Flashbulb Memories

Skellig Michael, our first time.

Skellig Michael, our first time.

If the weather is cooperative, we’re off at the Skellig Islands today, climbing a long, steep trail of steps and exploring an ancient monastery.

In the meantime, remember when I was guest blogging?  One of my gracious hosts was mystery author Kassandra Lamb, and we talked about Conner Prairie, the inspiration for my book setting.

Kassandra is so awesome that she’s helping me out again, giving you something to think about while I’m taking an overdue break from my computer.   She’s sharing some insights into the shocking moments our brains can’t forget – take it away, Kass!


While Jen is off gallivanting on a much deserved vacation, I promised to hold down the fort for her today.

Between her recent release of Through the Shimmer of Time and the 13th anniversary of 9/11 this week, I’ve had history on my mind lately.

We read about history, write about history, hear about it and sometimes even see it in the making on TV. But what happens when historical events become entwined with our own personal histories in our memory banks?

This often happens when an event is particularly shocking, tragic and/or strikes close to home for us emotionally. Our brains will record what’s called a flashbulb memory. We will remember, years later, where we were and what we were doing (and sometimes even what we were wearing) when we heard the news of such events.

My first flashbulb memory is from the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I was in 6th grade, and my class was outside playing softball during our Phys Ed period. We were called back in mid-game and told the news by our teacher. I can’t remember her name but I can see her face as she told us.

Challenger_Rocket_Booster_-_GPN-2000-001422 pub domain

Challenger explosion: I was eating dinner in a restaurant, when I saw this image on the TV over the bar. (image: public domain)

I have similar flashbulb memories of when I received the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and of course from 9/11.

These are called flashbulb memories because they are recorded so vividly, as if our brain is actually taking a picture of the moment. These memories, like those of traumatic events in our personal lives, tend to be more accurate than normal memory.

A lot of people find that counter-intuitive. If you’re emotionally upset, wouldn’t that interfere with recording the memory? Well, yes, most of the hormones released when we’re stressed do interfere, so there may be gaps in our memories of what happened. But another hormone, released in moments of extreme stress, enhances the recording of the memory.

Thus the flashbulb effect. A very vivid image, often a bit suspended in time, and often with details missing from the moments before and after it.

800px-Tribute_in_Light_memorial_on_September_11,_2010 by  Ekabhishek CC BY 2pt0 wiki

World Trade Center “A Tribute in Light” memorial. Photo: Ekabhishek, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

At 9:30 a.m. on 9/11/2001, I had just come in from feeding the horses (we had a small horse farm at the time) and was about to change my clothes to start my work day as a therapist. The front door opened and there was my husband, a government worker who should have been twenty miles away at his desk.

I remember standing at the top of the short flight of steps that went down to our foyer and asking him why he’d come home. I only remember bits and pieces of the conversation after that. But to this day, I can see him standing in that doorway, and I remember what I was wearing.

It used to be one of my favorite shirts. Now I don’t wear it often because it reminds me, on a very visceral level, of that day.

What flashbulb memories stand out in your personal history?

ZeroHeroFinalSmPlease check out my book, Zero Hero, which explores the unhealed wounds of 9/11 through a fictional mystery. I found it difficult but healing to write. Many readers have told me they had the same reaction reading it–difficult in places, but healing.

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the media replays the videos of that day’s devastation, and a national hero’s life begins to unravel.

When the first responder–already struggling with delayed PTSD and addiction–is accused of murdering his former drug dealer, psychotherapist Kate Huntington finds herself going above and beyond to help him. As she and her P.I. husband set out to clear him of the charges, they are thrust into a deadly world of drugs, prostitutes and hired killers, and end up questioning who they are and what it means to be brave.

Image00005Zero Hero is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Apple iTunes.

Kassandra Lamb is a retired psychotherapist and college professor turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series. Zero Hero is the 6th book in the series, but is also designed to be read as a stand-alone.


It’s Jen again.  I’m obviously not around to comment here, but Kassandra will be!  Do you have particular memories of these history-making events?  Do you have a personal flashbulb moment you’d be willing to share?

Leave a comment below, and I’ll be back in a couple weeks!


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13 Responses to Flashbulb Memories

  1. Thanks,Jen, for letting me hang out at your place while you were gone. Keep sending pictures. I’m traveling Ireland vicariously with you.

    • Jennifer Jensen says:

      Thanks so much for your post, Kassandra – I loved the “flashbulb moments” you shared. I’m poking my head onto the internet when I get a chance, but no time (or inclination) to write my own posts on vacation! Hopefully there won’t be any earth-shaking flashbulb moments while we’re here. And yes, I’ll keep the pictures coming on Facebook. 🙂

  2. K.B. Owen says:

    An interesting term, “flashbulb moments.” It’s so true, though – some things are vivid, while others recede into the background. I’ve had two such moments: the time when I was 14 and my mother told me that I was adopted by my dad, and 9/11. There are some interesting points of similarity between the two that I won’t go into here. Thanks for a fab post! 😉
    K.B. Owen recently posted..Anywhere my research takes me: burglars, knitting, detective cocktails?My Profile

    • Glad you liked the post, Kathy. And yes, intense moments in our personal lives also get recorded this way. I need to get over and check out your post; it sounds fascinating!

  3. Kassandra, thanks for the memories. I just ordered your Zero Hero book on Kindle. Can’t wait to read it.

  4. Oh Kassandra, I can’t imagine what it felt like to see your husband that morning on 9/11. But I’m sure you were glad he was alive and well. Yes, it was shocking as we watched it all happen on our T.V. I too remember the day Kennedy died. We were all brought into the classroom to watch the news. Strange thing if you think about it. Too expose young children to something like that. But what did they know back then? Duh. Yes, trauma does ingrain itself into our brain. I suffer from PTSD, so I understand. 🙂
    Karen McFarland recently posted..God Made GirlsMy Profile

  5. Karen, I’m sorry to hear that you struggle with PTSD.I have been there. At the moment I can say that as past tense, but unfortunately it is a disorder that can get re-triggered at times.

    On 9/11, I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was. I didn’t find out about the attacks until after my husband was already home. But many people in our area had some really scary hours before they got word about their government worker friends and family.

    As for exposing kids to that trauma, I guess schools figured we would hear it anyway, so best to control the message and give us a place to talk about it. I can still remember some of my classmates’ reactions to JFK’s death.

  6. Debra Eve says:

    Kassandra, I have a similar “flashbulb” memory of RFK’s assassination, which took place in Los Angeles (where I grew up) and was announced at school the next morning. I always find your themes thought-provoking and definitely need to put “Zero Hero” on my TBR list!
    Debra Eve recently posted..Kathy Pooler: Memoir as a Tool for TransformationMy Profile

    • Hey, Debra, thanks so much for stopping by! I don’t know why Bobby Kennedy’s assassination didn’t have quite the same impact for me. I do remember the news reports on it, but not where I was or what I was doing when I heard.

      Major good events can also register this way, but sadly they aren’t always as emotionally charged, to activate the right hormones. I also vividly remember the first moon landing. I watched on my neighbor’s TV in their basement; they had the whole neighborhood over for the event!

  7. I missed the moon landing by nine days. But being born so close to it has linked me to space travel, and that might have something to do with my love of Star Trek.

    I was studying with my sister at the kitchen table that January day – we had the day off school, for state Regents exams. When I heard my mother coming home from work for lunch, I got up to welcome her with a cup of coffee. I had carried just past the doorway into the living room when she came in and said, “The space shuttle blew up today.”

    I spent the next day and a half watching the news- I couldn’t eat. I was more deeply affected than I’d thought I could be…

    On 9/11, I cried on the face of my 9 day old son, who shares a birthday with Challenger’s Teacher in Space, Christa McAulliffe…

    So cool you had Kassandra over today, Jennifer! I feel a more in-depth blog post of my own coming on….
    Shan Jeniah Burton recently posted..SoCS : Average? Well, Maybe Not…My Profile

    • I was teaching Kindermusik when the Trade Centers were hit, and all I could do was pull my moms and kids (those who wanted to stay) into the room and encourage them to cuddle each other. I was glued to the tv when my classes were done, but made the conscious decision to keep it limited while the kids were home. I had one in elementary (not told anything at school), one in middle school (told, but no watching) and one in high school (TVs on throughout the day). We explained to our youngest, let them all watch for a bit and talk about it, then shut the television off for the rest of the day.

      And Challenger – my neighbor called and said “turn the tv on!” I was glued to that with an infant in my arms and my husband out to sea on a submarine.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing, Shan! And Kass, definitely no excuses needed for Star Trek!
      Jennifer Jensen recently posted..Flashbulb MemoriesMy Profile

  8. Wow, Shan. It is truly amazing–in a throat-closing kind of way–how many little details we sometimes remember from those tragic events.

    As for being born 9 days after the moon landing, certainly that could be your cosmic connection to space. But do we need an excuse to love Star Trek? 😉