The Vagaries of Memory

Human recollection is, to a large extent, a mystery. Combing through the shifting layers of time, we discover half ideas, fragmented scenes and incomplete sentences. Details from significant life events are lost, while a kindergarten teacher’s name is inscribed permanently in the mind. No one knows why our minds work as they do. Lauren Slater, the psychologist and writer, notes in the introduction to Opening Skinner’s Box, “We are far from explaining why … we hold some memories and discard others, what those memories mean to us and how they shape a life.” Often, memories of key events—especially when traumatic—are the most elusive.

Take the case of Andre Dubus. In “Lights of the Long Night,” he writes of a pedestrian-car accident in 1986 that left him permanently crippled and killed another man: “I remember the headlights, but I do not remember the car hitting Luis Santiago and me, and I do not remember the sounds our bodies made….Then I was lying on the car’s trunk and asking someone, ‘What happened?’” Dubus laces his narrative of the accident with a list of what he can and cannot remember about that night. Ultimately, he must rely on other accounts to fill in the gaps of his own recollection. But many questions remain. Readers share the writer’s frustrating attempts to make meaning of that fatal night and conclude, with him, that “only Luis Santiago knows” what really happened. The accident has been erased from Dubus’own consciousness; he cannot recreate or revisit it in his mind, and the only person who might provide the answers has died. The truth has been lost.

Why is memory such a poor narrator, particularly at such crucial moments?

Slater explains that while science can demonstrate how certain responses get “encoded in the brain,” the stuff of memory is unique and variable: “In the end, we are still the ones who weave, or not, still the ones who work the raw material into its final form and meaning.”

Slater’s authorial disclaimer raises questions for all memoirists: Do we remember only what we want to? Only what we must? And why do memories dangle, for years at a time, just beyond our reach?

In "Memory and Imagination," Patricia Hampl describes a scene from early childhood in which her father drops her off at her first piano lesson. Hampl provides the intricate details of the scene: Her piano teacher, Sister Olive, has to show her middle C twice. The room is full of sunlight and gleaming black pianos. Sister Olive has a sneezing spell, blames it on the excessive amount of sunlight in the room, and draws the shades.

"There must be a reason I remember that little story about my first piano lesson," Hampl reflects within her text. "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory."

But as she revisits the memory of her piano lesson, she realizes that not all aspects of the story are true. Her father might not have brought her to the lesson; her piano teacher may not have been named Olive. The truth is she doesn't remember her piano teacher at all. Hampl later says, "She's a sneeze in the sun and a finger touching middle C." The truth of the events lies waiting in the details. It is culling through the particles of her memories that she determines what the meaning behind them is. "The beauty of memory rests in its talent for rendering detail, for paying homafe to the senses, its capacity to love the particle of life…. If we learn not only to tell our stories but to listen to what our stories tell us—to write the first draft and then return for the second draft—we are doing the work for memory," Hampl notes.

Hampl concludes that her essay on the piano lesson has helped her identify the "touchstones" of the story of the piano lesson, which she believes is really an attemp to write about her father. Her job now is to sort through the details, to revisit them in her mind and to discern which ones really were a part of the piano lesson and why she is remembering them and what connection they have to her father. By engaging in this process, she attempts to illuminate why we recall what we recall. "What is remembered is what becomes reality," she writes. Thus the very act of writing conveys that despite the flaws and failure of memory, the price of forgetting is much higher—not just for the writer but for all of us.