“In the beginning there was darkness.”
Darkness, no matter how you believe the universe was created, is what was there before — before light, before atoms, before Earth and, even now, before a child takes its first breath. It is the foundation of everything and it is nothing. Darkness is what needs to be understood before we can move into the light.
It’s with this phrase, “In the beginning there was darkness,” that Carole Firstman begins her memoir, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means. For her, the “darkness” is a place she needs to travel back to in order to understand the universe that she lives in, the one where she is inherently daughter and woman. Daughter, to a biologist who wants to live out his dying days in Mexico and to a microbiologist and retired college professor who is in a nursing home following a stroke. Woman, in a universe that is redefining the classifications of what it means to be woman.
“If [my father] is Enlightenment — rational and logical, black and white — then I am Romanticism — experimental and emotional, shades of grey — a difference that vexes me to no end. He responds to nature by examining the significance of the Sun in terms of a star’s physical composition: hydrogen, helium, metals. I noticed something else in the moment we leaned into the guardrail — I noticed the way his body cast a shadow on the rock.” (p. 191)
It is her place in the universe as “daughter” that Carole spends a great deal researching and struggling to understand. Her relationship with her parents is examined, but it is her father that Carole acknowledges she spends the most time on (and how unfair to her mother it is). Researching is exactly what Carole does as she sifts through layers of memories that are tied to physical objects in her father’s study: scorpions frozen in time, sealed in jars that remind her of many trips into the Mexican desert; of how he thought children got in the way of research; and how he made her mother stay in a tent right after Carole was born because the sounds of babies were too much to deal with. Each memory is analyzed and defined through a scientific lens, part anthropological and part biological, in order for Firstman to understand how it fits into her own origin story.
“My digressive thread — liminality: The condition of being on a threshold or at the beginning of a process. To be in ‘limbo,’ says anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, is to inhabit an intermediate, ambivalent zone. In liminal phase an individual experiences a blurring of social environment and reality, occupies the in-between stage.” (p.15–16)
Firstman’s memoir is a record of her research into how she’s evolved into the person she is today, into the meaning of her father’s research, into what quality of life her mother has now versus then. Her study is presented in such a way that inspires the reader to want to begin his own research; to step back into the darkness, into the beginning, and understand how we came to be who we are today.