October 3, 2011:
We went for a little walk on the beach yesterday, after what seems like weeks of rain, and walked back to the parking lot along an overgrown track next to Sagg Pond that we've walked many times before with Jack, our late dog. And Lorraine said, "Was this here before? I don't remember it."
Yes, it was there, and we walked it, I replied. And my thought was, how could someone not remember a place she has been so many times? My next thought was, how could that very same someone be able to remember what we served at a dinner party five years before, or what she wore to another party fifteen years before? While I can remember places quite well, but would be totally unable to remember not only what I wore to that very same party, but also the party itself.
Is that what individualizes us, what we remember and what we don't? The question has special significance for me right now because I've just finished a short memoir mostly about my childhood that is almost totally fashioned from memory. I wrote it over a period of three months and it's short, just 45,000 words; you could read it in an afternoon. But as I look at it, I can't help but wonder what I got wrong. One incident I don't mention in this little book, whose title, by the way, is Thoughts of Home, is my very first memory, of being in my crib, which was pushed up against the wall of my bedroom, and using crayons left in the crib to scribble on the wall. Many years ago I mentioned this memory to my mother and she looked at me queerly and said, "That never happened."
Uh-oh. Does that mean that a whole bunch of other things I remember also didn't happen? When, if ever, does memory become reliable? Some of the people in jail are there because a victim or witness picked their face out of a line-up and identified them as the criminals, and increasingly DNA evidence is finding that these identifications are mistaken. Yet once I've driven the route I can usually remember how to get someplace even years later.
Memory, in short, is highly selective, and it has been well demonstrated that the selections it makes are based on emotional factors that can render them untrustworthy. Maybe I imagined I had scribbled on the wall, and translated the imaginary into the real because some emotional factor--knowing, for example, that I was being naughty--made it unusually vivid to me at the time. I've always been afraid of spiders, and my mother told me once that that was because another boy older than me had described to me how awful spiders were. That's a memory I repressed. I don't even remember the boy in question.
I have to face it, then: some pieces of my memoir will be mistaken. Other pieces will have been repressed. Yet our memories are all we have with which to compose an identity, for who are we if not the narrative we compose from the debris left behind by our lives, who are we if not that explanation, that structure we build out of the rough downed timber of our past? Identity, I am trying to say, is a shaggy simulacrum of the truth. Narratives have to be consistent to make sense to others but how often do we behave consistently? Fairly often, I would guess, but not all the time. If I worked hard enough at it, searched my memory harder and deeper, maybe I could construct a person not at all like the one I seem to want myself to have been. A less attractive person, maybe, less modest, more self-involved. You have to be pretty self-involved to write a memoir in the first place.
I don't know--an iffy business, this. I'm tempted to write another memoir covering the later years, and it could be that this totally different person would emerge. But I won't do it. Too many people whose lives I've affected in diverse ways are still drawing breath, and how could I talk about them? I don't want to hurt anybody. There's something to be said for that old WASP thing about appearing in the newspaper on only three occasions in your life: birth, marriage, and death. I'm a public enough figure that you can pick up the basics online. I should leave it at that.
Still, Thoughts of Home is pretty good. Most everybody in it but me is dead. Obviously I like writing about myself; I've certainly done it often enough. I sometimes think it's the only subject I know really well. But I have to wonder--would I get it right? My friend Arthur Prager, who once had a contract from a publisher to write his memoirs, wanted to leave three pages of it for his ex-wife to write. The contract was canceled when his editor was fired, but I would have loved to have seen that: a rebuttal, right in the book. Maybe that's the answer, if I ever write another one of these things. Leave space for argument. Because how well do I know myself after all? We remember selectively, and we get it wrong. How well do any of us know ourselves?