Forgetting: The Other Side of Memory

As with most things “human,” the operations of the mind are not a one-way street. Scholars like McNally tout the persistence of traumatic memories. Studies among Holocaust survivors surface a grimmer reality. Extreme trauma can lead to an obliteration of memory. There is no question that the circumstances of the death camps were the most traumatic imaginable. Merely surviving was a chore. That leads us to the other side of memory. [NOTE: This is a belated follow-up to True Crime: Partial Witnesses.]

“Misha…looks helplessly at me and admits hesitantly that the period in the camps is wiped out from his brain… With each question regarding the period between December 12, 1942 till May 7, 1945, he admits while feeling embarrassed that he cannot remember anything.” G.L. Durlacher (1991) De zoektocht [The search]. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.

Rafted Up fishing boats, Craig (2019)
(copyright Leland E. Hale)

“Holocaust survivors remember their experiences through a prism of fragmentation and usually recount them only in fragments… A curious blend often exists between almost polar experiences: Remembering minute details in their fullest color and subtlest tones, while being unable to place those details in their narrative context or specific situational reference.” Laub, D., & Auerhahn, N. C. (1989). Failed empathy—A central theme in the survivor’s Holocaust experience. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 6 (4), 377-400

Parsing the Details

It would be a mistake to compare the traumas associated with Jeff Pfundt, Larry Demmert, Jr. and Alice Irons to those of Holocaust survivors. And yet, some of the details share similarities. “Through a prism of fragmentation… remembering minute details in their fullest color” — Jeff Pfundt’s “dream” fits well with this characterization. So do Larry Demmert, Jr’s recollections.

It’s when we look at two other witnesses that we find the “other side” of memory. After testifying to a Ketchikan grand jury, Dawn Holmstrom and Brian Polinkus returned to Bellingham in an angry mood. They went to a lawyer. By October of 1986, they were alleging “witness intimidation.”

other side
Dawn Holmstrom (2018)

Polikus, for example, insisted he was still uncertain about when John Peel had told him that Mark Coulthurst “tweaked out and shot everybody, including himself.” Insisted he was uncertain as to whether Peel was on the Libby 8 during the night of the murders. He was also uncertain about the timing of key events.

Dawn Holmstrom, on the other side, felt pushed to remember things. Insisted she’d been intimidated, even threatened, if she did not remember things as clearly as — or in the ways that — investigators wished.

On The Other Side

What these two shared was a closeness to the alleged perpetrator that two of the other witnesses lacked. That, combined with the chaos at the end of the fishing season, placed them in uncertain territory. There is no easy way out of that dilemma. Even when you’re telling “your truth.”

It is not unusual for the government to call as witnesses a defendant’s close friends, colleagues and confidants, and those who are called have little choice about complying.

New York Times, Feb. 21, 2004, re: Martha Stewart trial
A Lonely Walk Down North Cove Dock, Craig, AK
(copyright 2019 Leland E. Hale)

Fear Factor

We have, in these pages, also spoken about fear. Dawn Holmstrom and Brian Polinkus had reasons to be afraid. Larry Demmert, Jr. explicitly expressed that fear when Judge Schulz considered letting John Peel make bail.

“If he (Peel) is let out, I fear for my life and my family’s lives and several people that are involved in the case.”

Larry Demmert, Jr. transcript of message to Judge Thomas Schulz

The criminal justice system is fully aware of the fear factor. It works in opposition to the fair administration of justice. That’s why “witness intimidation” and “witness tampering” are against the law. Fear is itself a form of trauma. And a way of forgetting, forced or not.

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2022). All rights reserved.


Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE. True crime from Epicenter Press.

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