Thursday, March 13, 2008

Murky Chords of Memory

There's been another kerfluffle in the publishing world about a Memoir gone terribly, terribly wrong. Well, actually two kerfluflles; one apparently about a woman who wasn't really a gangster, and another who wasn't really a Holocast survivor. These follow the memoir about recovery that wasn't, and probably some others I'm missing.

Memoir, just to clarify, is a personal account of a portion of someone's life -- usually a life-changing portion, or why bother. It's sort of like biography, except usually memoir is limited to an event, and does not include the entire life from conception to present. Memoir has a little story, a plot, a narrative line, and in order to sell them, should thus have a bit of tension, and drama, and surprise.

I opted, as a historian, to use memoir in very limited ways despite its non-fiction status. I found, in my dissertation where I was interested in language at a particular time (what people were saying/thinking about certain issues during a certain set of years), that the language changed significantly regarding the event as the person aged. Society's views on the event (say, a war) changed significantly over the course of 30-40 years, and thus the way one explained what happened to them shifted to fit the new way of viewing things. As a crude example: a person might have thought a war was a terrible thing when they were in it, but 30 years later, society thinks everyone who went through that war is a hero; thus the person's (hi)story becomes about being a hero, not some shlub who happened to be present for the mundane to the monstrous. I should add here that the facts did not necessarily change, but they might have been slightly embellished, or perhaps things were left out, in order to conform to the way the narrator now thought about things in his own head. The authors of such memoirs, I believe, did not suffer from psychosis, nor were they liars (they did not fabricate being in the war altogether like the recent outed parties), but they did want to sell their books, and get their story out there. Their very memories -- and really their very own histories and lives -- became subject to the times, and the passage of time.

I read memoir, for my professional and personal reasons, with a big margarita glass rimmed with grain of salt. I'm thus always rather surprised that people buy into memoir wholesale, and are then shocked! (shocked!) to discover that the story that moved them so much wasn't true. I'm even more perplexed by people who read memoir as blueprint, and then head off on a three-part trip to Italy, India, and Indonesia to rectify their own lives, or think that renovating a house in Tuscany will bring about personal growth. And part of me thinks, if the story moved you, isn't that enough? What is it exactly about finding out something fact is really fiction that stings so much?

I of course say this without having read a memoir about something deeply personal to me, and then found out it was a lie. There is something to be said for the personal and monetary pain caused when the upfront claim that what follows is true turns out to be a big pile of bullshit. Should I stumble across a personal ground-breaking memoir on child loss and then find out the person made it up, I would probably look said person up and not-very-politely cram their book down his/her throat. But what if the book changed me somehow? Moved me? Dramatically shifted how I thought about things? Would it matter?

So to bring this around to the point lest this become a lit-crit blog and we all break out in groups and start drafting essays: Although I hold back facts in real life (I don't know that my genetics are my neighbors' business, nor do I think they would care), I hold back very little here. Most of that is strictly therapeutic; part of that is some small, wee, tiny, glint of hope that maybe, just maybe, someone will google Maddy's problems and realize there's a similarity between her and a child they know.

But I wonder what will happen as years pass. The memories now are so bright they give me migraines, and I often wish I could just box them up and remove them from my head entirely. But I also recall, after reading some fresh loss blogs, those endless loops of ten-minute intervals that used to keep me up at night. They don't any more. I remember what Maddy looks like, but I'm aided incredibly by photographs. I remember what she felt like, what her hand felt like, her hair, but am I influenced by Bella's touch? As I detailed her final hours for this blog, I obviously left out some things I figured were incidental and didn't further the story, but they advanced my story. If I don't write those points down, will they slip away too? Will this narrative change as the years go on? Become shorter? Will the details fray at the edges until the story simply becomes, "we lost a child, she lived roughly a week, and we don't know why"? I worry now, just year out, that my wish may be coming true, and I may already be forgetting things, forgetting her. I never want to forget her, and don't think I could. But will the way I think about her, and this point of my life change? Probably. And how will that change the story?

I still dream about someday being hit by a bolt of lightning while aimlessly doing Jumble or something, and suddenly realizing why Maddy was here. Why it happened to us. Why she was only here six days. What positively wonderfully powerful life-transforming thing I'm to do or believe now in her honor, that I wouldn't have otherwise if she hadn't have died. If that happens, and I do find that elusive thing, will it change the story? Right now the story is painful and horrible, and I can't every imagine it being any other way. It's heartache and -break, it's tragedy, it's pointless. The rest-stops and punctuation marks for me are the grimmest of moments. But as my life continues, and I get further away, will other points of that week come into focus as those drift away? I can't remember the nurses names any more (the ones I thought would live with me forever), or much about the babies in the cribs who surrounded Maddy (who I often thought were her only "friends"). Am I just forgetful or forgetting the unimportant? Will the story eventually change to encompass this forgetfulness, or will I look it up or write it off with "that delightful nurse with an Irish-sounding name"?

Will it matter?

19 comments:

Antigone said...

Isn't that what coping is? Telling ourselves enough lies over time that we begin to believe the battle wasn't really all that bloody?

Julia said...

I used to be able to close my eyes and see A's face. At will. But now it's harder. The other day I pulled up the photographs on the computer and studied them for a long time, picking out a couple and zooming in on his face.

Interesting, but I don't want there to be a reason, and I don't believe there is. Because finding one would mean that it was ok for A to die, that it wasn't a tragedy. Fuck that. I don't want to live in the universe or by the rules where child's death is justified in any way at all.

You know something? There was a book up for discussion a while ago at Mel's book club, a piece of fiction, to be sure. But the author participated in the discussion, and mentioned in the comments that she made the bereaved mother "so angry" to highlight how she wasn't where she should've been emotionally. Or somesuch. She made the mother angry, so she could judge her. Niiiccceeeee.

Catherine said...

Every memory softens around the edges as time passes. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), there is no exception for the memories of our little ones. But I find comfort in that too...knowing that I'll be able to think of them without the sharp edges that cause such pain...someday...

niobe said...

I think (though, of course, you might disagree) that some things become clear only in the dimmer light of memory. When you're very close to an event, particularly a painful one, sometimes the fact that you can see every single detail so clearly obscures the larger picture. You can't see the forest for the trees.

I think of it as kind of like a pointillist painting. If you stand extremely close, all that your eyes register are the red and yellow and blue dots. It's only when you step back, when the colors blur and blend that you can make out the umbrellas, the water, the women sitting on the grass.

charmedgirl said...

really, i don't think it matters. i don't think i know everything that happened, and i lived it...but only through broken eyes into a shriveled head into a ruined heart. the only thing that matters, really, to me, is today...and accepting it, whatever it is.

(that is starting to sound like BS but i swear to you it's the only thing that's helping.)

kalakly said...

I think to live with the freshness of the pain, of the heartbreak the way it was in those first months, would kill me. And at the same time, I fear that all of my 'coping' will erase him and his tiny life from everyone's minds. I fear that if I am not walking around wounded and sad, everyone will think, "hey look at her, if I lost a baby I would never be able to function, maybe she didn't love him enough."
There just is no right way to grieve is there?

Tash said...

Julia, I totally hear you, I guess I envy people who can not be stuck in the bitter. I don't think if I suddenly decided "Damn! Training dogs to take to Children's Hospitals is totally what I need to be doing right now!" or "Hey! Maddy taught me life is short! Live in the moment!" would mean it was ok that she died; it would mean I had found something for myself that put some meaning on her life AND death. If that makes any sense whatsoever.

Niobe, I guess, in essence, that's what I'm hoping for. Maybe I just need to fix up my plantar fascia and run in the other direction as fast as possible.

Kalakly, I often think that too.

G said...

I found it so silly the public outrage surrounding that pieces book. I even went out and bought it after... I got about 10 pages and stopped reading it. Useless fiction at that point. Not even written well enough to keep me interested.

Niobe's dot analogy works for me, but I wonder, when we stand back, what IS the larger picture? What do all these dots make up? What's the point?

CLC said...

Sadly, I think memories just fade. Even when you don't want them to. I can only remember what my father looked like because I have pictures. But I can't remember what he sounded like, etc. But that doesn't mean you love the person you lost any less. I don't think things happen to teach us a lesson, or to put it more bluntly, because a lesson needed to be taught to us, but I do think it's a growing and learning experience and that one day you will wake up and know what you learned/gained from this experience. And maybe what you learn/gain isn't even a positive thing, but it will be something.

Which Box said...

I always think of pain, of hurts, as like losing a tooth. Though it's been years and years since i lost a tooth, so maybe my memory of that isn't so fresh even. But remember sticking your tongue on the space the new tooth will come in? Is there still blood, does it still hurt, is there a little nub of new tooth yet?

I feel like i do that with my troubles - spend time thinking about the loss, or my husband or some particular event and probe - how does it feel today? Is it still fresh?

There are days I think my past year of hell has made me an adrenaline junkie. That at least when the pain was so raw and so fresh, I was alive. the numbness of now isn't that great. There's no feeling when I probe. And that worries me more.

ms. G said...

I worry all the time about losing my memories of detail surrounding M. Especially since 2 years later, I still have not written a lot of it down.

Even though I would not want to live the rest of my life in that horrible pain of the beginning of grief, I also fear time softening it to the point where it "doesn't seem that bad" to others, does that make sense? Cause even after you learn to live with it better, it is still pretty damn bad.

Amy said...

I awoke with a start the other day, I could grab what William looked like in my head. I sat up and grabbed his picture and started looking at it and holding it close, I am afraid of forgetting although I know there is no way I ever will.

I think the story will change with time and I believe that no matter how it changes it will be very important to remember all of the steps along the way.

Anonymous said...

Humm. I suppose my memoir about being a physically challenged Holocaust survivor who went on to become an elephant trainer and confidant of three presidents won't be seeing the light of day anytime soon.
-Gef the Talking Mongoose

meg said...

I don't want a reason either.

I mean, what reason could there be, for me to lose 4 babies the way I did? I can't believe that I am that evil to deserve such a thing. And I can't believe that I was handed all this, because I am *so strong* and I can handle it. That is just bull crap.

And Tash, I am so with you, with the envy towards those people not stuck in bitterland. Because I seem to have taken up permanent residence there.

luna said...

something about the time and space of grief is unsettling in that it also takes us further away from what/who we've lost. so while everyday pain may subside the slightest bit, it can make you feel farther removed from that which you hold so dear to your heart. I feel like grasping on to those memories because that's all I've got left...

and about the sudden realization of why, I agree with julia. and I sure as hell wouldn't live in a world or believe in any god that would justify something so awful and cruel. I don't think there is a reason. I think the tranformative power of grief (to the extent there is such a power) lies in what we do with it ourselves.

~luna

kate said...

I think it is true what luna said about the transformative power of grief, but...what if you do nothing? I mean, i would love to say that losing Nicolas made me do XYZ things which REALLY MATTER, but that is kind of a lie. Yeah, there are some things but they are fundamentally pretty small. They are certainly not worth the price of a life. So, have i failed? Have i failed him? In some way, yes.

Re memory -- i think it fades to protect our sanity. Especially the little details that round out the picture, you lose them. It matters to me, because that's all i have. But on the other hand i don't ever open the memory box, because i don't really have any desire to cry if i can avoid it.

c. said...

I don't want to forget. It does matter. I want it to matter. I want every single, minute detail recorded so that time doesn't trounce my memory of it and the all too brief moments I got to spend with my son. I'd rather just stay stuck here, in loss and bitterness, if an everlasting, accurate memory of it is not a real possibility. Fuck moving forward if it's not.

Lisa b said...

I'm so lost for what to write tash but I wanted you to know I was thinking of you and how your story will evolve and how it matters.

CDE said...

I think I'm offended by falsified memoirs not so much because there's no guarantee of accuracy (memory is always malleable and unreliable, all memoirs should be taken with a grain of salt, even our own), but because we go into memoirs with the assumption that these are one person's accounts of actual events, and that their recounting, however distorted, is based in honest experience. There's going to be some self-aggrandizing or denial or whatever, but at baseline we expect one perspective on true things.

So when somebody comes along and makes up something from whole cloth, I think it's insulting and injurious to people who buy those stories (both literally and metaphorically) because they're bringing their own needs to the table - whether they're looking for solace in someone else's experience of a shared tragedy, or trying to understand something terrible from the POV of someone who went through it or whatever. But they aren't getting the real deal, they're getting one person's idealized imagination of what it must be like. James Frey's account of drug addiction sounds like no other account of drug addiction for a reason: It's not the real thing, it's an idealized imagination. If I read one person's account of losing their children, I'd look for solace, but if what I got was some soap-opera bullshit where everyone was super-understanding and the babies were born quickly and painlessly and were whole and beautiful and flawless and prompty ascended to heaven, carried by cherubs, I would call bullshit and feel cheated and lied to. I would feel conned. And conning people in pain is reprehensible to me.