Friday, October 5, 2012

Memory

I had a little fender-bender a couple of weeks ago.  I was entered a tricky intersection when I heard a thump and my left-side mirror bent in on its hinge.  I made the turn I was planning and then pulled over, thinking that the other car would do the same and we could exchange cards, but no other car was doing this, and so I drove on, thinking I was side-swiped by a truck or van that didn't even notice the bump.  Later I found a tiny crack in the plastic wheel-well cover and decided to forget about the incident.

But this morning I got a call from an insurance claims adjuster.  The other party had put in a claim and he was trying to reconstruct the accident.  I told him I didn't recall enough about the accident to help him much, but he persisted.  I realized that he wanted me to construct a narrative not based on actual memory but on the legal requirement for some narrative on my part, in order to assess liability.  I told him I could not do that, and he informed me, more or less, that if I didn't have a narrative, the tale told by the other party would prevail.

Well, this is our legal system.  But as it happens I've done a good deal of research on memory, for my amnesia-themed novel, and it turns out that human memory remains one of the great mysteries.  Clearly we do have memory, in that we can tell what happened in the past, but how that memory is stored in the brain, or how reliable it is, remains obscure.  We do know that it's not at all analogous to a computer hard disk, with specific neurons or neuron groups storing specific episodes of life.  Certainly, the famous failures of observation and of eye-witness testimony are evidence of this lability and unreliability of memory retrieval.  In fact, as the adjuster pressed me, I found myself making up a story. This is, in fact, all we can do--make up a story, and whether it is an actual recounting of a past event is entirely indeterminate--it may be, it may not be.

This got me thinking about memoir.   Writers purport to render the past accurately, like a video does, but this does not seem to be a capacity that humans actually have.  I personally have no confidence at all in my memory.  I know I have 'memories' of things that did not in fact happen, and for that reason I would not ever attempt a memoir.  Published memoirs I regard as mainly novelistic, although they can, of course, be wonderful literary products.  Here is an example.  It is my first actual, retrievable memory, and it's interesting because it is linked to an historical event.

When I was a child, we lived on the top floor of a two-family home.  One entered from the street into a small hall, and then chose one of two keyed doors, one leading to the ground floor flat and the other to a stairway up to the upper flat, where we lived.  At the top of our stairs was a hall and a railed barrier separating the staircase from the hallway, and I used to like to play there.  In this scene I am playing with toy soldiers.   They are made of a kind of hard, grainy rubber, with a smooth brown-colored surfaces, or else crudely painted lead.  One of these toys is a strange one: it depicts a man sitting at a control board of some kind.  He has a headset on. Towering above him are three large hollow cones on a stanchion.  Before the invention of radar, such devices were used to detect the rumble of oncoming bombers.  It was  a very stupid toy, but it is burnt into my memory, and is vivid after over sixty years.

As I play, my mother and my young aunt, my father's sister, are in the apartment, separated from me by a doorway.  The downstairs doorbell rings.  My mother comes out of the apartment and goes downstairs.  It's a telegram.  She comes upstairs with it and goes into the apartment.  There comes a horrible shriek and the sound of wailing.  The telegram has just informed my aunt that her husband has been killed in action.

I am later informed that my uncle has died on Omaha Beach, on D-Day.  Omaha Beach and D-Day as phrases have thereafter particular resonance for me, and of course, they lock my memory into historical time--the second week in June, 1944.  Since everyone else involved is dead, I have no confirmation that it actually happened that way.  You would think that trauma would help establish the memory as true, but maybe not.  I spent a lot of time in that hallway.  My uncle really did die on D-Day.  The rest is narrative;  it makes a good story, but who knows?  The past is really gone, except as we assemble it to serve our present selves.


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