Trapped in a Scent Memory

Please note that this post may contain indirect references to trauma and abuse that certain readers may find triggering.

I can recall the image so vividly. She stood there, framed by the deep oak of our front door. Her hair, bobbed and big in that ’90s style (not quite a ‘Rachel’, but almost), fizzed with hairspray. The dress was an event – a floor length Lacroix gown, in black with panels of lace (also black, of course). Her ears and her left shoulder sparkled with giant Butler & Wilson spiders – costume jewels that made me think of Morticia Addams. I can see their diamond-cut shapes catching the light, even now. But what I remember the most is the scent – an atomic cloud of Chanel’s Allure that announced her arrival and made sure she was present, in some way, long after her departure.

This is the most prominent memory I hold of my mother. It is bathed in scent – she is framed by a silhouette of Chanel, and if you remove the dress, the jewels and the person, what’s left is still a vivid picture of the person I remember. The shadow of a person painted by the fragrance she wore, almost like an olfactory negative of the space she filled at that time. In this image she is glamorous, she is smiling, she is kind, she is a mother.

The memory is not real.

Perfume is an emotional art form. When we smell the trail of a familiar scent, it transports us to places we’ve been and people we’ve loved. We are reminded of epic journeys abroad, of cities we’ve visited, or even more intimate places from our past – places like homes we’ve grown up in and the buildings where we have learned life’s valuable lessons.

Perfume has immense power.

We’ve all felt that power and we know that all it takes is just one spritz to awaken a memory. One spritz and we’re back in the warm arms of an old flame, or clinging to the leg of our grandparents, towering over us like tall trees. Our sense of smell is primal in this way – it is an invisible layer, a filter, that shrouds our memories, making them richer and more emotionally intense. But what if the memories these scents pull us back to aren’t rosy ones? What if they are unhappy ones, and what if they are memories of things that never really existed in the way we remember at all?

We often think of scent memories as those idealised moments of places, people and things, like friends, family and food. They are moments we look back upon fondly. I often read scent memories and they’re always so evocative, but they mostly look to the best in people. They’re very ‘young boy watching his mother in a state of awe as she does her makeup and sprays her perfume’, and for many people that is scented joy, but for others, the person they see at the dressing table is a monster, and the scent memory no longer becomes a device to transport, but instead it’s a cage to be trapped inside.

A scent memory is an olfactory time capsule and sometimes, when you open it up, there’s nothing good to be found inside, only danger and decay. For me, it can be a mask to hide a reality too difficult to face however, for others it can be an uninvited trigger that takes them back to a place they don’t want to go. My experience of scent and memory is unique to me but I am far from alone in dealing with olfactory triggers that unearth dark and unpleasant feelings. I asked readers to share their negative scent memories and have included a handful throughout this piece. To protect their identities, I have not disclosed their names.

I am not alone.

Scent, memory and emotion exist in symbiosis. Smells travel into our nose and are processed by the olfactory bulb, which sits at the front of our brain. The bulb acts as a hub, sorting and sending information received by our nose into different parts of the brain. One of the most direct routes out of the olfactory bulb leads straight to the limbic system, which contains the amygdala and hippocampus, the centres for both emotion and memory. This means that the things we smell are one breath away from triggering intense emotional responses and deeply held memories.

The brain stores these memories with the scent data fully intact, and these smells become the activation code for unlocking the memory. We go through life unconsciously uploading, accessing and updating this data, using it as a guide for simple functions such as checking that our food is safe to eat and enjoying the scent of flowers. Sometimes though, we encounter a smell that stops us dead in our tracks and the message decoded from scent, emotion and memory is clear and urgent: run.

When you smell smoke you know there is fire. Our noses are as important when it comes to sensing threats as our eyes and ears, and not all dangers are physical, many are emotional. Perhaps our sense of smell is able to interpret and unscramble dangers that we on a conscious level are not in a place to understand. It all happens in an instant without any conscious thought.

It is unconscious self-preservation.

This formative scent memory of my mother in full glam mode is not real. Not because she wasn’t there, and I didn’t stand there in awe, or because she wasn’t wearing Lacroix and Allure, because all of those things are factually correct. She was there, I was there, she looked like that and the scent was in the air. The image is not real because the person in that image never existed in the way I remember. My brain has altered the memory into something more palatable – something more acceptable than the reality I existed in at the time. It has latched on to one moment of happiness – a thumbnail that doesn’t reflect the plot of the movie it represents. This memory exists as a means for covering up the one thing that I cannot escape: the truth.

I love perfume because it can bring comfort. On a cold day a warm scent can wrap you in a blanket, or on days when you need to project a sense of ‘badass bitch’ to the world, it can be a costume – a superhero cape we waft around to hide our insecurities. Perfume is so much more than an accessory or a luxury product, it’s us in all our beautiful, messed-up glory, moving through life in clouds of scent that permeate other people’s perception of who we are. We exist in their scent memories and emotions, and they take solace in these thoughts of us when we are not around. But that’s not always the case and scent isn’t always a simple comfort – life is far too complex for that. Sometimes scent can tear away the blanket, leaving you exposed to your own reality.

For me, the scent of Allure is tinged with feelings of happiness and sadness. Happiness comes from knowing that, amongst decades of trauma, there were moments of joy, and sadness simply exists as a recognition of what really happened. My scent memory helped me realise that I have grieved for my mother for many years, not because she has passed away (she hasn’t) but because she was never really there. This is the essence of life and how we experience its many ebbs & flows, and ups & downs. Scent memories can be wonderfully joyful things, but they can also be pain brought back into existence through smell. Maybe though, these memories are there to help us understand the things we cannot process through our other senses. Perhaps olfaction is there when the domains of words, sight, taste and touch fail, because scent expresses something we cannot otherwise understand.

We exist as a collection of experiences, memories and emotions. Perfume can be the thread that holds us together.

Allure is a reminder for me – an olfactory prompt that tells me never to go back and despite the visceral pain I feel when I experience it in both reality and memory, I am grateful for its existence. Grateful, not only for the purpose it serves as a memento, but also for the hope it provides – the reality that the present and the future will not be a repetition of the past. Now, Allure reminds me that I have the choice not to suffer emotional abuse, manipulation and neglect at the hands of a person who doesn’t have the ability to function in the way they should. Perfume has power, remember. Immense power.

Perhaps I’m not trapped in this memory of scent at all – maybe it is the very thing that has liberated me from the weight of a childhood I cannot and should not escape. It may even be the catalyst that, when the time is right, allows me to confront the things my mind has worked so hard to protect me from. Until then Allure exists as much as a shadow of me, that boy who idolised all of the glamour of a person he would never truly know, as it does her, and now it still lingers, long after her departure from my life.


I commissioned illustrator Tommy Pang to interpret this image. You can find more about Tommy and his work at his website. A big thank you to those who shared their scent memories with me.