Thursday, February 03, 2011

The limits of memory

Even now, after only a few short months, I can’t remember the message in its entirety without digging through my files to locate it. I’ll re-read it, poring over each word for clues to my past. But mostly my brain gets stuck on one sentence, and try as I might to get past it, I can’t. 

“You and I were walking home for lunch in 5th grade from Governor Bent the afternoon President Kennedy was shot,” the message said. The writer’s name drew not a particle of remembrance. 

My suspicions aroused, I called my older brother. He was the social one of us three brothers, with an uncanny ability to remember people and places long gone. When he answered, I asked, “Who is this guy?” 


I’m almost finished with Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, and I have to say I’ll be glad when I am. I’m also glad it’s a Kindle book, that it cost me only five dollars, and that it’s not going to take up valuable shelf space. But mostly I’m suspicious.

Years ago, after a particular gruesome memoir was published to high acclaim, several reviewers cast doubts on the author’s remarkable feat of recollection that included extended dialogue, minute trivia and detail approaching that of a novelist. To a man (and several women), reviewers could not in any way recall their own childhood lives with such precision. In fact, for many of them, great swathes of it were utterly blanked out, destitute of even a glimmer of a memory. How, then, were these authors so finely detailed in their stories? In particular, considering the unwavering fallacy of memory, how were readers, or they themselves, positive that what they wrote about actually transpired?

As I read these indictments my head nodded yes yes yes to each bruising jab. The obvious conclusion—the only conclusion, indeed—was that much of what passes for memoir is little more than a fictionalized account. Nobody said outright that the works were a lie—well, in James Frey’s case they did, and factually—but readers were advised to take them with a hefty dose of disbelief. My own advice would have been far harsher: with all the wonderful books out there, why waste your time?

Okay, I thoroughly enjoyed Alexandra Fuller’s autobiography, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight. It was my introduction to autobiographical writing, chosen mostly for the content. In it, she describes the dismantling of white rural life during the Rhodesian civil war. As I grew up on Tarzan novels before gravitating to the works of Robert Ruark about the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, plus anything else I could find as long as it had plenty of sex and violence and took place in Africa, the place seemed an imposing medley of otherworldly beauty and terror. The Dark Continent never seemed so dark as during Ruark and Fuller’s times, though today’s headlines make them pale by comparison. 

But even as I reveled in Fuller’s tale of the nation’s bloody descent into anarchy, and notably her often humorous portrayals of family events such as the time her mother took apart the kitchen with an Uzi while trying to kill an invading python, I was struck by her narrative use of dialogue. Surely, I thought, she couldn’t remember the exact words spoken during these events, many which transpired during her formative years, and yet there they were, formally enclosed within quotation marks. Which, to a journalist, indicates incontrovertible, indisputable veracity.

Now that I’ve spent the past week living someone else’s childhood, my initial forebodings have only deepened. Wolff and other memoirists would have us believe in their capacity for total recall. And I don’t buy it for one second. 

I’ve always felt I was fairly average in every way, that my limitations in remembering details of my childhood were the same for everybody. The memoir-lambasting critics expressed my own disbelief and prejudices and in so doing absolved me of any lingering guilt. We were normal and unexceptional. If the memoir writers were telling the unvarnished truth, they were freaks of nature. If not, they were embellishers or liars; the final judgment was ours alone. Within a chapter of finishing Wolff’s book, mine was already made. If I wanted to read fiction, I would.

But memory, I was to learn, isn’t doled out in even measures. 


The message and its timely arrival sent me reeling. Who was this man who remembered walking home with me from grade school, and what else did he know? 

My brother said he lived at the end of the block with several brothers, that they were good people. When I contacted the man—Paul was his name—I admitted to having no recollection of him. His own memory was formidable, however. 

“I remember you had a Crossman BB gun, a pretty cool battery-operated M-14, a hand grenade, and a nice selection of the then-current Sgt. Rock comic books,” he wrote.  “I remember you and I spending a little time watching your dad install a Corvette engine in the green Suburban. In fact, it was helping my dad work on his cars that got me interested in engineering in the first place. I remember meeting your grandmother, who lived in a trailer or mobile home off of Washington, south of Menaul, near an arroyo. I remember a couple of times watching Combat, possibly also Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, on TV at your house.  I think your dad worked at Sandia or Kirtland.”

Kirtland Air Force Base, actually. I remembered the hand grenade but not the M-14. I lost my virginity in the Suburban.

His letter was like opening a door onto a forgotten past. Slowly, as if emerging from a dark pool, bits and pieces floated to the surface: the house on the corner with its dirt yard and dead trees, cinderblock walls separating the houses, the view north from the corner of Palomas and Comanche. Of him, nothing. Nor of our trip home. There was only a somber house, my mother weeping, the television droning about an event that would touch our lives in some dark unseen way, and a forgotten friend patiently waiting outside the door saying you can remember, you can.


Bud Simpson said...

Tom, memory is volatile. Essence of events evaporates from solution, but leaves a kind of super-concentrate behind. All it takes to reconstitute a bucket full of memories is a couple drops of reminders.

A few years back, I dropped by my old elementary school, and after checking in at the office, I was given free rein to wander the halls and poke my head into classrooms, the gym, auditorium, all that. It all seemed vaguely familiar, if an order of magnitude smaller.

Then, I turned a corner and headed down a staircase - there was a clerestory window at the top of the back wall and diffuse sunlight filtered in, washing the walls and handrails. A sudden rush of familiarity swept over me. Names, dates, faces, events, smells - even entire conversations came back in a flood. I had to sit down on the stairs while I composed myself. I can still bring that feeling to the surface when I want to. It's as though the past, once reconstituted, stays viable for quite some time.

Tom Parker said...

Bud -- By God but you gave me an idea! When I'm in Albuquerque this year I'm going to return to my old school and poke around. And see Paul, and tour the old neighborhood, though he said it's really gone downhill. (In fact, he warned against going there after dark. Yikes!)
But I agree with what you said. I think everything we experience is imprinted somewhere in our consciousness, and certain triggers can pull them out, at least partially. The trick is finding the triggers. I'm still looking, but getting closer.
Thanks for sharing your experience. Fascinating!

Carol said...

Enjoyed your bird/snow photo, Tom.

I really enjoyed this entry about memories fading. I had a kinda tough childhood as an only child. My mom was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic before I was one year old, and spent much time in and out of the Topeka State Hospital. (That's how we ended up in Topeka instead of Alma.)

One evening I was waiting for my father to come home from work, watching for his headlights to point toward home down our dead-end street. I must have been ten years old. I thought, "People seem to forget about their childhoods when they grow up. I'll NEVER forget this moment and how much I want my daddy to be here." And I haven't.

Dad is ninety now. We've always been the best of friends.

Dee Dee said...

Tom, I can remember huge parts of my childhood,including conversations. Interestingly, the ones I most remember are the painful ones. My sister, only 1 1/2 years younger, remembers almost nothing, and yet, we were almost always together. Her one memory is of me, holding her hand and taking her to her class on the first day of school, since Daddy was at work and our mother was no where around.

Suzanne said...

This strikes a chord with me. There are those people who can remember lots of details from their childhood but I think that is the exception rather than the rule. I've always been able to identify faces and put them with a name, even after many, many years. I'm not talking just friends from the past but sometimes people I've only met once or twice! I tend to quash this ability because it freaks people out. They ask (incredulously), "How do you remember me AND my name?"

About the memoirs that are in fact fiction. I hate them. I read one recently and it was so outrageous it made me angry.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago my sister asked me, "Do you remember the time . . .," and described a frightening day when our family was in the mountains and narrowly missed losing our car (none of us were in the car at the time).

The minute she asked the question, it all came back, in vivid detail, and yet I had not thought about it for years. I wondered at the time, and have often wondered since, if she had not reminded me with her question, would I ever have thought of the incident again? Or was it a bad memory I had deliberately pushed into a dark closet of my mind, and would never have looked at again?

Wes said...

Good story, Tom, and so true! But the Suburban? Really? Just the thought of it gives me the willies? Tell me it wasn't on the mattress we slept on while camping! Say it ain't so!

Tom Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reece said...

I'll never think about the Suburban again without thinking about your story! What used to be just a great old truck now has a whole new meaning associated with it. Don't know if I like the change or not!

Tom Parker said...

Good grief. My brothers are prudes!

shoreacres said...

As you know, I spend a good bit of time in my own writing recounting bits of experience - some from childhood, some not.

There are times in my life I remember as vividly as the last cup of coffee I poured - more vividly, perhaps, since I tend to run on autopilot in much of daily life. On the other hand, blocks of my life simply have disappeared. I remember grade school, but not high school. I remember some relatives, but not others. I remember Africa, but not a certain time in Iowa.

Beyond that, my memory tends to be Proustian. What year did I graduate from college? What is the date of my parents' anniversary? What year did I move to Africa? No idea. I have to sit down with a calendar and puzzle it out. Most of the time I have to do arithmetic to figure out how old I am.

But the color of my childhood kitchen? The trip with my dad to the carnival when I got the green glass beads and the bisque kewpie doll? The smell of oil paints when I had chicken pox, or the taste of the sour cherries in our backyard tree? Absolutely present.

Even dialogue can come back to me in chunks. I quote a Danish woman in my current blog. A word or two might have gotten re-arranged, but I can hear her speaking the words, and the strange syntax, the rhythm of her speech.

I understand your point about made-up memoir, and completely agree - that sort of thing isn't fair to the reader. But memoir isn't journalism, either. I like Lawrence Durrell's comment about writing as the attempt to "re-work reality to show its significant side". If the work is firmly grounded in reality, it doesn't make any difference if the Suburban is remembered as green or blue, or if the snake is a viper or a mamba. Well, at least it doesn't make any difference to me.

Maybe I'm just more willing to have my truth a little more vanished. ;-)

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- I'm starting to feel left out by all you good folk who can remember. What struck me most was your assertion that memoir isn't journalism. When put that way, it suddenly has a different feel to it, almost acceptable. I'll have to think harder on it before I'm willing to accept it wholeheartedly, but it has a certain logic to it. Well done.

shoreacres said...

You have to know William Zinsser's work, he of On Writing Well. He also has two books related to writing memoir, Writing About Your Life and Inventing the Truth, which he edited.

I've not read both all the way through, but I've dipped in enough that I could find this immediately:

Inventing the truth [is] perhaps the best posible title for a book about memoir. It states the most important principle for writing the story of your life: mere facts aren't enough. No matter how many details you diligently collect about the people and places and events in your past, they won't add up to a memoir. You must make a narrative arrangement...

If Russell Baker did any inventing when he rewrote "Growing Up" it was perhaps to alter a time sequence,or to collapse several events into one event, or to heighten a personality trait. But he didn't violate the truth; his memoir rings absolutely true. Like a playwright or a screenwriter, he rearranged and compressed his story to give it dramatic shape.

As Faulkner said, "Facts and truth really don't have much to do with each other." ;-)

I believe I might actually read Zinsser again on the next rainy day.

Tom Parker said...

Linda -- I wonder if an analogy can be made between memoir writing and photograph enhancement. Both tell the truth as the writer/photographer remembers/visualizes. The base layer is the truth, the rest is overlay. Hmmm. Interesting where this is going.