Somewhere, almost lost in the thousands of words I’ve read this week about the misrepresentations in the The Rolling Stone article that recounted a horrific gang rape of a girl named Jackie at a University of Virginia frat house, were these three sentences: “It’s not about what Jackie remembered, it’s about what actually happened. This wasn’t a how-I-coped-with-trauma memoir. This was supposed to be innocent-until-proven-guilty investigative journalism.”
But the truth is, memory is a slippery thing, especially memories of traumatic experiences. If some of the details got confused, we can’t assume it’s because Jackie lied. The mind is more complicated than that. She may have simply misremembered. It was the reporter’s job to know this could happen and to fact-check.
I’ve been stunned multiple times during the research I’ve done for my memoir—whether in formal interviews or casual conversations—how often I remembered things the wrong way. Or not at all.
Here’s a small example. When my mother was visiting me about a year ago, a six-year-old girl was hit by a truck half a mile from our house and immediately killed. “Remember when your sister was hit by a car?” my mother said. It was a rhetorical question. She assumed I remembered—but I didn’t.
“She was fourteen,” my mother continued, “walking to school in the morning. The driver hadn’t even scraped the ice off her windshield, so she couldn’t see a thing and dragged your sister under the car.”
What does it say about me that I forgot such a horrible event? Am I the only person with memory holes like this? I don’t think so.
I said, “All I remember is my brother getting hit by a car in elementary school. He’d been riding his bike in the playground at Keppen School, where I was playing. He rode into the street by accident. An ambulance came, and you went to the hospital with them and sent me home with Kimmie’s family.”
“I never would have sent you home with Kimmie’s family,” my mother said. “Kimmie was a bully.”
Had I made this memory up? Not just the memory of staying at Kimmie’s, but of the whole accident. My mother didn’t remember it.
“Maybe this happened. Maybe not.” Sometimes it feels like that is the only way to truthfully reconstruct memories. One of the best examples of a memoir that wears the pitfalls of memory on its sleeve is The Other Side. In his blurb, Nick Flynn says, “Lacy M. Johnson offers us a guide to the impossible—how to reconstruct a past when the past itself is shattered, each memory broken into pieces, left rattling around inside us.”
In the first paragraph, she reconstructs the scene of her escape from the basement where her ex-boyfriend locked her up, raped her, and tried to kill her. It begins:
“I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze. Or I do not stumble. I make no noise at all as I open the door with one hand, holding a two-by-four above my head with the other. My feet and legs carry me forward, the rest of my body still, like a statue. Like a ninja. A cartoon” (p. 1).
From a craft point of view, I’m startled by the transparency of a mind at work on the page, the sense that we are seeing the thoughts in progress, hearing the author weigh the options, telling us: “I do this . . . or I do that. . . I’m not exactly sure.”
Later in the book, she backtracks to the scene in which she introduced this man to her parents:
“Maybe it’s Mom who comes right out and says she is frankly shocked at how old he is: thirty eight, exactly twice my age. Or maybe she first asks if he colors his hair Then Dad wants to know if he has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. I cover my face a little and sink deeper into the couch. The Man I Live With answers honestly; he’s told me in the car he will not placate these people. He delivers a moving lecture on world religions, including an in-depth deconstruction of the savior myth. Or it is not a lecture. Maybe he just waves his hands while telling my father his beliefs are the beliefs of a small-minded man” (p. 44).
Notice the word she repeats over and over again: maybe.
She backtracks further and not only questions the details of her memories but actively tries to change them. Don’t we all wish, sometimes, that we could?
“We ride the train to Budapest, where we share a room at the hostel with three Australian rugby players who take turns touching my breasts. I can’t remember their names. Does one have a mole on his cheek? The Man I Live With holds up my shirt for them, pinning back my arms,.He laughs without smiling, his mouth wide open.
“Or maybe he is waiting in the hall for the bathroom. Maybe he is drawing me a bath. I want to remember being drunk. I want to be standing on the bed, holding my own shirt up, my own arms back. I want to remember that I begged them to touch me. Not how they finally turned away” (p. 88).
“I want to remember” is code for “I wish it happened this way,” but it’s also stronger than that. It’s a yearning, not just a wish, a desire that can become so strong it’s transformative. We can’t change the past, but sometimes (without knowing it) we change the way we remember it.
Maybe Jackie did, too.
Photo credit: http://www.scientificamerican.com/media/inline/the-power-of-the-memory-molecule_1.jpg