MEMORY OF ORDEAL UNLIKELY TO VANISH By William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL June 29, 2000 Thursday, METRO
SECTION: A SECTION; Pg. A1
How much do you remember from when you were 5 or 6 years old?
For Elian Gonzalez, the past seven months of early childhood has produced powerful images of a strange and traumatic visit to America, recollections that could last a lifetime.
His 5-year-old mind absorbed the sensation of being tossed at sea on a tiny craft, of seeing his mother slip into the waves never to return, of being rescued and finding a new set of doting relatives.
Turning age 6, he experienced adoring crowds, the bright lights of television cameras, Walt Disney World and the sounds of thousands of demonstrators chanting his name.
He has known the fear of being pulled from his Miami refuge one early morning by uniformed men carrying big guns. And he has felt the joy of embracing his long-lost Papi.
But how much of all this will Elian remember once he grows into manhood? Memory experts and child psychologists say most adults retain distinct and vivid recollections from ages 5 or 6, especially if they flow from exciting or traumatic experiences. But memory is a dynamic process, they say, like a movie that is constantly being re-edited.
"When you have events of such magnitude that are so public, it will be impossible for this boy not to remember them," said David Bjorklund, a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University who has written and edited books on childhood memory. "He will remain a public figure whether he likes it or not."
Elian's recollections inevitably will be revived and reshaped by what others recall, by news reports, by endless conversations on the subject and by the process of replaying these events in his mind, said Bjorklund and other memory experts. Some images may come back to him like a photograph in the mind's eye.
"He may have flashbacks," Bjorklund said. "There is post-traumatic-stress syndrome, which amounts to some of these memories coming back. He will have memories of these as an adult, but it will not be clear at all what it is that he is really remembering.
"'Memories fade and change. Authority figures can suggest how the event actually took place. The younger the child, the less they tend to recall and the more easily you can plant suggestions in their minds and change their memory.
"That doesn't mean someone of age 5 or 6 is like a reed in the wind. They have an intact memory system; it's just not as sophisticated as an adult's. And there's a lot of things they just don't understand."
THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
Even as his memories fade and change, Elian's mind, like that of any young child, will be influenced by the events of his early years, according to child psychologists. His bond with his Miami relatives, his sense of loss at his mother's death and the turmoil surrounding him in this country will make lasting impressions on his unconscious mind, a realm less susceptible to the power of suggestion.
Sensory perceptions begin with infancy, a time nobody can remember but that nevertheless affects behavior throughout our lives.
"We don't remember our care as an infant, but it forms our scheme of what the world is like," said Lynne Baker-Ward, professor of psychology and a memory expert at North Carolina State University. "Prior to age 3, it is rare to have accurate memories," Baker-Ward said. "But after early childhood, certainly by 5 or 6, children are capable of retaining memories for extended periods of time. I certainly remember my sixth birthday party."
In Elian's case, the extraordinary events straddling his sixth birthday, celebrated 10 days after he arrived in the United States, are bound to make lasting impressions. But at such a young age, Elian's recollections, at least in his conscious mind, could be especially malleable, subject to interpretations from adults in the politically charged atmosphere surrounding him.
His memory could be "vulnerable to the packaging or spinning that others put on it," said Peter Ornstein, a memory expert at the University of North Carolina. "In a situation like this, where this young boy is surrounded by people who have strong points of view, these things will affect his memory."
Some of Elian's Miami relatives who tried to stop him from leaving insist that the boy remembers a repressive, impoverished upbringing in the homeland to which he returned Wednesday.
His cousin Georgina Cid claimed that Elian revealed such thoughts when he was asked last February to draw pictures of his Cuban home and Miami home as part of a psychological evaluation. Cid said his picture of the Miami home was nice and big, while he drew a Cuban home that was small and spiked with bars on the windows.
It is impossible to know whether such depictions grew out of Elian's memory or was an idea planted in his mind directly or indirectly, Ornstein said. "We don't necessarily know when a child is expressing things that are an accurate memory or constructions," he said.
Quite a different picture emerged once Elian returned to his father's custody after an emotional reunion in April.
Paulina F. Kernberg, a psychiatrist hired by immigration officials to meet with Elian, said the boy drew her a picture of a man on a mountaintop and said it showed his "daddy looking around" -- the image of a powerful protector.
Kernberg described Elian as enthusiastic and playful, apparently unscathed by his wrenching removal from Miami by gun-toting agents.
"He also played with some plastic toy soldiers that I had brought with me to assess his reaction to their appearance, which was not unlike that of the officers who had retrieved him from his Miami relatives' home," she reported in a court affidavit. "He engaged in this sequence of play with pleasure and without anxiety."
In the televised images the public has been allowed to see, Elian seems a happy, playful and remarkably resilient little boy no matter where he goes or who accompanies him. These glimpses, though superficial and selective, offer some hope that he will survive the array of amazing and traumatic experiences in a healthy state of mind.
'HE FELT LOVED'
"With Elian, it looks like regardless of who he was with, he felt loved, and I'm guessing he'll get over this just fine," said Jeffrey A. Schaler, a developmental psychologist in Silver Spring, Md.
The relative strength of the boy's ego will make a major difference in determining his chances of becoming a well-adjusted adult, Schaler said. "A person with a strong sense of self does much better with a traumatic issue like that. Bad memories will not have a destructive effect on them," he said. "Someone who feels unloved, betrayed and unsafe would tend to have a bad effect from a bad experience.
"Everybody loved this kid," Schaler said. "It's important to remember that."
Now that Elian is back in Cuba, he will be subject to new interpretations as a poster boy in his homeland.
His Miami relatives and some members of Congress fear he will be subject to "brain washing" and become a propaganda tool for Fidel Castro.
Memory experts say that regardless of any form of systematic indoctrination, Elian will be influenced by those who surround him and try to explain his strange adventure in America.
"This will be a salient time for him," Bjorklund said.
"The rest of his life will not be nearly as exciting, or as traumatizing. This time in his life will always stand out."
Copyright 2000 Sentinel Communications Co.
© Copyright Jeffrey A. Schaler, 1997-2002 unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.