The real struggle in life is the battle against memory. What really kills you, in the end, is not the bullet lodged in your brain, the cancer cell that swims through you, salmon-like, to its spawning pool in some vital organ, or the safe that falls on your head from a fourteenth-story window. What really kills you is the excruciating effort, day by day, of dragging around the dead weight of your memories.
Every day you live another twenty four hours. Every hour — each minute in that hour, every second — you’re experiencing something new. You fall in love, get bitten by a stray dog, convert to some bizarre religious cult, break a nail, make or lose a friend, all the big and little things that make up a life. And every second of that life, whether you’re paying attention or not, gets stored up in this carryall sack called memory.
The sack grows. Over the years, it gets heavy as — day by day, experience by experience — your life rushes through you and vanishes behind. You start to stoop under the effort of facing the future while dragging along the accumulated baggage of your past.
Then one day, you find the damned thing too heavy to carry at all anymore. You tug and stress and pull. It won’t budge.
You make a mistake.
You question: Why do I carry this terrible weight? Why am I afraid even to look behind me?
You reason: These are MY memories, MY life. I have nothing to fear.
You say: “I’ll just open this heavy bag and take a few items out. I’ll confront my past, lighten my load, and get on with business as usual.”
You find a method: It might be the analyst’s couch. A clergyman’s office. The understanding company of a friend. Solitary introspection.
Then, finally, you open the sack. Out comes a bullet, or a cancer cell, or a safe. Better you had just fallen down dead, cause unknown.
Memory is the enemy, my friend, and sooner or later, it gets you.
If you ask me, I say the darned thing is alive and — I’m convinced of this — evil. The thing is consciously and intentionally out to get us.
Now, don’t turn away thinking I’m crazy. I have good reason for believing this. My theory is based wholly on experience.
For instance, I have an uncanny memory for telephone numbers. They seem to stick to my brain. I hear a number once and it never goes away. It just keeps prattling around in my head, bouncing off walls and echoing back… 227–3609… 227–3609… 227… You get the idea.
The problem is that I can never seem to connect these numbers in my head with their owner’s faces. They just persist as things unto themselves, useless for their lack of personal association. I don’t know who the hell I’d find on the other end if I called; so, usually, I don’t.
But sometimes these numbers obsess me:
I’m walking home from the market. I’m carrying a bag of groceries. The mind of a normal, healthy person would be on things like tomatoes or eggs or the price of chicken parts or beer — normal things.
But not me. No, I’m walking along with some seven digit number stuck in my head. It repeats like a mantra: da-da-da-da da-da-da, over and over again, endlessly. I’m pounding it out on the pavement under my shoes as I walk all glassy-eyed, like some delivery-boy wannabe dreaming of Gene Kelley stardom.
I fight the temptation to stop at a pay phone and try out the number. When I get home, I distract myself: I cook dinner. I watch TV. I walk my dog, Rex.
And then, eventually, I call. I mean, what real choice do I have? If you’d ever seen a phone number superimposed on your television screen, or heard your own dog (who claims to love you) chanting a numeric Hare Krishna while defiling your neighbor’s carport, you’d know what I mean. You’d do it too.
So anyway, I make the call. Somebody answers.
I recognize the voice. Down goes the phone.
The two worst years of my life come tumbling back in all their 3-D Technicolor horror. I writhe under the onslaught of remembered pain, screaming and crying and indiscriminately destroying things.
That woman… the things I did to please her… the humiliation… Holy Jesus. How could I have forgotten that?
Ah, but that’s my secret; that’s where all this is leading. It’s my special thing, my secret advantage over the rest of poor, struggling Humanity. You see, I have learned to forget. I have experienced the true nature of memory, and have erected walls in my mind against its malevolent presence. I say with conviction that memory is the killer because it tried to kill me.
One day, years ago, my sack got too heavy. The strain was too much; I just couldn’t go on. The constant weight of every failure, every broken promise, every bad relationship, every foolish decision had me backed into a corner. I couldn’t move. I stood at the crossroads, tugging and pulling, wearing myself out. I had to do something, but what?
Like an idiot, I opened the sack. I shoved in my hand, and pulled it out clutching a nice, shiny handgun: fully loaded, too.
You can barely see the scars today.
Anyway, that should have killed me, but it didn’t. Somebody heard the shot and I was rushed to a hospital. Thanks to their machines, my body lived on, quite separate from my fractured consciousness. I found my way from a state of death to a state of indefinitely prolonged near-death: Coma. I stayed there for seven years.
But where was I, my conscious self, for those seven long years? I was inside the sack. Of course, I didn’t realize that at first. It took me a good long time to figure that one out.
The first couple of years I just diddled away on sexual fantasy stuff. You know: first date, first real touch, loss of virginity — the fun side of the whole puberty trip.
Oh, Jeez, you can’t imagine what it’s like to do it for the very first time, over and over again. A moment of your life when you were really aware, totally alert, noticing everything. And then, suddenly, you find you’ve got the power to repeat the whole sequence, ad infinitum, from beginning to end, every detail intact. Every feeling. Every sensation. Always fresh. Always new.
I mention this one thing in such detail because it was through this that I figured out where I was. And, of course, what was really happening — both to me singularly, and to the human race as a whole.
I’ve always had a compulsive, addictive personality type. In my life I’ve been addicted to tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, women… you name it. It’s not the things themselves; it’s the rush, the sensation.
Anyway, once I discovered that I had this power to endlessly repeat experiences from my past, I got hooked. You can guess which one got me. It must have been the best fifteen minutes of my life. I never got tired of it. I relived it thousands of times; maybe millions. Time is different in the sack, and I mean that both ways.
And I wasn’t at all thrown by the strangeness of the situation. I mean, I remembered shooting myself. I figured I was dead; and somehow — though they tell you in church it can’t happen for suicides — I’d gotten into Heaven. I was satisfied, happy even, that things had turned out so well. I was quite ready to spend a blissful eternity on that bed.
But then something truly diabolical happened: There I am, sublimely plooking Mary Ann Trent, when into the room walks my mother.
Now, I can tell you for sure that this part never happened in real life. If it had, I would never have lived to kill myself later. This was not coming from my personal stockpile of memory; this part was new.
The first time this bizarre twist occurred, she just walked through the room and out again. She didn’t so much as notice me squirming on the bed with my jeans bunched up around my ankles.
Eventually, I got used to her coming and going. I stopped grabbing for my pants every time. But once I got comfortable with the situation, it changed again.
The first time she noticed was really bad. She stopped at the foot of the bed and turned absolutely purple. . .
I didn’t stop. I expected her to just leave. I even smiled at her once and pointed to the door.
It’s a strange feeling to become aware that someone has become aware of you. It creeps over you in stages and you begin to see yourself, your actions, through the observer’s eyes. You begin to judge yourself by the other’s standards. Liberation becomes shame. Shame becomes anger.
I stopped. There was a big fight. Mom screamed and I screamed. Mary Ann cried and went home. I got grounded for ten years.
With Mom in the picture, I lost the ability to repeat anything; I was under her power. A regular daily routine set in, with mornings and evenings and school and all that brand of useless, uninteresting crap.
I no longer believed that I was in Heaven. It was beginning to look more like Hell. I figured maybe they let you taste the good stuff before they sent you down, so you’d suffer more.
And boy, did I suffer.
I lived through endless boring days of school and homework and TV and homework and school. . . It was a lot like my real teenage life, but with certain decisive, hellish alterations.
From the start, everything went wrong. Every triumph of my young life became a defeat. No matter how hard I studied, my grades stunk. My old friends now hated me. Every girl I asked out said no, except one.
Mary Ann Trent swallowed her pride and accepted my invitation to the senior prom. She promptly disappeared. They say she was institutionalized; severe schizophrenia that no one had noticed until she consented to go out with me. That had been the kicker. It proved she wasn’t rational.
They told me this to my face.
I got rejected by the soccer team and the debate team. The latter occurred because, in the midst of tryouts, I developed a bizarre speech impediment: my tongue swelled up like a prickly, pink water-balloon. I just stared across at my opponent with tears streaming down my cheeks, barely able to breathe, let alone argue my point. I stumbled back to my seat, choking and wheezing. Everybody had a good laugh.
My tongue stayed fat. I couldn’t eat. I lost weight.
I collapsed into a hopeless depression. The thought of going on like this for all eternity was just too much. I decided to kill myself, again.
No sooner had the thought entered my mind, when I felt the weight of a gun in my hand. But this time, instead of looking at the gun, I looked up to see where it came from.
That’s when I saw The THING. It was. . . well, there’s really no way to describe it. There’s nothing on this side of the sack to compare it to.
You sometimes hear stories about people tripping acid and the sun shoots out this long sticky tongue like a frog’s to suck the life out of you. That’s not how it looked, but that’s exactly how it felt. It felt like those stories, all hot and wet and full of death you can’t run away from. You’re just stuck there, watching it come at you, sensing deep down just how small and helpless you really are.
But I was lucky. The THING didn’t want to kill me; it wanted me to kill myself. It wanted my despair.
Whatever it was, I think I really pissed it off when I looked up. I get the feeling no one’s ever done that before because, instead of just squashing me flat — it could have, it was that close — it let out this long, high-pitched squeal, like I’d surprised it, then scuttled off into the sky. It moved over those clouds just like a spider backs-up over a web. It hit the horizon and vanished.
Two seconds later, I was awake. The shock of seeing the thing snapped me out of the coma.
The hospital shrink commented that people in comas often report strange dreams.
The man is an idiot. I admit that the life I led may have been a dream; but the thing I saw was real. I could not, in a million years of random dreaming, create something like that, or envision what I saw it doing.
I was on my own to figure the whole thing out. I went to the library and got books on memory, sleep research, brain chemistry, biology, philosophy, religion, shamanism, the occult. . . I had no intention of sleeping until I’d found some answers; I studied around the clock for days. I closed the last book, put the last piece to the puzzle, just as the last Dexedrine dropped from the bottle I’d acquired to ensure my success.
My new understanding was far from pleasant, and difficult to accept. But because of it I am now safe, or mostly safe anyway. And because what I found concerns all Mankind, I now offer this understanding, and this safety, to you. I urge you to accept it.
Memory is not natural to the human psyche. It’s a growth, an implanted organ. It does not serve the benevolent function we assign to it; the only way it serves us is on a silver platter.
Philosophers have argued for centuries about the nature and origin of evil. Where does it come from? Why is there suffering in the world?
There isn’t, or at least there wasn’t once. Suffering, despair, evil, death, these are all imports into our world and our lives.
Pain sneaks up from behind us. It triggers memory into action and, thereafter, the memory of pain defines our lives. Everything we experience passes through this organ. On the other side it gets twisted around, changed. Something essentially human gets removed, and what’s left trickles back to us like raw, stagnant sewage.
We store it in our sack. We call it our lives.
We do not remember our lives.
We are thinking, feeling, moving in this world, but only in this present moment. We believe we’ve stored away a true record of our lives, a true kernel of who we really are, who we’ve been, but our remembered experiences are empty. They lie behind us like corpses, husks, drained of all real vitality. The energy we’d thought stored up in past experience is gone; it has been used. Our lives are stolen from us.
The organ of this theft is memory itself. I say this organ is unnatural, that it was implanted in our species a long, long time ago — so long ago, in fact, that it has become a part of our genetic makeup. Like the mitochondria in human cells, it’s an inborn energy regulator that was once a parasite, an independent entity. It is now born dormant in every human being, waiting to be switched on early in childhood.
One moment’s surprise: we let down our guard. The organ begins to function and our energy is sapped. A strange substance fills us. It’s a waste product, utterly devoid of life. When it enters, we experience it as Fear, Loss, Regret, Despair. It poisons us, ages us. When it fills us completely, we die. The sack becomes too heavy and we fall under the strain.
This may well explain the Church’s doctrine of original sin: we are born with the capacity to allow death and suffering into our pristine world. It all enters through us, through memory.
But this is the part they leave out of their doctrine that must be understood: we are victims. Theoretically, we have a choice; we could resist. We could, in theory, reject the curse of memory and move about in this present moment only, never looking back or caring where we’ve been. But in reality our environment administers that first shock long before we’ve become aware of ourselves, or of the possibility of choice.
The first thing a doctor does once he’s pulled a baby from a womb is slap its behind: Pain…and then the memory of pain… and for the rest of the baby’s life, the memory of everything else. The keg gets tapped in the first minutes of post-natal life. Worse, the baby never knows what’s happened. He learns to cherish his memory, to identify it as his true self. He’s hooked; he’ll never think to shut it off.
But it’s easy once you’ve realized the need. You simply learn to forget. You learn to keep your eyes on the road and never look behind you. You turn your back cold on who you were yesterday, and start out as a blank slate each morning. The philosophers call it Tabula Rasa. I call it freedom. And safety.
Of course, the thing on the other side is not passive. It hunts us like prey. It dogs me, sets traps for me, like with the telephone numbers. I must be guarded every minute against repeating that one moment’s surprise.
I had good reason to cancel service, to cut off the memory flow. I saw what was on the receiving end of that transaction. I looked into its face. That shock trickled back to me as fear, a fear I’ve honed into understanding and safety.
If you’re not convinced by my story, friend, then I suggest you take a look for yourself.
The next time you feel pain, regret, despair, or when you feel the terrible weight of your remembered defeats and mistakes filling you with doubt, shattering your confidence: in that moment, look up, look behind you.
Something is feeding.
Books by Jack Preston King: