Infallible memories?: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

Last week I touched on how we make experience and why each person’s experience will differ from those others that have the same experience. This led inevitably to truth in life-writing and the frauds that have been perpetrated by a few that sell fiction as memoir. Where, however, do we place our memories that are real to us but possibly did not happen to us. This concept led me to questioning everything I wrote. Did it happen? In order to examine this further we need to look at what memory is.

It was believed in the past that memory was stored, much as we store our clothes in a set of drawers, and these memories could be recalled as long as we had the correct key to open the drawer to release them. These memories were laid down at the time of the experience and the recall would be the same on each retrieval. It was vital then that the initial encoding ensured that these would be stored long term. With modern imaging techniques it has been found that the memory model is not quite so simplistic. The area of the brain that is used for autobiographical memory is the same as that used for visual memory. And not everything is stored. Instead we live our lives as stories and where there are gaps in the narrative we will fill them with……in order to make the narrative flow, to have meaning and truth. Memory, therefore, like experience is a construct and can be different on each occasion of remembering. Let’s take for example a family gathering in 1990. Before looking at the photo of all present we talk about who was there. We take those facts that we do remember from the day and we add our story to make it make sense. Uncle Jim was there. I say his wife was also there. Did I remember that twenty six years later or did it just make sense because every time I saw Uncle Jim his wife was with him. Julia also remembers Uncle Jim was there but clearly remembers that his wife was not. Julia was interfered with by Uncle Jim and she feared what he might do when his wife wasn’t present so she remembered that his wife was not present that day. Uncle Jim’s brother said he wasn’t there at all. Who was correct?  All would believe that they were right. Their visions told them so. As this is a hypothetical case I can’t give you an answer but I know it happens frequently in families that the memories are different.

Sometimes, however, there can be memories that you live with, believing that they happened to you, only to find that, although the event happened, you were not present at it. Oliver Sacks described a memory of a particular London blitz only to be told by his brother that he was not in London at the time, having been sent to safety in the countryside. This and other stories and indeed everyone of you will have stories of your own where this has happened (mine) but even when you finally believe that it didn’t happen to you, the memories still belong to you and affect how you have acted since that event. Are they therefore any less true when it comes to memoir as it is indeed the writer’s memory that is being related and the reflection that arises from the memories. Psychoanalyst Donald Spence has labelled these rememberings as “narrative truth” as opposed to “historical truth.” Sacks writes ” once such a story or memory is constructed, accompanied by vivid imagery and strong emotion, there may be no inner, psychological way of distinguishing true from false – or any outer neurological way”.

According to Conway and Rubin autobiographical memory occurs on three levels. Firstly there are significant life periods that span a long length of time such as going to school or university, living in a particular locality and these will have more generally accepted information such as the layout of the university. Secondly, there are general events spanning over a shorter time period is knowledge which is accepted truth but relating to events generally such as where you went for holidays whilst you were at university. Finally there is the event specific memory which is of an event which lasted minutes to seconds such as someone falling off a cliff whilst you were holidaying at the place you recalled in the second point.  According to these researchers memories are constructed using all three  of these levels. Isabel Allende wrote in her memoir Paula : “My life is created as I narrate and my memory grows stronger with writing.”

Memory is such a huge subject and if you are interested I would recommend Daniel Schacter’s book Searching for Memory: The brain, the mind and the past.

The more I read the more I wondered about my own memories. It reminded me of when I was  a student nurse where each disease I learnt about I became convinced that I had demonstrated its symptoms. During my training I had a brain tumour, collitis, dementia and numerous others. Now as I read about memory and the ease at which our memories can take on both other information, convert dreams and any vivid visualisations into autobiographical memory I started to query my own memories and the truth of them. It made me understand the importance of alerting the reader that what they were about to read was my truth about the events being described. This I believe is quite different to blatant falsifying of a life. What do you think?

Lisa Reiter also writes a Memoir Monday post.

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. I followed this by doing a Master of Arts by research graduating in 2017. Now I live to write and write to live.
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28 Responses to Infallible memories?: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

  1. Nikhil says:

    Very informative, Irene ! Now I have a different perspective of memory

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve bookmarked this for future re-reading. You’ve done a lot of work here, and this post will be valuable to all of us who are interested in the mind, creativity, etc. Thanks, Irene!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa Reiter says:

    You describe the fallibility of memory so eloquently Irene. I studied Memory at University of Leeds where Conroy is Head of Faculty. The whole thing is so very fascinating to me and I have had to edit out the beginnings of a very meta exploration of my own experience on the advice of a retired editor who thought it beyond most people’s interest! (I’m saving a few notes for an essay perhaps.) but I know some people can be rather hung up on what is true when reading memoir. That is why it is so important to be humble about one’s narrative version of events. The best writers don’t claim anything to be black & white and anyway even undisputed facts invite different reactions because our perception of their impact is influenced by all that has happened to us before. (And to this I concede memoir shouldn’t be all show not tell!)
    Front of my mind is Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club as I’ve only just finished it. She acknowledges her memory’s imperfection and interpretation of events all through the book (and sometimes illustrates this by giving her sister’s version as well) .. “When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head.” .. “and that’s the last thought I had before my memory fuzzed over.” .. or “The memory turns to smoke right there.”
    As you say, the narrative you have created around your own past is what drives our future interpretation along with the associations we make between objects and events, people, places etc. But this in itself should be interesting and eye-opening for the reader if explored. I find I am much more open to accepting that there are multiple versions of the same event (unless I need to be RIGHT in a domestic setting, of course! Lol) but this is where there is such value in diaries and journals.
    As for those who want to make stuff up – I just don’t get it – it must be pure fiscally driven cynicism!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you Lisa. As you would know memory is such a huge subject and not easy to deal with in such a short piece. What a coincidence that Conroy was head of your faculty. I imagine that would have put your university at the cutting edge of memory studies. I know what you mean about the impulse to do a foreword or the like giving a discourse on memory and it’s fallibility. I did but my supervisor put a line through the lot of it. Like your editor I don’t think she felt that people would be interested.
      I have read all three of Mary Karr’s memoirs and although I can’t say I enjoyed them I did find the way she dealt with time, memory and high definition description worthy of examination.
      I think I am an atypical reader of memoir because the most common assumption of what interests the reader is the effect of the event on the memoirist and how they dealt with the problem and the lasting effect it has had on them. Misery memoirs (those of horrendous childhoods to early adulthood) such as Karr’s, McCourt’s and many others are apparently the most popular form of memoir with some saying it is either replacing the romance or is the non-fiction equivalent because it takes the reader through a range of emotions and usually has a happy ending.
      I would have said before delving into this that the events would be the same for both parties but the interpretation different making them focus on different aspects etc. Now I am less sure and all I can say is that my memories are my memories and that is what I am relating.
      Fiscally driven cynicism – I agree but also wonder what is the point.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Lisa Reiter says:

        Leeds and York are both big players in memory research. York having had both Baddeley and Hitch there as professors – famous for their model on Working Memory which is now arguably the predominant working theory for working memory. The model is constantly being added to by ‘students’ of theirs, one key one of whom was one of my lecturers. Coupled with the autobiographical memory strand from Conroy etc I was immersed in a rarified world! Although I have to say, the modules one then studies are incredibly focused around a particular lecturer’s research interest – as you will know too. So I know a LOT about some specifics but only the gist of others!
        What I did come away with was a respect for the fluidity of our ‘experience’ and actually a greater comfort in knowing we’re not always as right as we think we are. It gives scope to revisit and ‘change’ your past a bit to make it sit better with a future (if you need to of course!)
        As for reading, I am drawn to misery memoirs – I like to understand the depth of experience – probably because I recognise some of my own in most of them – and then I love that (hopefully) happy ending or resolution. I love to see how the protagonist transitioned from one state of being to another – and pertinent as that’s what I am trying to write myself.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Yes I do know what you mean but what an experience having all those brains giving you the benefit of their experience. I think I would have been in 7th heaven. What you came away with was a great understanding for life and for writing memoir. You are a true memoir reader as you like seeing the transition of one into another. It would be the case in your own memoir where you transition from the role of sick/terminal to survivor. Both my memoirs are testimony and I believe that although affected by the experience I have not transitioned into a new state of being.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. TanGental says:

    I have clear memories of many incidents and yet my brother will correct something and when he does it rings so true. Wonderful and frustrating the mind, hey?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Sherri says:

    I find this absolutely fascinating Irene. Often I’ll talk to my mum about things from the past and she can’t remember at all. She doesn’t have a memory problem (pre-stroke, and even then, pretty good really), yet there are huge chunks of her earlier life, and mine as a child that she just has no memory of. This is a bit of a problem for me as some things happened to me that I had to deal with and Mum has been able to put it all far away as if they didn’t exist. Yet, she does acknowledge my ‘truth’. But I wonder why she doesn’t remember. My memories seem very vivid. Always fascinated about memory and the psychology of the effect of our younger life upon our adult selves, I read once that our very first clear memory, as far back as we can go, dictates greatly on how we go on to perceive ourselves. Mine is I was about 3, standing on our landing and Mum is on her knees in front of me putting the final touches to the dress I’m trying on which she sewed. It is a red, plaid dress with a fake white fur collar, for Christmas. I remember it as a happy, safe memory and my mother is smiling. To this day, despite some pretty distrastorous exeriences at Christmas, I still hold many wonderful memories of Christmas and love it still as a time spent with family. Yet, I have no other memory of my mother smiling when I search my earlier years. It was my dad who was the happy, laughing, fun, light-hearted one, when he was with us. Memories of my mum at that time seem distant, in shadow. Sack’s ‘memories’ are also fascinating, since they were not his memories at all, yet so vivid to him as repeated and told to him with such conviction. I have never questioned my memories, firm in my belief that what I remember happened. So often I’ll tell my brother a story from our childhood and he will say he had forgotten all about it and then he’ll smile as the memory comes flooding back. Yet when I read Allende’s quote I almost jumped out of my chair, as that is exactly how I feel. I’ve come to realise that my memories are not set in stone as I first thought…they do indeed become stronger as I write on and therein lies a problem…how far, how deep do I go? And what do I then leave in the book? Jon has seemed a cardboard cutout as I’ve written about him, yet my memoir centers around him. Or so I thought. Other memories of other key players are stronger than I realised, making me think what is the real story here? This is what I need to be sure of. Oh Irene, I’ve rambled…and probably talked in circles. But I know you’ll understand! Thanks so much for this great discussion! ❤

    Liked by 3 people

    • The same thing happens with my mother and I. She will simply have no memory of events. I put this down that in her experience and the way she viewed the world the events were meaningless and simply not worthy of putting into memory. Your mother also possibly had a hard time and like Karr she has blocked some memories that are simply too painful to recall. My earliest memory and many of the other early ones are unhappy memories that are either related to fear or abandonment. I have read that early memories tend to be where strong emotion has been generated and I felt mine showed this characteristic. You have a happy first memory – perhaps your Mum’s smile did give you that strong emotion particularly if you were not used to seeing it. I will have to think on whether this colours how I perceive myself. There was another case where Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism. Being blind she could not have copied but supposedly someone read her the book when she was tiny and it is thought that the impact on her was so great many years later she wrote virtually the same book. She had no memory of having heard it and thought that she had composed it totally herself. It had a devastating effect on her when she was accused. It would have been a horrible position to be in and you really would start to question everything you wrote – is it mine or did I hear it somewhere else. The Allende quote does ring true and certainly covers what in my opinion is one of the main reasons for writing memoir – identity and the flow of memory can become a raging torrent.
      Glad you joined the discussion. ❤

      Liked by 3 people

      • Sherri says:

        ‘Identity and the flow of memory can become a raging torrent.’ Wonderfully put Irene. And I didn’t know that about Helen Keller. How utterly devestating for her. Also, wouldn’t you know it, just this past weekend I read a newspaper article about memory and how easy it is, based on a study, to manipulate memory at all ages just by convincing someone that something happened, even if at first, they have no memory at all of it (because it never actually happened). But without this manipulation…that’s a different thing altogether. So yes, it is back to the Allende quote…keep narrating through writing memoir and the memories will grow ever stronger and then surely, we can believe with conviction that they belong to us and us alone for our memoir. To think otherwise makes me break out in a cold sweat…! Thanks for this great, ongoing discussion Irene, I’m learning so much. Will catch up with your next one (or two) tomorrow…ran out of time today… ❤

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes write your own memories and the memoir will be true. Have a great weekend. ❤


  6. Irene, this is a wonderful article. Memory is intrinsically tied to memoir, and without the one the other is simply fabrication. How to determine the accuracy of one’s memory – not so easy. This post is really helpful in identifying why some of my memories are elusive and some seem carved in granite. It explains why different people have different perceptions of the same incidents (and reveals why crime eye witnesses are so unreliable.)

    I’m working on a new manuscript, based very loosely on stories told to me by my parents about their parents and about themselves when they were kids. My next post on my own blog will explain my process of pinpointing the memories of the events of the stories and of doing the research for the book. Your post is prescient – thank you. I am loving this Tuesday series.

    Additionally, I want to acknowledge the thoughtful responses of your other followers, and your replies to them. They are contributing to the power of this article – I sit back and glean insight just by reading. Thank you, all.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks Sharon and I will look forward to your next post. Your new project sounds interesting and will involve the research which I love. The process I will find fascinating.
      The more I read about memory the more I query my own memories and what is worse wondering if, like Helen Keller, I may be remembering words, from where I do not know, but using them as my own. I can’t wait to get my thesis through the plagiarism checker to reassure myself. Just stupid fears as I know I have written it myself and acknowledged anyone I have quoted. Ugh. What we do to ourselves. Glad that you are finding the discussion interesting and glad you joined in.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Irene, I just noticed the word “mine” highlighted in purple, so I clicked on it and read your time travel essay about memory and identity and how memoir is forged by personal narration. This is an eye opening article for me, and I thank you for posting it. You’ve explained the connections between memory, identity, real and remembered incidents, account witnesses, and the way that memory recollections are triggered by loosely connected events. I’ve just begun a new book based on family stories my parents told me. This post is enormously helpful in illuminating why I can’t remember so much of what was told to me and why other memories of my childhood are still coming forward decades after they occurred. Thank you for generously sharing your master’s work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you followed the link and even happier that you found some benefit from reading the article. I have become totally fascinated by memory and its links to identity and you probably can see with your mother that as her memory goes her identity is going with it. Such a sad thing. As a writer of memories it becomes clear how some memories can be clear even when erroneous and others blurry when they should be clear. Happy to share with you. I think there is little point of doing these things if those people who will gain benefit from them or find them of interest are left out. Put my work through the plagiarism checker and am happy that the only plagiarism that has occurred is with my own work which I have acknowledged. I plan on submitting Monday. The end is in sight.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. My mom is quite unusual. She has declined much more slowly than so many others who suffer from Alz, but the last 18 months, I’ve noted awful deterioration. Several times I’ve caught her reciting a kind of mantra: I’m “Jane Doe” and I’m married to “John Doe” and he’s a doctor and we’re Jewish and we live in California and we’re very happy.” Her eyes closed, and sometimes rocking, she’ll repeat this over and over. She seems to be figuring out how to hold on to a definition of who she is within the most significant personal identification that she can recite. And perhaps most interesting: my father has been dead for more than six years. She still believes they are married. You are completely right about erroneous and blurry memories.

    So glad to hear about your thesis – plagiarizing yourself – that’s hilarious. I hope you don’t plan to sue yourself. I want to read your memoir but can’t do so if you’re embroiled in a lawsuit. The end is in sight and the beginning is just around the corner – yahoo!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is so sad. She is trying so hard to keep who she is alive in her own mind. It must be a horrible time to experience when you know you don’t know and you are trying so hard to keep it together. I don’t know whether it becomes easier when they do finally lose it altogether or whether that period is just terrifying. I know that is when it is hardest for those who love them looking on.
      Yahoo indeed. I already feel as though a weight has been lifted. On to my next project.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s harder on me, and not only for all the anguish about my mom, but for other circumstances related to her illness that I can’t discuss – but that torment me.
        A dear friend who’s a retired therapist is working to help me get through this.
        Thanks for understanding so much that I don’t have to say everything, and you are still there and still supportive.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yes I may not know all but I do understand and send big hugs from across the ocean, hoping your pain eases.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Norah says:

    Fascinating post and discussion, Irene. I think I’m pleased it has taken me a while to work my way back through my inbox to it. Memory is definitely a fascinating topic. I am always surprised at the events I remember and wish I didn’t, and the ones I don’t and wish I did! I seem to have only sketchy memories of much of my life, but other instances are there on the big screen in full technicolor. They don’t always match the memories of others who shared the experience either!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you enjoyed the post Norah. I find memory a fascinating area of study also and with modern brain imaging techniques they are discovering much that they had thought is not quite the case. They are also starting to really explain the types of memory problems you have described. The Schacter book is a very interesting read. Thanks for getting to your inbox and reading although I totally understand the volume can be overwhelming and life must happen.

      Liked by 1 person

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