The Extraction Series: Part 2

What’s in a memory anyway?

Tinh Le
6 min readJun 6


Photo by Kyle Smith on Unsplash

“So you guys are like the guys from Inception? You go inside people’s heads to take their memories?” Hazel asked, as she sipped on the milk tea I bought for her from Purple Kow. I offered to buy her lunch but all she wanted was boba.

The wind blew gently through the eucalyptus grove. We sat on the giant stumps of the cut eucalyptus trees, with our legs dangling off the sides. The west side of Berkeley’s campus was quiet at this hour and most students were in class.

“Well we aren’t going inside people’s heads and everything happens when they’re awake. We attach electrodes to their head and ask them to imagine the memory they want us to extract. As they play it out in their heads, the electrodes send currents to our computer that processes the information and creates a video of the memory for us to watch.”

I paused to let Hazel ask questions but she just kept staring at me, which was her way of saying “I understand. Keep talking”. I learned this was how she got you to talk, when I met Hazel for the first time three years ago, in Eshelman Hall at UC Berkeley, where she volunteered as a peer counselor. Because the university lacked the proper resources for mental health services, it let students volunteer as peer counselors, in an attempt to bolster the community and help students relieve academic stress.

At the time, I was half-assing my way through my college career as a pre-med and struggling with depression. I wasn’t enrolled in the university health insurance plan and decided to try peer counseling. I had hoped it would help me drink less and become less of a pre-med zombie.

Most of the counselors were depressed, zombified pre-meds themselves, who were only padding their resumés. They would stare at me blankly and their rehearsed follow-up questions made me feel like I was talking to a chatbot. I remember going in for an appointment one time to talk about my suicidal thoughts, and walking out wanting to kill myself even more.

I was on the verge of giving up on talking to anyone until I met Hazel. She was wearing boot-cut jeans that frayed at the bottom hem, along with a black t-shirt that had neon rectangles and the words Space Disco in the middle. A pair of horn-rimmed glasses sat loosely on her nose. Her name tag read Hazel Tran she/her and had small flowers and clouds around the border.

Great — I got a fucking hipster this time.

I expected another suicide-inducing session, but Hazel surprised me with her opening question.

“Did you have lunch yet?” Hazel asked.

Before I could answer, she took out a bright yellow lunchbox with an anthropomorphized egg on the front, known as Gudetama, lying on its stomach with its ass revealed. Above Gudetama read seriously… I can’t…

She opened it to reveal several spam musubis. She handed me a musubi wrapped in plastic.

I stared at it for a moment while Hazel stared at me.

“You’re not vegetarian right?”

“No I’m not.”

“Oh ok, good. This is where you said thank you.”

“Thank you,” I smiled. I felt bad for writing her off as a pretentious hipster.

“I didn’t have lunch yet either so we can eat together while we talk,” Hazel said.

“I like your Gudetama lunchbox,” I said while munching on the musubi. I hadn’t eaten all day and was touched and grateful for the food.

“Thanks! People love him huh. It’s his relaxed and lazy nature, I think. Look at him on my lunchbox. Just being a lazy piece of shit.”

“That’s fucked up. He could be depressed,” I said.

“Yeah, like you?”

I almost spit out my food at her comment.

“Ha! Good one huh? I mean, that’s why you’re here right? Sorry. You seemed like you can take a joke though. Anyway, what’s on your mind?” Hazel asked.

I don’t remember what Hazel said for the rest of the session, to be honest, but I think it was what she didn’t say that made me feel comfortable. She would stare at me with her large, brown eyes through her glasses, nodding her head almost imperceptibly from time to time, and I thought I saw a small sadness creep into her expression. It made me feel seen and heard, and it felt like she understood what I was going through without having to say anything. I talked on and on about feeling out of place at Berkeley and lost as a pre-med student, while Hazel ate and stared and listened. I remember she was a slow eater. In the time it took for her to eat one musubi, I ate several.

I ended up eating the rest of Hazel’s musubis and left with a full stomach and a face full of tears. I had given Hazel a hug, which was uncharacteristic of me at the time, and left feeling a little less lost. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was so much more to unpack before I could start healing properly but Hazel pushed me in the right direction. Talking to Hazel was the first time I opened up extensively about how college felt for me, and the ever-present, empty gnawing in my stomach lightened up a bit.

I didn’t go back to Eshelman after that session, except to thank Hazel, and I wouldn’t see her again until after graduation. Had I been in a better place, I might have asked for her number or we might have kept in touch. Would we have become good friends all those years? It hurt to think about what could have been.

“Anyway,” I continued, “the video tends to be grainy and distorted on our computer. When people are recalling painful events, the quality tends to be like that. I guess the brain tries to protect you by making your memory hazy,” I continued.

“Wow, this is not what I was expecting when you messaged me on Facebook asking to talk. Ok, and what do you do with the videos?” Hazel asked.

“Usually, someone is trying to process what happened during a traumatic event but there’ll be a lot of peripheral memories or distortions that make the video hard to watch. Our job is to filter out all the noise and try to get to the essence of the memory. We call this distilling the memory. After that, then we can give our clients the video and they’ll take that to a therapist to continue their work.”

Hazel continued listening with her hands intertwined with one another, and her head cocked to one side while resting on her thumbs.

I spared her the technical details of the software and told Hazel I wanted her to be the guide in the process, while I would replace Jake as the distiller. I told her briefly about Sarah and her situation but didn’t go into detail because I didn’t want to scare her off. I’ll tell her eventually.

“So why me?” Hazel asked.

“You’re the most empathetic person I know and you’re a great listener. Do you remember when you were a peer counselor here? You helped me through a lot.”

“Oh yeah! Of course I remember — you were crying and gave me a hug at the end.”

“Yes, and you offered me musubis during the session.”

“No. I offered you a musubi. You asked for more. The only person to ever ask for more.”

We started laughing uncontrollably, both lost in the nostalgia.

“So you’ll do it?” I asked.

“Yeah. But now you have to buy me lunch. I forgot about the musubis,” Hazel smiled.