The Lies of Memory and the Truths of Poetry

“Trust those who seek the truth. Doubt those who have found it.”  This is a bumper sticker I have on my refrigerator but have never dared to put on my car. I have been harassed because of  my Obama stickers; who know what encounters this challenge would lead to?

These days, when I think of my sister who died sixty-two years ago, I remember only flashes of the times when she was moving away from me: leaving me to fend for myself at a Halloween party; asking my mother to make me leave her and her friends alone; abandoning me (on an earlier Halloween) while trick or treating, leaving me to encounter a door-hung skeleton alone at age three. 

These are not, however, the memories of others who knew her.  A cousin, who is now as old as my sister would be, remembers only how much my sister loved me, how she never minded my hanging around, as other big sisters did. Others, too, have said that she “adored” me and loved being with me.

Which memories are “true”? 

Probably both, perhaps neither, and I am still working to accept the fact that I will probably never “know” for sure.

There was a fascinating article on the Op-Ed page of the NYT on December 2 called “Why Our Memory Fails Us,”  written by two psychology professors: Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.  Pianists, of course, expect memory to fail them, and I have written about that elsewhere (see September 27, below). But what about the memories that poems are built on? Do they fail us too?

“We are all fabulists,” say Chabris and Simons, “and we must all get used to it.”  They go on to say that the content of our memories can easily change over time.  They tend to “morph” to match our beliefs about ourselves and our world. “When we recall our own memories, we are not extracting a perfect record of our experiences and playing it back verbatim. Most people believe that memory works this way, but it doesn’t.  Instead, we are effectively whispering a message from our past to our present, reconstructing it on the fly each time. .. Studies find that even our ‘flashbulb memories’ of emotionally charged events can be distorted and inaccurate, but we cling to them with the greatest of confidence.”

Why do we do that? No doubt because we are emotionally invested in things having been a certain way, even traumatic memories.

A controversial study publicized this past spring discussed the possibility of erasing certain traumatic memories through the use of electroconvulsive therapy. “The lead researcher, Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and his colleagues found that by strategically timing ECT bursts—which induce seizures by passing current into the brain through electrode pads placed on the scalp—it is possible to target and disrupt patients’ memor[ies] of . . . disturbing episode[s].

“In the study, participants were shown slideshows of two ‘emotionally traumatic events’—a car crash and a sexual assault—which were also narrated to the participants so as to better entrench them in their minds [emphasis mine]. One week later, participants were asked to recall the events, and a treatment group received ECT bursts as they tried to retrieve the memory. The next day, participants were given a multiple-choice memory test. It turned out that the patients who underwent the electroshock treatment were significantly worse at remembering details from the stories than those who were either anesthetized or given no treatment at all. Those who were treated with ECT performed no better than if they had simply taken a guess.

“Such a finding raises serious questions, not least of which is: Should we be tampering with our memories? But in order to answer this, one must first determine the value of a memory. If it is true that our actions, our personalities, our very notions of self are based on the experiences we have had and on the memories we have collected, then to delete our memories would be to destroy a part of ourselves.”

In her autobiographical essay, “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” And William Wordsworth, of course, defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” [italics mine].

To do away with our memories is to do away with the past, and to do away with the past is, in some sense, to do away with the present.  And would “doing away” with bad memories also “do away” with a lot of poetry?

Some argue that it is worth it to change a bit of our personal identity in order to get some relief from horrible memories in the past. “Yet,” writes Cody C. Delistraty in the May 15, 2014, issue of The Atlantic, “even if researchers do find a way to entirely delete memories in a clean-cut, simple manner, we would still be posed with a moral dilemma. . . the question of whether we no longer want our past to inform our present. Would total forgetfulness really guarantee our mental freedom? Or would a mind void of bad memories only presage a future of monotony, of a tendency to lose track of who we were, and in so doing, lose track of who we want to be?”

Good questions.

I have been told that the sudden death of my beloved sister when I was seven; my sitting in the car in the hospital parking lot, alone, for seven hours, forgotten, while attempts were made to save her life; my having been told never to speak of her again because it upset my mother so much (the resulting lack of “narration,” as Kroes suggests, probably adding to the erasure of whatever memories I had): that these constituted a traumatic event from my past that has greatly informed the rest of my life.

It’s true that the first poems I ever wrote were baby-steps toward understanding and dealing with that trauma. And many poems that I have written in the past have been ongoing attempts to  “integrate,” as psychologists say, that event into my psyche. And so: would I want to eliminate that memory in order to have a trauma-free past? Quite the opposite. Actually,  my father’s directive about never speaking about my sister probably destroyed many of the memories I did have. I wanted, and still want, to remember her. But after years of trying to ferret out “the truth” about who she was and about our relationship, I have slowly come to make peace with  the realization that all I have are my own reconstructions and fabrications.

The traumatic experience of her death was my opening into the world of poetry, of art. Would I give that up? I cannot speak for or judge the wishes that others may have to forget experiences of extreme horror.  But for me? Never in a million years.  Yes, there is guilt in having survived, but poetry has helped me to explore even that, for instance, in my poem “Survivor: Banking on It”  (from my 2011 chapbook Rescue Mission).

I knew, even in my teens, that my memory was not very good. The following is from a journal entry written in twelfth-grade English class (I bless that teacher who gave us twenty minutes a day to write, though I have forgotten his/her name!):  “Life would take on more meaning [if we knew that]only impressions of experiences, not the specific experiences themselves would be remembered.  Therefore, the sonnet by Shakespeare that contains the lines ‘This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long’ takes on more meaning when applied, not just to one person, but to the memory of life’s experiences themselves.”

I have no memory whatsoever, either of writing that, or of sitting for the snapshot included at the beginning of this entry.  But that did not keep me from “fabulating”—creating something from those unremembered experiences. Here is “Family Snapshot” (again from my chapbook Rescue Mission):

 

Family Snapshot

 

You sit at the center:

the older sister,

the only one of us smiling,

the only one composed, gazing

direct into the eye of the camera

as if to affirm (though the rest of us

won’t know this for another month):

your life stands complete.

 

The rest of us are caught

somewhere in the midst of our lives,

perched on the porch steps

(despite cracks in the cement).

We are blurred or blinking or glancing off

at the horizon or down at the dogs.

We have so many more things

to do. We can hardly wait to

shift, to be released from this enforced

immobility.

 

Grouped in still life, no one looks

at anyone else. No one touches. Unposed,

we suffer the shot in the thick of our

own separate, suspended lives.

 

Though we didn’t see it then,

it’s clear as the sky before a quake:

you were to become the core of our epic,

your approaching death

(forever after) our epicenter. 

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