The Tricky Memory

My brothers and I had different mothers. Oh, she was the same DNA-donor, the same physical being. But because we were born years apart, and shattering experiences apart, she was a different emotional person. My two brothers’ mother was still soft and interested in her children, proud to be their mother. My mom was a very different person than the ones my brothers knew in childhood.

Image by Temari09, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

Image by Temari09, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

What is the story that goes into a memoir?  Several years ago, I took a memoir-writing course from Natalie Goldberg, the author of Writing Down the Bones  There were rules: we were to listen to any readings and not react. No applause, no critique, no comments at all. That allowed, Natalie said, for each person to be able to share without fear. And only one Q&A.

My question was about the validity of personal memory.  From Natalie’s teaching I gathered that we can own and explore only our memory, and that not objectively. People may disagree with your memory. My brothers certainly had, often describing a woman who was a stranger to my memory.

Book cover from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

Book cover from A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.

I have no desire to write a memoir, but I enjoy thinking about memory, its tricks and shapes. If I wrote the story, wouldn’t I fall under the same scrutiny as James Frey who wrote “a semi-fictional memoir” called A Million Little Pieces? His memory was disproved and he was disgraced, reduced and humiliated into being a couch-confessor on Oprah.  My writing is non-fiction. Memory may well be fictitious.

Years passed, and one of my brothers agreed that we were raised by different mothers in different times, although she was the same person. But I still chewed over the whole idea of how to defend memory, interpretation, and the flexibility of Truth. I fully understood the billboard I had seen in China that said, “We must separate Truth from Fact.” It made sense now.

Cover of Judy Collins' book "Sanity & Grace."

Cover of Judy Collins’ book “Sanity & Grace.”

A few weeks ago, I was reading Judy Collins memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes, and smiled at her handling the memory question. Here is a woman who has known a lot of people, interacted with them professionally, socially, personally. She had a colorful, alcoholic,  sexual, artistic, creative, talented, big-ups-and-down life during which she fought for custody of her son, lost it, gained it and then lived through her son’s death. Now that had to have a lot of opportunity for interpretation from just about anyone she might have worked with, loved, shared a stage, a bed, a song, or a record label. How did she handle her memory? Here’s the quote from the book:

In all cases, it is my memory of an event that supersedes the memories of other participants who might have been at the same party. There are no accidents in memory, for memory has its own reasons and its own logic. What I remember is what happened to me as I best recall it.

–from the introduction to Judy Collins’ Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music.

She claims the memories as hers neatly, cleanly and without apology. She doesn’t make others wrong, and leaves room for others’ opinions. But not in her book.

And that’s the way to claim a memory that belongs to you.

—Quinn McDonald is not writing a memoir. She is interested in memories and emotions because the Inner Critic and Inner Heroes fight over the topic as she writes her book.   Image: Temari09


10 thoughts on “The Tricky Memory

  1. My brother and sister have completely different memories of their childhood, compared to mine. My brother, who is ten years older, may have a valid point. He moved out of the house when I was only five but my sister and I are only four years apart. She and I grew up in the same home, under the same rules, with the same household circumstances. We used to argue constantly over which memories were correct and which weren’t. Both of my siblings try to convince me that I’m NOT remembering certain things. My standard line to them now is, “That’s not how I remember it but that’s doesn’t mean it isn’t true for you.”

    I accept that maybe I’m not remembering certain things, especially if they are of no value or benefit to me. I choose to focus on the positive memories instead of blaming my parents for every bad thing that has ever happened to me (like my siblings do). Because of this, I know that I am happier, more peaceful and comfortable than either one of my siblings. They both live their lives with blame, anger, and irresponsibility. They want to keep re-hashing every negative moment, every wrongdoing, and every bad trait about our parents. They live in a victim mindset. I live in an opportunity mindset. I can take the good AND bad traits about both of my parents and learn from them and be a better person because of them. We each have our own memories, our own truths. What we do with them is completely up to us.

    • Few children have ideal childhoods, particularly when viewed back as an adult. We judge the past by what we have learned in the present. I’m sorry for your siblings, they are missing out on the great joy in life, of being in charge of how their lives run in right now. Victimhood is so very deep and the sides are quite steep and hard to crawl out of.

  2. I like the Judy Collins’ quote as well. I think of memory as being the legacy of the past, what your heart and mind have distilled and retained. And yes, it may not be accurate, but it is (my) reality. Some memories I know are not true – the sun did not shine every summer’s day in my childhood however those are the ones I remember. Others . . . I wish they weren’t but their effect runs deep through my life.

    Whatever the hue of that memory, it colours who we are and we can choose to let the happy shed light on the negative. When all else is stripped away, we still have a choice about how we think.

  3. Quinn…Today, once again, the topic of your writing fits exactly in my space and time of being. I, too, spent a retreat writing with Natalie Goldberg, in Taos, and that time was transformational for me and my putting thought into words on the page.
    Today I write poetry with a good group of varied folks where critique is a part of our process…expressed without our words until all are finished with their words and making marks on the copy of the poem we have provided. A fine process for me as I grow my writing of poetry.
    Memory, family, differences all exactly my truth, my story. The mother who raised me was not the same woman who was mother to my three brothers, all in the same home and family unit, the youngest eleven years after me has a story that does not have but a few threads of similarity. As I go through a collection of postcards, drawings, photos and written words from my maternal side of the family from the early 1900’s there is in those bits a story unfolding that I am recording in an album/scrapbook and will scan as well.
    One significant piece of my memory being accurate was a question from a relative in Norway about an uncle of hers who was my grandmother’s brother living in Sacramento, CA. He had married a native woman and had one son. I remembered that my grandmother had traveled to see him at her 70th birthday on the Greyhound. My mother’s sister denied that he existed (a bit of her truth alive in that denial) for as I went through some old address books that belonged to my mother there was uncle Arthur’s address.. so now am researching data to send to Norway and save in my little memoir….yes, my little girl memory was correct and that brought such a sweet smile to me. And yes, my memory is always just right for me…it is my story and my journey and it is true for me.
    Thank you again for a wonderful morning read and stirring of my writing, remembering, creative and alive me.

  4. It seems like I’m the same physical person I used to be, and it seems like I have in my mind a mostly-accessible stream of continuity reaching back…well, as far as it reaches. I’m not sure what it seems like is very accurate. It’s almost certain that the physical person I seem to be today shares not one single molecule with the physical person I seemed to be, say, a few years ago. Not one single molecule. So does that mean it’s the pattern of molecules that’s important, their detailed arrangement? Maybe, except that if I replace, say, a lost screwdriver with another completely indistinguishable from the first, I’m nevertheless completely aware that while it too is a set of molecules arranged in the same pattern, it’s still a different thing.

    Memory is turning out to be something quite different from what it seems. As you’ve pointed out, a memory has exactly the same effects as a first-time experience. Why is that; how does it work? It appears that a memory is not at all a “stored experience”, but instead a mechanism for having that first time experience again, and AGAIN for the first time. This is how memories are “manufactured”, so to speak; it’s a fairly simple process to make it so you saw a light-haired young man in a particular situation. If that situation had been recorded, there might be evidence that you saw a dark-haired woman, or nobody, or two people. But you will still have that memory, and as a memory it can’t be distinguished from any other memory you have.

    How do these these understandings fit together? Consciousness, at least human consciousness, seems to be a process of connecting. We perceive patterns in space, in time, in motion, and introduce continuity. I say “introduce” because it would seem that without consciousness that continuity would not be there. I perceive myself as the same physical person I used to be, continuously. But the physical content of that person has not been continuous. Neither has the physical pattern; nobody looks quite the same as they did yesterday, let alone ten years ago.

    I hadn’t heard of James Frey before, but I looked him up and found a fairly strange story. The nature of his book didn’t seem that strange (although I haven’t read it); what’s strange is the apparently widespread (or at least widely reported) reaction to the whole situation. When his book was “fact checked”, not much recorded agreed with what Frey had written. The argument, I gather, wasn’t so much about the story in the book as about what he said about the story.

    What it means for something to “have happened” is not anywhere close to clear. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it’s queerer than we can suppose.

    • You are wise beyond my years, Pete, and the idea of memory and what we remember and the “reality” of what we remember is one of my favorite things to think about. I’ve discussed this with people who have shared my experiences and there is a lot I don’t understand–that there is no “right” and “wrong” to the experience of memory. I’m reading a book right now about a man who suffered a brain injury and now believes the woman caring for him is not his sister, but a clever look-alike. So he remembers his sister, but is experiencing her slightly differently and she is therefor “not his sister.” It’s fascinating.

  5. Really like that Jody Collins’ line: ‘What I remember is what happened to me as I best recall it.’ Have to write that down somewhere.

    I know exactly what you mean when you write about your brothers. Its the same with me and my brothers. It has sometimes been really frustrating, for me, to talk about our mom when my experience is so different from my brothers’. Funny thing, even when I know how fickle memory is, I still sometimes find it hard to accept it. How often do we say, ‘That’s not how it went’ when what we mean is ‘That’s not how I remember it.’

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