

The River of Forgetting is about that journey. Incredibly personal, the memoir takes the reader deep within Rowan’s thoughts and feelings, exposing her vulnerability and fear. In many ways, the book reads like a journal (in fact, Rowan includes passages from her journals and poems she wrote during this time in her life).

The subject of recovered or repressed memory has been a controversial one. The False Memory Foundation has long held that memories of child sexual abuse which are recovered in adulthood are “false” and serve to shatter families. But recent scientific evidence debunks their claims. The Recovered Memory Project, launched in conjunction with a presentation at the American Psychological Association meetings in Chicago (August 18, 1997), is one group which is actively working to provide archives of proof of recovered memory. Rowan touches on the doubt and confusion she felt early on when she could not sort out the details of her memories of abuse.

The other reason for lack of detail is that different types of memories get laid down in different ways, as brain research is now showing. There is evidence that memories acquired along with massive doses of stress hormones are indeed more fragmented and different in quality from normal memories. – from River of Forgetting, page 22 –

In seeking answers and healing, Rowan turned to therapy. She relied heavily on her personal therapist, as well as Authentic Movement therapy and art therapy. Some of the more powerful passages in her memoir deal with the relationship between herself and her therapist, Sarah. Transference, a common phenomenon which occurs during intense therapy, became an important aspect of Rowan’s process towards healing. But, the most interesting work Rowan reveals in her memoir is that of the Inner Child. Uniting her childhood self with her adult self, and giving voice and expression  to the child who had suffered abuse, became one of the most important aspects of Rowan’s therapy. In her memoir, she goes deep within herself to show the reader the pain, joy, and intensity of Inner Child work.

Rowan also reveals the difficult relationship she had with her mother – a woman who was in her eighties and frail at the time the author began to recover her memory. Part of the path to healing meant addressing her feelings of anger at her mother’s betrayal.

It might seem odd, but my energy was focused on Myra. My father remained a shadowy presence that year, the invisible one. I was beginning to be furious at my mother for not protecting me but I couldn’t focus my rage on Jack. Of course, my mother was also physically present, while my father had been dead for a year and mentally gone for longer than that. – from The River of Forgetting, page 57 –

I have long had empathy towards child sexual abuse survivors. I worked with sexually abused children for nearly three years in the early 1980s (before I returned to college to get my degree in Physical Therapy), and so I was predisposed to relate to Rowan’s journey. I found her memoir to be honest, courageous and very painful to read. In her Introduction, Rowan writes:

Other people have written moving stories of childhood abuse, detailing the trauma of their early years. Although I have plenty of childhood memories, I do not have clear recollections of the abuse, only fragments and body memories. It’s the adult experience of healing, with all its human messiness, that is the core of this memoir. Because it focuses on self-discovery, love, and creativity, I hope this book will also be useful to many individuals with differing backgrounds who undertake the inner journey of self-knowledge. – from The River of Forgetting, Introduction –

The River of Forgetting is, indeed, a book which will speak to those individuals struggling with their own fragmented, traumatic memories. It is a hopeful book. I think it would also be helpful for family members or friends who wish to provide emotional support to someone going through this type of process. One of the behaviors Rowan reveals was her need for constant attention, care, and parental love – things she had been denied as a child. Without the understanding of the needs of this neglected inner child, I can see where those around Rowan may have grown impatient with her emotional needs (in fact, she expresses how difficult it was during this time to maintain friendships). Reading a book like The River of Forgetting gives insight into what survivors of trauma are experiencing – and thus, provides a path towards empathy.

The River of Forgetting is a deeply personal, often uncomfortable book about psychic healing from trauma. Well-written, brave, and honest, it is a book which leaves the reader with a profound sense of the wrongness of child sexual abuse. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, however, this is a book which ultimately celebrates the strength of the human spirit to overcome the unthinkable and heal from trauma.

FTC Disclosure: The author sent me this book for review on my blog.

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  1. Thank you, Wendy, for this thoughtful review. I especially appreciate your willingness to give your personal background and reactions. I’m glad you saw the light shining through this dark material.

    • zibilee on September 3, 2011 at 07:02

    This sounds like an incredibly important and relevant book. I am glad that you were able to get the chance to read it and share it with us. It seems like this book could be very healing to a lot pf people. Very nice review!

    • Wendy on September 12, 2011 at 07:28

    Jane: You are quite welcome – you have written a book which I think is very important. Thank you for putting it in my hands.

    Heather: It is…and I do think it will be especially helpful to those who are in a similar situation as the author.

    • Egli on March 2, 2013 at 08:31

    Thanks so much Jane for being so courageou and embarking on this healing journey. I’m sharing an excerpt of The River of Forgetting with 11 classmates of my memoir writing class tomorrow and I’m sure they will love it as much as I did. I can’t wait to buy the book and read your story and embark on my own journey of healing. Your spirit spoke to my soul in your writing and I can relate in so many ways.

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