Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

In defence of Oscar’s memory

“I don’t recall, M’lady.” “I don’t know, M’lady.” “I’m not sure, M’lady.”

The refrain now familiar from the Oscar Pistorius trial has entered popular culture and found its way into memes. The underlying assumption: that Oscar’s memory loss is very convenient, and quite likely a cover up. Because nobody has a memory that bad, right?



What was I saying again?

I know a thing or two about memory loss. Ask me what I did five minutes ago, and I’d battle to tell you. If Gerrie Nel got me on the stand to tell me what I did when I looked in the fridge half an hour ago, I’d be forced to say. “I don’t know M’lady” and he would say “Tell the court, Dr Britten. Did you or did you not examine what was left of the Woolworths Cheddar Cheese?” and I’d start bawling my eyes out.

It’s not just five minutes ago, either. Large chunks of the past five years have vanished into the ether. Most of 2010 is entirely missing. If I met you back then, I’d probably enthusiastically introduce myself to you if I saw you again today. The memories are simply not there.

Which brings me to the two things – possibly the only two things, besides being Tasha’s regulars – that Oscar and I have in common: stress and medication for stress.

Regardless of the cause of stress, prolonged exposure to stress hormones can wreck your memory. Sustained stress can damage the hippocampus, which is essential to learning and memory.

Frustratingly, the medication used to treat stress and anxiety can exacerbate memory loss. In 2010, I started to suffer from severe, prolonged anxiety attacks. I took medication for them: first Xanax, then a milder tranquiliser, with sleeping pills to help me get through the night. When I asked the doctor whether it was a good idea to take Tranqipam for months at a stretch, he smiled and said that functionality was more of a concern.

The pills helped me wade through the agonising hours of near-panic – documented in another Thought Leader post here – but at a cost, one that I would count today if I could remember how to get from one to 10. There’s nothing quite so unnerving as not remembering. You lose, not just hairbands and USB sticks and car keys, but a sense of yourself.

I have no idea whether Oscar is telling the truth or whether he is, as Jani Allan intimates, just taking acting lessons. Though I’m a regular guest on the Oscar Trial Channel, I’m not party to any privileged information (even though I’m frequently asked: “Do you think he’s guilty?”)

But I do know that memory loss is entirely plausible under the circumstances. Whether or not you sympathise with the accused, that’s something you should take into consideration. Stress and its long term effects on memory are not well-understood by the general public, and chances are you’re angry and frustrated with a stressed, forgetful person right now. This is an opportunity to change that, which is why I’m writing about it.

The more we understand why people forget, the more patient we should remember to be.

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