As I'm overseas, my blogging time is limited. This is an essay I wrote several years ago in response to Nancy Mairs'  thoughts in her memoir 'Remembering The Bone House': that we cannot “relive the past exactly.” You may “live it as often as you like,” she says, but only as your present self. 

On memory and memoir

Memory is a tricky beast. Our entire sense of self is dependant on it: the experiences that shape our prejudices and reactions, our values and our affections are housed solely in our recollection of them. In ourselves, we are secure in the ‘truth’ of these recollections, certain of our feeling that they occurred exactly as we feel them, for when we retrieve a memory, we don’t scroll through lists of dates and names and words, but relive it, as Mairs suggests – the present self returns to the past and re-experiences the event. It is difficult to believe such a powerful tool, that fills us with such assurance of its accuracy, could be subverted, or even downright arbitrary. What colour top was your best friend really wearing that day at the beach? Did your mother actually say that, or was it just something you were expecting her to say? 

Our memories are nowhere near as trustworthy as we think – or as we rely on them to be. Countless psychiatrists, hypnotherapists, investigators and scientists will testify to the power of suggestion, or other techniques that can fool our little record-keeper, yet we still instinctively depend on the information stored there as absolute reality. The traditional ‘autobiography’, as written by someone that a certain percentage of the population thought (or remembered as being) important, delivers details of early childhood and adulthood that are decades – often half a century – after the event, expecting the accuracy of a video playback. Robert Hillman gives us accounts of his childhood in The Boy In The Green Suit, starting with the words “It happened like this…” and tangles the canny, knowing voice of the adult with the perspective of the child as he takes us through his past.

Hillman gives us an understanding of the reasons and hidden meanings of events that, as a child, he could not have had. At some points, during snippets of the past written in present tense from a clearly childlike viewpoint (but still with sentence structure and grammar too perfect to even approximate a child’s voice), he adds the afterthoughts of what he has realised on reflection much later, such as his father’s aborted attempt to have him adopted by a childless couple. At other points, we’re given information that a child would not have noticed – or perhaps, have noticed but not realised the significance of enough to formulate the ideas that Hillman writes. At the same time, Hillman acknowledges his child-self’s limits of knowledge in other areas; “the community slid into the drabness of the past. Or perhaps it was all to do with contrast. After all, I didn’t know the past all that well.” There’s no continuity to which sections have been unconsciously ‘adult-erated’ and which Hillman recognises as being too knowing. 

Hillman writes what he, as an adult, remembers of his childhood, including the revelations and realisations that have occurred to him about various instances in the meantime. He doesn’t separate out the naivety of the child; what knowledge he has at the time of writing is what he writes – it is clear that his emotional experiences as a child retained a much stronger image than his speculations about socio-economics, or politics. Scenes such as the moments of his mother leaving or his father requesting that he call his stepmother ‘Mum’ have the intensity of the child’s experience, are far less laden with an adult’s re-evaluation. The inconsistency draws attention to the childhood episodes, certainly, but also calls into question the timeframe of the surrounding realisations. How much of what we are reading can be trusted as the “real” memoir – what the child-Hillman thought and felt? No more than in any other memoir, excluding (perhaps) a diarists’. But Hillman refuses to address this question at any length – not even the admittance that this might not be ‘historically’ accurate, or any difficulties he faced recalling these memories. Rather, he sticks to what he gives us at the start: this is what happened.

In comparison, Louise De Savlo’s Vertigo grabs past and present in tiny pieces, dealing more coherently with theme and mental journey than any form of chronology. She states bluntly that this ‘may not be an accurate account of how she grew from a working class child to a Virginia Woolf scholar, as memory cannot be entirely trusted’. Her writing implies, however, that her reports of the past are taken from diary entries that she was keeping at the time – whether or not she’s including actual snippets of the entries isn’t strictly determinable, though she does describe the diary entries as different to the memoir we are reading – “My diary entries are filled with prosaic happenings…” She writes in present tense, different to Hillman’s past accounts; instead of a concrete story of her past, we’re given the impression that while she is exploring past events, she is in fact re-experiencing them and relating her experience of the re-living, not the original. Perhaps this is because, at the time of the events, it is difficult for her to accept her sister’s suicide and the surrounding crises. She verges on being simply unable to compute what has happened; information and emotion are squirreled off the to side and barricaded away. De Salvo conveys both the not-dealing and attempting-to-deal simultaneously, twining past-and-earlier-present together in one section.

She also flicks back and forth in time without warning, bringing a flash or two of realisation or understanding back into the context in which it belongs, such as her mother’s hospitalisation:  “We find out, from my father, something we have never known: my mother has been hospitalised for depressed before, as a young girl”. De Salvo makes no mention of when this information was given, but from the context we can deduce that it wasn’t at the moment of hospitalisation. This technique operates more explicitly when she writes of telling her friends about her sister’s suicide, and unconsciously accepting fault for her sister’s decision: 

“When I tell my friends about my sister’s death, I tell them that the belt she used to strangle herself had been a gift from me. I don’t know if this is true. I had given Jill a belt – but I am compelled to say it, and at the time, I don’t know why. Now though, it seems to have been my way of taking responsibility for what happened to her, though I have never admitted it to myself that I have felt guilty about her death.”

In this way, she acknowledges implicitly that her memory of the past has been irrevocably altered by her present self, but that she must deal with the memories as they currently are. This method of examining memories not as an indelible film, but a fluid medium of expression of self leads to a very different feel of memoir – we feel far more exposed to and entrenched in De Salvo’s experience than Hillman’s – perhaps the constant shifting of chronology around the experiences grants an immediacy – everything is focused on the current thought, rather than sailing smoothly through the linear transitions. 

Nancy Mairs’ Remembering The Bone House performs a similar trick with time, though nowhere near as pronounced. Instead, Mairs tends to deal in sections, glancing back and forth with a brief adult recognition or realisation, a reflection or thought, a snippet of an earlier or later time that relates to the event at hand. She constantly deals with the unreliability of memory in her writing, stating at several points during the memoir that she has no way of knowing if what she writes is ‘historically’ accurate, but also that this inaccuracy is not something that disturbs her:

At forty-five, I no longer know which of the details I can retrieve from my past are memories, and which are daydreams, and to be honest, I no longer care. I have lost any reverence I may have once had for the “facts”. Not long ago, my mother told me a version of an incident from our past which was simply wrong, though at earlier times she’d told it accurately enough. For some reason, she’d suddenly revised the take, “dreamed” it differently. I started to correct her… Then I shrugged. If I’d told her my version, she wouldn’t have believed it. She’d have thought I’d forgotten what “really” happened. But what “really” happened, I understood suddenly, is always irredeemable. 

With this in mind, Mairs freely acknowledges parts of her history that she doesn’t understand, apparently in response to her editor’s probing about the why and wherefore and meaning of certain events – Mairs always replies with a variation of “If I understood these things, I would tell you. I have told you what I know.” What she does know and understand includes an intriguing separation of self – there is an internal Nancy entirely different to the Nancy that the world views, and different again to the amalgamated self of her-and-her-sister (and earlier ‘selfhood’) and again to what she seems to have nominated as the ‘watcher’ – the writer inside her, the observer. All of these Nancies are referred to in third person (one wonders who it is that writes the book, apparently unnamed, unless it’s all of them at different times).

Just as she refers to different selves, Mairs flicks between different memory-states; past, present or future tense all exist within the same voice. A child’s voice, complete with misunderstandings and vocabulary, is embedded quite naturally in Mairs’ recollections – instead of exploring the memory from an adult viewpoint as Hillman did, Mairs conveys the “real” (or as close as she can get) thoughts of her child-self, such as her confusion over her mother’s anger at her indiscretion of personal information with strangers: 

On the way up the street, Mother scolds me for telling a perfect stranger the private details of our lives. I scuff my feet. I don’t see what she’s mad about. I didn’t tell any lies, except for the one about her age but that wasn’t my fault. How could I know she was joking? She didn’t laugh.

In the same voice, Mairs refers to her current self, and speculates about her future self:

Grandma’s breakfast is always the same: a biscuit of shredded wheat softened with a splash of water form the boiling tea kettle. I hate shredded wheat… When I’m grown up, it will turn out, I’ll have a glass of juice and a bowl of cereal every morning, often shredded wheat; I may even come to the boiling water part eventually.

Instead of attempting to divide the childhood from the adult, past from present, as Hillman does, and pretend that such memories are static, fixed in progress, Mairs allows for the fluidity of her memory in her writing – her memoir is framed within the expectation that not all of what she says will be agreed with by others, and she constantly refers to the jumble of the remembered and imagined; things she expected other people to already know, things they believed happened – Mairs’ memoir is written through the idea that all forms of memory are fleeting and progressive, altered by the experiences that come after them, and her acceptance in writing this gives a greater sense of ‘truth’ or reality than a memoir written as undeniable fact. We’re lead gently into what Mairs feels has happened, with no expectation that this is what actually occurred from an outsider’s perspective. It’s Mairs’ internal reality, honest with its foibles, that we’re reading. This modern style of memoir, such as De Salvo’s and Mairs’, questioning truth and reality and exposing flaws in memory, prompts a question as to the nature of this self-exploration: If memory is altered, and we can’t access the original, does it matter what that original was, or that we no longer possess it? Was there even an original to begin with? 

If I am created by my memories, then I must change as they do. Logically, once a memory has changed, I would have no recourse to even know that it has, or sense the difference, let alone retrieve the ‘original’. Therefore, what difference does it make to me as an individual that my memory is, from an outsider’s perspective, ‘wrong’? This different memory is only an external influence – another’s version of what happened, no more reliable than mine. Theirs is creating the person they are, and while we both feel our memories should agree, agreement isn’t necessary to the survival of our inner self. Memory is personal. Even though I know my memory is auto-modifying, I have to consciously fight to accept a version different to the event that I remember, and rightly so – that memory did not create me-as-I-am-now; it has no part of me. It’s an ingredient to another person, part of their self. Indeed, for the most part, our disagreeing memories remain a personal thing, quietly recreating us as we live our lives. It’s only when the different memories are brought to light– through memoir, or something close to it – that others will even know to disagree, but disagreeing with another’s memory is rather missing the point of the memoir. It’s not about historical accuracy. The exploration of memory is not to present facts, or we’d all read historical data entries. The point of the memoir is as a collection of the self, as it has been created – through unreliable, undependable memory.

Consulted Works:

Louise De Salvo Vertigo Dutton Books (Penguin Group) 1996 New York

Nancy Mairs Remembering The Bone House Beacon Press 1989 Boston

Richard Hillman The Boy In The Green Suit Scribe Publications 2003 Melbourne


Tags: Genre: Memoir
Topics: Review