I often refer to my brain as a sieve. Whatever goes into it — work assignments, conversations with friends, the last chapter of a book I read last night — dribbles out through tiny holes. A viscous layer of memory might stick to the bottom but it will be gooey and mixed with whatever detritus were there before.
I’ve often thought of writing a memoir if for no other reason than to see if I could write one that would include enough memories to make a whole person.
But I’m plagued with a spotty memory. I can remember the essence of a conversation, but not always the exact words. Sometimes I mix up who said what until another witness sets me straight.
Once upon a time I had a boyfriend who would demand exact recounts of our arguments. If I could not recall exactly what he had said, if I only remembered the gist of his taunts, then I was wrong, I was in error. I was always left shattered, in doubt of my own sense of reality.
To this day, some forty-plus years later, I do remember how I felt when he taunted me. I can’t remember his exact words. I only remember how I felt. Those experiences left me forever doubting my ability to recall.
Two years ago, while browsing in a local bookstore, I came across The River of Consciousness, a collection of essays by Oliver Sacks. One essay drew my attention: “The Fallibility of Memory.”
I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal but assumed that the memories I did have — especially those which were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial — were essentially valid and reliable, and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not. (Sacks, O. (2017). The Fallibility of Memory. In The River of Consciousness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 102)
Oliver Sacks had false memories! That was a shock to me!
Although for years he had a vivid memory of experiencing two bomb incidents during the 1940–41 Blitz on London, when he finally wrote about them, an older brother confirmed that, yes, Sacks was at home during the first incident. As to the second bomb incident: no, Oliver Sacks had been away at school the second time a bomb fell near his house.
His brother explained that another brother who had been home and experienced the second bomb incident had written to both of them with such drama and detail, that Sacks must have integrated it into his memory as if the experience had been his own.
Sacks being Sacks, he was only fascinated by faulty memory, not appalled, not shamed as I might have been if I made the same kind of mistake.
In “The Fallibility of Memory,” Sacks describes a number of famous people who have been accused of plagiarism (and worse) because they inadvertently and unintentionally “appropriated” the work of others. They so well integrated someone else’s story that it became, in a sense, their own story.
I cope with my lack of memory by appropriating the memories of others. I’ve internalized the codependent relationship between my mother and my older sister. I felt — very strongly — the slow and incremental ostracism of my father from our family because of his mental illness. Until late in life, I was a busybody, wanting to know the business of others to fill my own vacancies.
Our only truth is the narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine. […] The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable. (Sacks, O. (2017). The Fallibility of Memory. In The River of Consciousness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 121)
I have a “narrative truth.” I have the stories I’ve told myself, the stories I wrote in journals. I have a spotty memory and will never be able to remember the exact words my mother used when she made me feel unwanted. But I remember how I felt.
I tell stories about how I felt, and that is my narrative truth.