MEMOIR: REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING (Revised, and with All-New Postscript)
All the books I read on writing memoir say that memory is a difficult substance, that it turns to dust just as you go to grasp it, that it runs through your most careful, most delicate grip–and so I have found as I have been writing this book. Events I have always thought locked, fully preserved in the amber of memory have turned out to be barely there at all in any but the most cursory detail. Which would not be too troubling, were it not for the thought that memory is one of the foundations of identity.
Nonetheless, I do my best with what I have, and deliberately refrain from filling in absent details with the fiction-writing part of my brain.
But bugger me if there aren’t things I’d like to forget. Even when all I have from some incidents is a worn and crumpled postcard with a missing stamp, I would still send them back and be rid of them. Memories I don’t want to savour and reflect upon.
Some lowlights. The dentist Michelle’s parents recommended when I needed some work done, whom I might refer to here as Dr Wanker (not his real name). Who was old, and none too careful with the technique, and who, before launching in on major root-canal excavations without bothering to provide sufficient anaesthetic first, told me in his creaky, breathy old voice, “This is going to hurt.”
I don’t see what necessary, character-forming work a memory like this is doing for me. It seems like an entirely gratuitous experience of profound, tears-inducing pain. The sort of pain you stagger away from, feeling lucky to be alive. So if I had a magic button for erasing non-load-bearing memories, Dr Wanker might be at the top of my list.
High up on the same list would be my high school headmaster, whose name I don’t remember, but who might have been Mr Drunkonpower (pretty sure I’m not remembering his name right either). One day we had an assembly, and I was caught at one point whispering an asinine comment to my best friend while the headmaster was speaking. Nothing earth-shaking. Nothing profoundly funny or witty. But it did occur at the same time Mr Drunkonpower was delivering his speech, and I was busted. A teacher spotted me, called me out of the crowd, made me wait there for the end of the assembly, and then sent me to the headmaster’s office. It was home-time. Everyone else was headed either to the school buses or the bike racks. I was headed for doom.
I don’t remember anything other than standing there in the headmaster’s office, crying my eyes out for what felt like hours, burning with shame, unable to do anything that might help my situation. He was furious with me, yelling and yelling. Somehow my innocuous whispered comment was an intolerable threat to the fundamental order of how things in the school community were supposed to work. Someone must serve as an example.
I could not have been more sorry, and genuinely wished I could take back the stupid offense. But mostly I hated myself for the weakness, the intolerable weakness, of crying in front of the headmaster. I was a poor excuse for a man. At this point I was a boy of about thirteen, big, lumpy, awkward, self-conscious in my deeply unfashionable long shorts that everybody mocked. I had not been in high school long, but long enough to understand the contours of power and privilege, and that I had none of either. I was useless, and going nowhere. And there was no greater offense than crying like this. It was worse than the original whispered remark. It was intolerable. The horror I feel about crying to this day stems in large part from this incident. It is a load-bearing memory, in that sense. It holds up part of the superstructure of misery I carry around on my back. So yes, I would zap that memory, too.
Quite a few of the bad memories I’ve written about in this book I would remove, too, given the chance, but I suspect they, too, are load-bearing, character-forming experiences I have to keep. But why them and not others? Why can I remember Dr Wanker so well, but the birthday party my mum organised for my eighth birthday, which people actually came to and seemed to have a nice time at, exists in my head only as fragments?
There’s a lot of what I went through last year, especially during the first, worst, hospitalisation, when I was taken off the Clomipramine, and the replacement drug Zyban didn’t work, leaving me exposed, my reactor core uncovered, and a full-on Fukushima-scale meltdown in progress. I only remember bits. I posted a lot about it on Facebook at the time (my Facebook friends are wonderful, every one), because I had this idea at the time that at some point in the future I might like to write about the experience. So I needed to document everything.
The thing about putting everything on Facebook, though, is that Facebook makes it very difficult to get your information back out again. It is possible, in the way it is now possible to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, to extract your old posts from Facebook, but it’s laborious to a degree that’s impossible to convey without using scientific notation. I struggled greatly with the interface (I’d love to be able to zap my memory of all that time) and managed to retrieve about six weeks, but the information was largely useless in the form it was in. As it’s turned out, I’ve not referred to any of that even once since beginning this project, which surprises me. I thought for sure I would need it, the way you hoard up old magazines and lengths of wood or old computer cables because “you never know” when they might be important or necessary in the future. I’ve also ended up writing a lot more about my childhood than I thought I would.
All the same, do I need to keep these memories of what happened in that first hospitalisation, fragmentary as they are? Most of what I remember is withdrawal symptoms, like the time I suddenly started talking really fast, which was at least interesting, or the times I couldn’t sleep during “cross-titration” periods, where you’re transitioning from one drug to another.
I have this memory from somewhere inside that experience, of standing barefoot in my pyjamas at the nurses’ station at 5am one horrible morning after about three nights of no sleep, trying to convey to two night nurses, themselves exhausted and drawn, how I felt, how unglued, how desperate, how I just wanted to sleep, and crying my guts out in abject wretchedness. I remember that feeling only too well, and wish I did not. I could do quite well without it. It’s not adding anything to my character. It’s not load-bearing. It’s doing nothing but reminding me of that sense of weakness I experienced that day in front of the headmaster, that sense of shame, crying in front of people, and especially women. I would delete that memory, given the chance.
I would much rather have back things I’ve forgotten. The first things Michelle and I ever talked about. Our wedding vows. Exactly how we decided to get married. I know we both kind of hit on the realisation around the same time, that we simply would marry, because obviously we would, but I’d love to remember what we said, exactly. I’d love to time travel back and watch and eavesdrop on all of that. I’d love to time travel back to my birth, and see my mum and dad, my dad eating breakfast with the doctor, all of it. My dad being in the delivery room. I’d love to remember what my dad said to me the day at Coode Street, in South Perth, in his racing speedboat, when he took me out on the course, and we just puttered around. I know he talked to me but I don’t remember what he said. Why must I remember bloody Dr Wanker, but forget what my dad said on what must have been one of the proudest days of his life?
We talk all the time about our memories, telling each other stories about our lives based on those memories, but after writing this book and struggling with my own slippery bits of memory, I wonder about those stories. So much of who we feel ourselves to be is bound up in our stories and our memories (or so we believe) but what if we don’t have accurate or even detailed memories of anything? What if all we have is just bits and fragments, and a few postcards? What if the solid foundations of our homes are not big blocks of limestone like my dad’s parents’ house in Wembley, but just loose bits of gravel and dust and dog hair? Who are we if we can’t trust our memories? I have really wondered about this as I’ve worked on this project. Who am I? What am I? I’ve always thought, among other things, that I’m the product of my memories, but am I? It could also be said that I’m the product of the choices I’ve made, and the way I’ve responded to things around me. But what if my memories and recollections are phantoms and ghosts and hardly real at all, except in vague outline, no more real than dreams? Is that enough? I don’t know, and I wish I did. I wish I had a firmer sense of a floor beneath my feet. A foundation, a ground, a world.
POSTSCRIPT: When Memories Converge
I said, above, that I was finding that memories, on close examination, turn to dust and blow away, leaving me wondering whether I’m even real, if anything is real.
So you’ll understand my surprise—my utter shock!—this past week when I was talking to my parents about my most recent visit to my psychologist.
My psychologist, Dr B, is interested in helping me sort out my ghastly food/eating anxieties. I was telling my parents about this, and they wanted to know exactly what anxieties they were, because they weren’t sure.
So I explained. Dinner party when I was about four. We were visiting friends. It was a big deal, everything laid on. Hosts had gone to a lot of trouble. And I couldn’t eat anything. Everything made me gag. Everything. It was horrible. The slightest thing in my mouth and I thought I would vomit. The situation escalated, became extremely stressful all round, and I got in loads of trouble over it, Mum and Dad were embarrassed in front of their friends—it was a disaster.
But it left me with a severe problem with food. Most food triggers a gag reflex. I get all anxious about almost everything. There are tons of things I either can’t or won’t eat. It’s dreadful. But I’m getting help.
This is where the story gets interesting, though. I am used to the pattern where I describe my recollection of something I remember, or think I remember, from years ago, and find out I’m wrong, or misremembering.
But this time, I described the dinner party to Mum and Dad—and they remembered the exact night. I had a pretty good idea who the friends were, and Mum and Dad confirmed it! We were all talking about the same night, when I was four years old, and I was four years old! I remembered the whole thing correctly! It wasn’t just dusty old fragments and bits of Super-8 film. It was a real thing that we all remember.
Kind of a shame that it’s such an unpleasant memory, and that the consequences of that experience have been such a blight across my entire life, but you can’t have everything!
It is just such shared, vivid memories that begin to give us confidence that maybe we do exist, maybe we are real, and there is ground beneath our feet.