I have an abysmal memory. My brain is just wired, or miswired, that way, which is equal parts blessing and curse.
This summer I spent a great deal of time with a man whose brain is clearly on the opposite end of the spectrum than mine. He remembers an inordinate number of details of his life past. He will recall with nonchalance the minutiae of a conversation had 40 years ago with the same vivid detail that he can describe what he saw or ate or heard a few minutes ago. I had never before met anyone with such a memory, for whom the past and the present slip around one another like the two ends of a knot.
It seems that nothing has been lost to him, which in many ways I envy (if only I could hear a certain voice, relive certain moments), but in other ways I think I should find this a tremendous burden to carry. How often we hear of those “trapped in the past,” (sounds dramatic, but surely it can be), reliving not only their highest times but also their lowest, leaving wounds forever open and resentments well fueled, far too vivid the painful memories best forgotten. Grateful I am for the endorphins or whatever it is that allows me to soften the sharpness, even if that means effacing the edges of some of the more beautiful times along the way.
All in all my life has been heavily weighted on the good memories, but that is not so for everyone. Today I read about research into training the brain to control not what we remember, but what we forget. With good intentions this might erase painful memories, or those that thwart future growth, assisting those plagued by depression or the tyranny of memory of those suffering from post-traumatic stress. With bad we might end up with a frightening scenario of memory wiping, far scarier than its portrayal in film.
Julian Barnes, in his novel The Sense of an Ending, a book I’m finding as lovely in its melancholy as I had imagined it would be, explores memory via his main character, Tony Wallace. The forwardness of youth is, he describes, transformed with age.
But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records—in words, sound pictures—you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping.
I suppose that memory is always subjective, even, as the character describes, with assiduous record-keeping. Today, despite our highly documented world, the very curation of our own lives involves selection and, whether consciously or not so, a stitching together of what we wish to be viewed as our pasts. At least in the pre-Facebook days we might alter the slideshow, reshape the telling as our memories or life requires. As Tony Wallace puts it:
“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
We tell our stories to others, but mainly to ourselves...We craft our own histories, if only in our minds, guarding their veracity. Many memoir writers are plagued by ghosts from their past who come from the shadows to argue with this telling. Stephen Elliott comes to mind, whose father bullies him via comment fields on Amazon and other websites, nastily contesting the details of the childhood Elliott describes). In the same way that memoirists put a disclaimer in their prefaces, we should all do the same. I am not responsible for anyone else’s version of my life. (One might also add a few expletives, as the case may be.)
On a totally unrelated note… I just read with sadness of the far too early death of the actor Michael Clarke Duncan. I cannot help but recall the power of his performance in The Green Mile, a film of surprising beauty.
…perhaps not so unrelated, for when John Coffey, the character played by Mr. Duncan is asked “Why do you have so many scars?” he replies “Don’t really remember, ma’am.”