The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 1. The Past’s Vigor

We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

Louise Glück, “Nostos”

At unexpected points in life, everyone gets waylaid by the colossal force of recollection. One minute you’re a grown-ass woman, then a whiff of cumin conjures your dad’s curry, and a whole door to the past blows open, ushering in uncanny detail. There are traumatic memories that rise up unbidden and dwarf you where you stand. But there are also memories you dig for: you start with a clear fix on a tiny instant, and pick at every knot until a thin thread comes undone that you can follow back through the mind’s labyrinth to other places. We’ve all interrogated ourselves—It couldn’t have been Christmas because we had shorts on in the snapshot. Such memories start by being figured out, but the useful ones eventually gain enough traction to haul you through the past.

Memory is a pinball in a machine—it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken that moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk—how did so much fit into such a small space?

You show up at your high school reunion shocked to find a middle-aged populace rather than the teens you passed in the hallways decades back. Then somebody mentions she sat behind you in Miss Pickett’s seventh-grade English class, and somehow her prepubescent face blooms awake in you. Then you remember where your locker was that year, and that speech class came after English, and since speech was last period you walked home across the football field’s fresh-mown grass, watching the boy you had a crush on in practice gear.

So a single image can split open the hard seed of the past, and soon memory pours forth from every direction, sprouting its vines and flowers up around you till the old garden’s taken shape in all its fragrant glory. Almost unbelievable how much can rush forward to fill an absolute blankness.

On the first day of a memoir class, I often try to douse my students’ flaming certainty about the unassailability of their memories. Usually I fake a fight with a colleague—prof or student—while a videographer whirs in back. Then the class is asked to record right after the event what happened.

For the caliber of grad students I face down, the exercise should be a slam-dunk. A year or so back almost eight hundred applied for six slots in poetry and six in fiction. They’re all broke out in smarts, but in some oddball ways. Sure there are Ivy Leaguers, but in poetry we once turned down a Harvard grad for a gay ex-marine. In fiction, a Yale summa cum laude lost a seat to a former Barnum & Bailey clown.

Picture a seminar room with tables in a horseshoe and some twenty grad students, mostly in black, each propping up a styrofoam cup of lukewarm liquid. I explain the videographer in back by saying a class transcript may help with a book on memoir I’m writing.

Following a script, I apologize for leaving my phone on but claim I have an administrative problem to work out halfway through our three-hour class. At planned intervals, my coconspirator, Chris, sometimes calls, putatively to ask—harangue?—me about swapping classrooms. The students hear me be jovial and accommodating, though I hustle him off the phone, saying let’s talk at the break.

An hour before he’s due, Chris steams in. A tall, fiftyish poet with a shaved head, he’s tight-lipped his mouth into a line and is claiming that this is his seminar room. We need to clear out. Now.

We’re playing against type. He’s known as low-key and easygoing, and I as—how to say it?—noisy? Southern? He raises his voice. I suggest we step outside. He steps forward, I step back. He’s tall, I’m short. I try to defuse the situation. He says for once I should do what everybody else does and cooperate. He tells me to go fuck myself—or do I only remember it that way? Then he heaves a sheaf of papers into the air and stalks out. The students are agog. On the tape, they cut their eyes away from us to connect with each other.

Paralyzed silence. Am I okay? the codependent kid asks, Bambi-eyed. I explain the ruse, and the group’s burst of laughter is a collective awkwardness. One joker claims he’s suing for trauma, since he flashed back to his parents fighting.

You’d guess that these bright, mostly young, fairly sensitive witnesses would nail the event down to the color of Chris’s socks. And yet around the room, with each student reading from spiral notebook or legal pad the mistakes pop up like dandelion greens.

There are memory aces, of course. Maybe one, rarely two—of twenty to twenty-five per seminar—come with wizardly photographic recall. They get the facts spot on. They nail quotes verbatim and don’t mess up physical details, or even intervals of time. (Getting time wrong is a common memory screw up, even for the young.) How often did he call? The wizards are dead certain it was three times, with ten- to twelve-minute gaps in between. And Chris’s pants were khaki, his shirt denim, not vice versa; he wore not loafers but black Nikes double-knotted with two holes unthreaded. Marvels, these observers.

Reviewing student blunders in these classes, I correct details on the board, fix dialogue and interpretative errors. By the end, we’ve chalked up an agreed-on version. During this time, I sometimes implant new facts—I give my adversary a leather bracelet he doesn’t wear, and even have him fiddle with it nervously.

A month from the event, when asking kids to render the fight on a page, I’ll mostly get fed this official account. What the group deems right almost always obliterates anybody’s original recollections (except for those rare memory aces, who somehow cleave to their original intake). It’s the power of groupthink, the basis of both family dynamics and most propaganda.

But worse than the groupthink that warps recall are the students’ original, radical misjudgments. Poets and trained musicians seem mysteriously keen at nailing dialogue verbatim. But they can still flub tone or even misattribute who said what. I was the one saying, “We can work this out.” But some credit Chris with the phrase as I jerked my elbow away. Some heard me exasperatedly sighing: “We can’t work this out.”

Who knows why half the class recalled my advancing toward Chris, when I either stood still or backed up? Even my inertia, if they observed it at all, got recorded in almost military terms: sentences such as “She held her ground” or “She was sturdy as a bulldog in her stance” appeared and I was likened to granite or steel. One year the memory star was a saxophonist and hip-hop DJ so convinced by our acting that he almost left his seat to stop the brute assaulting me. Yet even in possession of the facts, this kid wound up speculating as to “what Mary had done to make him attack her like this.”

The observing students’ innate prejudices shape how they view things. One year when I claimed the phone calls were from a doctor’s office, a girl with a serious illness worried about me, while everybody else just resented my answering during class as a bratty move. One guy figured Chris and I had been sleeping together, and this kid half manufactured an insidious narrative of betrayal based on our body language. A girl who’d had a stalker figured Chris was one. Somebody else thought we were both high.

My unscientific, decades-long study proves even the best minds warp and blur what they see.

For all of memory’s power to yank us back into an overwhelming past, it can also fail big time—both short-term (the lost vehicle in a parking lot, the name at the tip of your tongue) and long-term (we made out in high school?). That’s why I always send my manuscripts out to folks I write about, because I don’t trust my wiggly mind.

Memoirist Carolyn See recalled her husband bailing on her while she metaphorically held on to his leg. But her children and ex corrected her, saying she’d sent him packing. My friend David Carr of the New York Times tried to track down the facts about his most deranged coke-fiend years in The Night of the Gun, where he used investigative skills and a video camera to interview old running partners in Minneapolis. The highlight concerns a faceoff with a gun-toting maniac in an alley. The big reversal? It turned out Carr was the maniac wagging the gun. When he recounted that discovery to me years later, the discrepancy still set him back.

In fairness to David’s memory, he was strung out at the time, but still. How can the mind get it so right, yet so wrong? Neurologist Jonathan Mink, MD, explained to me that with such intense memories as David’s, we often record the emotion alone, all detail blurred into unreadable smear.

But lost memories are more our concern, and major lapses happen when episodic memory—events or experiences, feelings, times, places—and autobiographical memory (like episodic, but you-specific) move into semantic memory—thoughts or concepts, facts, meanings, knowledge. For me, fitting an episode into words squashes it down a little. Instead of lively sensations, I often wind up with a story containing an idea or opinion I may not even have anymore. These language memories I have to distrust a little.

In Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, she writes of her son insisting that Mussolini was physically thrown off their bus in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in 1943, because the driver pulled over to the curb and “shouted the latest piece of news: ‘They’ve thrown Mussolini out.’”

This yanks a laugh from you. Unless you’re a memoirist. It makes me bite my already-chewed-down nails. The thought of misrepresenting someone or burning down his house with shitty recall wakes me up at night. I always tell my students that doubt runs through me every day I work, like the subway’s third rail. So when people ask in challenging tones how I can possibly recall everything I’ve published, I often fess up, Obviously I can’t. But I’ve been able to bullshit myself that I do. By this I mean, I do my best, which is limited by the failures of my so-called mind.

I come from a family of storytellers, and it’s true that having a close group of folks retell events over and over better logs the narrative into long-term storage. But memorized language can also calcify what’s in your head. Events grow stale when told by rote. Like old dough squeezed out of a pastry bag, the stories can feel too artificially shaped. Painful events told for humor can be drained of the real pathos or terror they first registered with.

And negotiated memories can be like a piece of writing clawed over by an editorial board—anything at all dubious gets deleted, and any particular point of view abolished. Anybody in a family knows how tyrannical groupthink can be.

Not long after my first memoir came out, my mother and sister started ringing up to recount scenes I’d written about using my language. As a younger sibling whose views tend to get heavily discounted, I might have registered this as a triumph—finally they get it! Instead I felt bereft. I had inadvertently become the official chronicler of our collective memories, and who knows what I was screwing up? Part of me longs for the old days when I couldn’t open my mouth without hearing how something only happened a few times or wasn’t that bad. In a warped way, being wrong was way better: it kept me folded more safely in the family delusion system.