Memory is Treacherous
This is a cliche but it's also the truth. Everyone has to deal with it. Our ability to recall events forms us. It isn't the only thing giving us identity but it plays a vital role. And it's flawed.
Here I am, writing a book that's basically a series of events from my memory. The work has made me speculate about the other autobiographies I've read. I've loved the real-life accounts of Benjamin Franklin, Audre Lorde, Richard Feynman, Frederick Douglas, Jenny Lawson, Trevor Noah, and Agatha Christie among others. I'm sure they are mostly spot on with reality. The authors relied on human memory, though, and they can at best relate their point of view. They have committed errors in their books. Audre Lorde owned up to hers; she used the subtitle 'biomythography' to underline how she was telling stories about her past and, in the process of making the stories coherent, she had to fill in blanks. Of course, she remembered parts of what people said but she needed to infer some dialogue, too.
Diarists have an advantage, here - but I have not been a diarist. Occasionally, I have written about an incident immediately after it happened or I have managed to put down notes when a distant memory floods back with authority. Otherwise, I depend on calling up each reminiscence on demand, which is trickier.
I corroborate my memories by asking witnesses. I refer to photographs and other evidence. I work to sift the too-often-remembered incidents from others, to view them with suspicion, and set them aside. On the occasions I decided to tell those remembered scenes anyway, I tried to verify the details.
"This can't be when it happened," Diane told me after reading an incident I recalled from when we were four years into our parenthood. "You already had your master's degree when our daughter was born. This had to be when you were at the NIH, not at grad school."
With help from friends willing to read my drafts, I made corrections. I verified details.
Sometimes the process was easy. Everyone involved remembered the same broad sweep of events. Sometimes verification was impossible. The only people who could confirm a memory were dead. Or they were alive but reported no recollection. There was nothing in their archive of memories that corresponded to mine.
Not every moment that makes an impression on us does the same for others.
"Well, that totally sounds like me," Tucker said about a conversation that changed my adolescence. "I remember splitting wood a bunch of times. I recall you being there. But I have nothing beyond that. I used to talk the way you described, though."
"So you think it's right?"
"Maybe, yeah." He shrugged. He added, as he wanted to avoid offense, "Probably. I just can't swear to it."
My accounts of life are as close to the truth as I can get while still making coherent stories of them. Life doesn't actually arrive in episode form. Worse, as I've progressed through my life's incidents, I've censored episodes. That's made me realize how often other writers must do it. You have to pick and choose your memories to tell. Some of them are embarrassing. (How old was I when I wet my pants by refusing to stop playing table tennis?) Some are repetitive. (Did I learn this same life lesson about asking girls out on dates six horrible times?) Other matters would shame people to no point. (Do we need another book about family violence? Every family has some.)
Although I hope each personal adventure forms part of a narrative whole, I know that's not true to life either. (See the above about self-censoring, episodes, and more.)
We have a tendency to add to our memories each time we relate them to ourselves. We layer on made-up details as we try to make sense out of our memory fragments. At a basic level, it's likely most memories don't make much sense in their raw form. We interpret them in the act of remembering.
That's one way we fool ourselves. We want things to make sense when, sometimes, they don't. Worse, we catch ourselves interpreting the past as if we were the same person now as we were years ago. We wonder, 'how could I have been so stupid' when the answer is we were twelve, not fifty-two or thirty-two. Our minds were different. Our selves, such as they are, were essentially other people.
Sometimes I have a sense of the differences. But I'm sure I have less self-perception than I'd like. Such awareness is a skill that requires practice, even for masters of it, and awareness has human limits. A few pieces of my writing in this collection, in fact, are about improvements in awareness and judgement.
So of course they're wrong. I'm trying to use what awareness and judgement I have. For making sense of the past and the future, memories are mostly what we have. They're not all, though. They're not everything.