Books in Progress

The Trouble with Memory

The following is an exerpt from my memoir, a short part of the passage about memory I wrote last night. There’s morebeyond the photo! Love that photo.


“A few things I see in this new dream, namely the things she told me. I may have a feeling that I saw or heard something else. And now, I can’t remember if I remember, or if I only remember that she told me. Do I remember the time we went to Indiana State Dunes, or do I only recall the photograph of the five of us at the dunes?

None of it affects how I feel or felt about the participants. It only proves to myself I must have participated. I had friends. I existed, and things went roughly as I think they did after all.

The scariest time this issue was driven home, was when I went through a box of high school memorabilia. I believe I was sitting in the house on Jefferson Street, after my retired parents auctioned off the family possessions, and I came by to see what was left. A box of school things, certificates, poetry assignments, letters to the school newspaper editor, and theatrical programs. I had been in many, almost every, school production since 7th grade, and so had my brother and sister. I picked one out of the box for “Cheaper By the Dozen”. It didn’t have a year of production obviously on it. But, I held it up to my mother and said, “OH! I remember this! Jenny was in this!”

photo by Heidi Rosenkvist Petersen
photo by Heidi Rosenkvist Petersen

Mom took a second and thought. Then: “No, I think that was you.”

“No,” I said, “It was Jenny. I remember she played a character named Martha.” I was so proud of knowing that narrow specific. I was so positive of it. I opened the program, and spun down the list of children. There, right beside the name, “Martha” was…Kerry Smith. MY name. I could only stare at it, as if the program had turned to an empty bottle in my hand that said Drink Me. I felt baffled, and stammered to my mom. “But… Jenny was…how is it…I was IN this? IN?” To this day, I have not one memory of being in that production, though Jenny swears I was, and not her.

It’s a conspiracy, I tell you!

You see, I’ve read that Phenobarbital, when given ongoing to adolescents, can alter the way in which memory and recollection function. I took it between the ages of 13 and 23, in enough dosage (300-600mg/day) (I think) to dull my bright moods, not enough to alter my school performance. So if this side effect is true, my mood about my past, and my rewriting of my personal history could have everything to do with how I form and recall memory. And those very events of my life that seem so slippery could have everything to do with, not fact, but how I feel about my past, in the present.

As we get older, don’t we catalog memory as a tool to soothe us? To prove to ourselves we have friends, or we have talents, to have past wins, when we feel that our lives are getting littered with challenges or losses? Don’t we also use our memory as a way of battering ourselves when we want to point out what a dope we are, or why we don’t really deserve the job we are applying for? Isn’t memory kind of a stupid tool for telling ourselves whatever we want to believe? How easily we manipulate ourselves with a revisionist version of who we are.

I have a hard time believing I had a good childhood. The primal brain records danger more readily, so we can quickly avoid similar danger in the future. This is hard enough to combat without piling up evidence selectively. Is it just true that “wins” don’t make such an emotional impact as “losses?” That would make sense from the standpoint of abused children. All parents have some faults and blind spots, but when you can’t remember when the parent loved you as well as when they seemed to hate you, there is an accuracy problem, either during emotional intake or recollection. This can create a trust problem. I’m sure there are studies done that illuminate this exact thing regarding victims of PTSD. Serious levels of tragedy can skew how a person intakes new information, often heaping on negative interpretation, and ignoring positive stimulation out of an exaggerated need for defense.

Yet, if I can’t even recall a pretty normal, happy-ish senior prom, how am I to believe it’s a trust problem that blocks my wins? I believe, again, that the side effect of barbiturates—known as “downers”, which Phenobarbital is—also contributed to the moods I attached to highs and lows, at the tender ages when mood naturally tends toward extremes in tragic and epic value. Normal things just didn’t get recorded, because they weren’t extreme enough.

I can’t, with any honesty, recollect any highs in my teenage years except in 1987, when I was in Europe. That first joyful experience (to my recall) broke through the fog of energy dampening drugs. How could it not? Completely new experiences, new people, new languages, and in the Alps, no less! No wonder travel feels like the only times I can feel like myself—that is, the joyful, childlike self I know lives in there somewhere, screaming to play.

[Don’t believe me when I say it was the Phenobarbital, either. I can create probable theories for anything, as easily as Mary Poppins pulls a hat rack out of her bottomless carpetbag.]

And yet, I have no idea if this whole description is of one normal category of personality, and one-sixth of all readers would be in solidarity with me that this is how their memory works, even without any prescription drug history! The thing is, I can’t know. All I do know is that in trying to remember what happens to me, I’m feeling detached and blank, as if I never lived yesterday.

Though my boyfriend thinks it’s kinda cute that I can’t remember much about our early friendship years and years ago, I feel that I’m being somewhat unfaithful to his experience today: I feel I am failing to bear witness to his life in some essential way. That (like the Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife in The Notebook) my boyfriend and my friends shoulder the burden for witnessing my life. I require it often. Do they mind?

I am friends with the people I know because of how we feel about each other. I would not presume to think that that makes no difference, and that memory is more important than that. But when I remember that we have a history, I certainly don’t know what in the world they, nor I, did at the time. I remember or experience right now—how I feel about them, though and (unlike the wife in Notebook) the story is not required to bring me back to who they are to me. Yet, when the conversations begin with, “Remember that time…?” I settle down for a story to be told. And I buckle down for the treat of being told what I did and said, that I didn’t remember.

I’m always very flattered when they quote me and laugh.

“I said that?! Awesome!!”

–I’m funny!”

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