A few nights ago I watched the movie “Remember” starring Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau. It’s about an elderly man who sets out to find and kill the Blockführer at Auschwitz who had murdered his family. The problem is, Zev Guttman (played by Christopher Plummer) has dementia. He relies on instructions written by Max Rosenbaum (played by Martin Landau) to find the Blockführer, who is now living in the U.S. under an alias.
The movie has a twist ending, one that, in hindsight, I should have seen coming but didn’t. What struck me was how memories, as played out in this movie, can alter who we think we are.
Memories have always fascinated me, mainly because my memory is so unreliable. I have few and mostly vague memories of my childhood. I’ve often worried that I might have buried memories, experiences of abuse or neglect that turned me from a rambunctious little snot to that of the quintessential wallflower. I went from being a little girl looking straight into the camera, often laughing or smiling to an adolescent looking away from the camera, curling my shoulders inward as if to shrink my body, to become smaller and eventually unseen.
When I was that fearfully shy adolescent, I had a favorite pastime which I often indulged on the school bus if I was lucky enough to have a window seat. As the bus stopped to pick up kids from the town over the river from mine, I’d wonder about them. I’d wonder what it would be like to be them, especially the blonde with the bouncy ponytail and upturned nose. Her name was Sherry and she was my polar opposite.
I wondered what it would be like to be her, not be like her, but be her.
What if I had her memories?
What if I remembered being hugged and carried about by my mother?
What if I remembered my father sitting at the head of the dining room table, asking me about my school day, acting as if he was really interested?
What if I remembered other girls wanting to be my friend and spend time at my house?
What if I remembered my teachers always smiling at me, always expecting me to do well because they simply believed in me?
What if I had memories of being loved instead of being a burden to bear?
I’ve often wondered if having different memories would make me a different person. At sixty-two years old, these musings have become farther and fewer between. As my life has evolved to becoming comfortable with my shy, sensitive, introverted self, I’ve cared less about who I would have been “if only.”
But after seeing “Remember,” I can’t stop thinking about how our memories define us, and how catastrophic it could be if we learned that our memories are false. You spend your life thinking you are one particular person. Even if you’re not thrilled with that person, it’s who you are, it’s You.
Then you meet someone who claims to know the real you, the person you’ve conveniently forgotten, pushed down and buried. You resist. You insist it can’t be true. Then you remember and your life, the person you were, is dead.
I run from memories that haunt me, the ones that prove I’m not the sweet, thoughtful person I want everyone to believe I am. Sometimes I run far enough that forgetting seems possible and as I jog into the future, I create new memories to pile on and push down those memories that would otherwise haunt me.
I’ve run from north central New York to the San Francisco Bay Area to northern Florida. I want to run again, especially after living in one place for thirty years, accumulating enough memories — good, bad, and ugly — where the risk of crossing paths with that one person who knows who I really am is too high for my comfort.
These memories don’t trouble my husband or my few friends. They still see me as the person I want to be. Like Zev Guttman, I take comfort in my friends’ perception of me. I believe in them believing in me. But also like Zev Guttman, being confronted with the memory of who I’ve been — that person I keep running away from — can be catastrophic.
I can’t keep running forever. I have arthritic knees, for one thing.
Unlike Zev Guttman, I can confront those memories, write about them, exorcise them. They don’t have to be the end of my self as I want to know me, as I want to be known. I can turn those memories back on themselves, expose them to the world, and watch them shrivel into nothingness.
Isn’t that what being a writer is all about?
Thank you for reading. Here’s another one of my essays on memory you might enjoy: