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.