Memory and Memoir

The image above is La Memoire by Rene Magritte

At this time of year we often think and  write about things we remember. So this is a good time to stop and think about memory itself.

I read a lot of memoirs. I remember discovering biographies when I was in 3rd grade — remember Landmark Books? I found them and began to eagerly read biographies of people like Clara Barton and Abraham Lincoln. But there weren’t many about women. In fact women’s lives seemed not to be deemed interesting until the women’s movement began to encourage women to speak in our own voices about our lives.

Among the many wonderful memoirs by women I have read in the last 25 years or so are:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski.

The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon

Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Memoir necessarily engages in the problem of memory. Is what is remembered what happened or a narrative created on a mesh of emotion, images, and sensations? Diski says, “Memory is not false in the sense that it is willfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past.”

Jung tells us: “The function of memory, or reproduction, links us up with things that have faded out of consciousness, things that became subliminal or were cast away or repressed. What we call memory is this faculty to reproduce unconscious contents, and it is the first function we can clearly distinguish in its relationship between our consciousness and the contents that are actually not in view.” (CW 18, p.39)

Now here is an example from my own life that I believe is a memory —

I am old enough that when I was in elementary school, we had a Christmas pageant in school, complete with angels and shepherds and everything. I will always remember the pageant when I was in second grade.

In my class, the best reader was to be made the head angel and would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Well, I *knew* I was the best reader because I was reading several levels ahead of everyone in my class. My nearest competitor, Martha S., was a good reader, but I knew she was not the best. So I was absolutely certain that the head angel position was mine.

Imagine my shock, my horror, my outrage when on the day when parts were assigned, it was not I who was to be head angel, it was to be Martha S.! In my mind, this was a terrible injustice. Here I was, the very best reader in the second grade and I was to be consigned to the ranks of the ordinary angels! As it happened, Martha was a very pretty little girl with long blonde hair while I was chubby and brunette so maybe Martha fit the picture of an angel better than I did. Outwardly I accepted this injustice and quietly took my place in the ranks of the angels.

My mother made my costume, complete with glittery wings and a halo. We rehearsed. And then came the day of the pageant.

Martha stepped one step in front of the ranks of angels and took a breath to begin her reading. And then, just one word ahead of her came another voice from the back of the angels, reciting the story perfectly word for word. Martha got flustered but I continued on. Yes, I had memorized the whole story. I knew I was the best reader.

To my mother’s great credit, she did not get angry or make me feel bad. And what I did became the stuff of a story my family told about me.

BUT — is what I remember what actually happened? I certainly wanted to be the head angel. And to this day, I still know the words to the story. But if we could talk with Martha S., would she remember it the way I do? Or is it a narrative developed to fit the story of myself that I was weaving, the story of a spunky little girl who could make things go her way?

The words “memoir” and “memory” come to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means “mindful.” Russell Lockhart in Words As Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic traces it also to an Indo-European root smer– — which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat. It sticks. It adheres. It won’t leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind. Related words that share the history of memoir include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn that memory. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.

Think about a vivid dream you have had. When you write, it becomes something other than the dream. It becomes a text, an adaptation of the dream, but the dream, consisting of images, cannot be fully and accurately captured in words. The same with memory. The experience remembered is not a record, faithful in every detail. The memory is particular to the rememberer. Even in a family, the same event can and often is recalled differently by parents and children, even by siblings.

A symptom is an untended memory. It is the voice of a forgotten or banished part of ourselves… Memory is the medicine of the psyche – even, and especially when the memories are dark. – George Callan

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