Created By: DaveMichael on March 20, 2012 Last Edited By: DaveMichael on March 25, 2012

Willful Amnesia

Deliberately refusing to remember something painful or shameful.

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Sometimes a character will actively refuse to remember parts of his past. This may be because the memories are so traumatic that they shatter the character's sense of self. Other times, the character has crossed the Moral Event Horizon, but deliberately forgets happier times to avoid feelings of guilt or remorse.

This is not to be confused with a Memory Gambit, since the character has no intention of ever remembering what he's forgotten. Being forced to break Willful Amnesia may cure Amnesiac Dissonance, but not always. Sometimes pushing a character to acknowledge Willful Amnesia is the Berserk Button. It might also result in a Heroic BSOD or a Villainous BSOD.

Because Willful Amnesia tends to hide some pretty big plot twists, be warned: Here There Be Spoilers.

Do We Have This One??

Examples:

  • Scott Pilgrim's memories of his previous relationships, and his habit of beating up Nega-Scott rather than acknowledging his own Jerk Ass tendencies, provides the trope image.
  • Davros shows signs of this in the Doctor Who audio drama that shares his name. It's revealed that he regularly alters his own brain chemistry to block out every regret of his life.
  • Another Doctor Who example comes from early in the Eleventh Doctor's run. The inhabitants of the Starship UK have enslaved and torture a space whale to carry them to a new planet. Every few years, the inhabitants are given the choice to protest the whale's treatment (and possibly kill everyone on the ship), or forget that it's happening and go back to their daily lives. Everyone chooses to forget.
  • The Return of Barry Allen played this trope for all it was worth. Barry Allen, the second Flash, returned from the dead as a major Jerk Ass. Eventually it was revealed that "Barry" was actually Professor Zoom, who had traveled back in time from a point before he'd become a super-villain, wearing Barry's face. When Zoom learned that his hero had already killed him, his mind snapped and he convinced himself that he actually was Barry Allen.
  • Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H goes through this for awhile in the series finale. It's obvious he's mentally disturbed, but he furiously resists any suggestion that he's unwell. Eventually therapy forces him to reveal exactly what traumatized him, and he recovers.
    • "She killed the chicken!"
  • Family Guy invokes this trope with the entire country of Germany. Brian asks a German tour guide why his historical pamphlet doesn't mention anything between 1933 and 1945. The tour guide insists everyone was on vacation.
  • A lighter example: In an episode of Adventure Time, Finn, unable to cope with a particularly horrifying memory, decides to put it in what he calls "The Vault". After straining for a second, he cheerfully declares "And it's gone!"
  • The ending to Sphere by Michael Crichton, when Norman, Harry and Jane, the only survivors, use the power of the Sphere to choose to forget the events of plot, in order to resolve the paradox and also prevent anyone else from discovering the Sphere.
  • This drives the plot for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Joel and Clementine opt to forget their entire relationship. Subverted when Joel changes his mind midway through the procedure.
  • The River Lethe may be the Ur-Example for this trope. In Greek mythology, the shades of the dead were required to drink from the waters of the Lethe and forget their earthly existence. According to Virgil this was a prerequisite for reincarnation.
Community Feedback Replies: 11
  • March 20, 2012
    captainsandwich
    is it a conscious effort to repress a memory?
  • March 21, 2012
    DaveMichael
    Initially yes, though eventually the character might not even realize he's repressing anything. He'll still be very resistant to anyone trying to get him to remember.
  • March 22, 2012
    Alvin
    Doesn't this happen a LOT, like in at least two Alfred Hitchcock movies, 'Marnie' and 'Spellbound'? In 'Marnie' the title character has some quirks that are explained in a flashback at the end related to her mother's murder, which Marnie has repressed. In 'Spellbound' the leading man does not remember who he is or how the person he impersonated died. This is due not only to the trauma of the event itself, but guilt over when as a child, the leading man accidentally killed his brother.

    It's been a while since I saw either film, though. I also seem to remember an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents along similar lines, so I'll look up info on that.
  • March 22, 2012
    DaveMichael
    I'm tempted to say those are both Trauma Induced Amnesia, and not this trope, unless the characters are both actively resisting remembering the forgotten events. (I haven't seen either movie, but the wiki summaries suggest they respond very well to therapy.)

    Of course Hawkeye is also Trauma Induced Amnesia, and arguably Zoom as well, so I'm adding Tropeworthy? to the tag list for this one.
  • March 22, 2012
    animeg3282
    I think this trope is much older than scott pilgrim...
  • March 22, 2012
    Alvin
    Yeah, you could be right. I actually returned to post the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode I was thinking of was 'The Hidden Thing', originally airing May 20, 1956. A man gets help to remember the license plate number of the car that killed his fiance. It turns out he didn't remember because he feels guilty because she was crossing the street to get someting he forgot. That's not the twist. Maybe this is a better example, because the reason is flatly stated. I looked through the episode decriptions and there seem to be a few that might fit, including one I've actually seen but don't quite remember enough.
  • March 22, 2012
    DaveMichael
    I think you're right. The River Lethe might be the Ur example.
  • March 23, 2012
    Koncur
    • In an episode of Adventure Time, Finn, unable to cope with a particularly horrifying memory, decides to put it in what he calls "The Vault". After straining for a second, he cheerfully declares "And it's gone!"

    • This forms a large part of the concept of Doublethink from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. If The Party says something that contradicts what the person remembers, the person willingly and instinctively forgets the contradicting memory.
  • March 23, 2012
    Shnakepup
    • The ending to Sphere by Michael Crichton, when Norman, Harry and Jane, the only survivors, use the power of the Sphere to choose to forget the events of plot, in order to resolve the paradox and also prevent anyone else from discovering the Sphere.
  • March 24, 2012
    bwburke94
    To be clear, is this about any self-inflicted amnesia?
  • March 24, 2012
    DaveMichael
    Only self-inflicted amnesia where the character has no intention or desire to remember the information later. If the character sets up a trigger to regain their memories, that's a Memory Gambit.

    I would also include Trauma Induced Amnesia where afterwards the character actively resists all attempts to restore his memory (i.e. Hawkeye Pierce), but I'm not sure if that makes the trope too wide or not.

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