The Vagaries of Memory

from 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?