It’s a sad truism in one’s life that a lot of our memories are partly fabricated by the mind. Of course there are disagreements as to the extent of this fact, and some people have better memories than others, but it still doesn’t alter the fact that, as one moves through life like a leaf in the wind, the mind tries to construct a coherent narrative and to give meaning to one’s stories.
The phenomenon surrounding the discrepancy between memory and reality is best explored, I believe, by giving an account of an experience I had myself in the confrontation between my own adulthood and the memories of my childhood. As such, this will be a lot more personal than my usual analytical approach to the subject.
It can feel like a bit of a shock when one realises that many details held so dearly regarding a particular memory can turn out to be a fabrication. Especially when they relate to things which we treat with great sentimentality – especially childhood memories, but also those relating to other key events: school graduations or failures, job losses or successful interviews, first moments in one’s relationships and so on. If you wake up to find none of it was ever real, what does that say about your life in general? The power of nostalgia cannot be underestimated.
When I was growing up my family and I moved around a lot. Between the ages of 3 and 11, I lived in 5 different places, often for no longer than a single year. Although I find it difficult to remember everything that happened in chronological order, I do have a lot of memories from that time. Most of the images and sounds are blurred and fuzzy, but it seemed quite natural to me to want to visit some of the places I hadn’t seen in years once I was an adult.
It’s just one of those things one does, I suppose. I was still living elsewhere at the time and had some business-related reasons to go down to the city, and the village where I lived when I was very little happened to be on the way. While I never would have sought to go there without any ‘sober’ excuse – perhaps out of shame in the knowledge that it was silly, or perhaps just because the idea only came to me when looking at a map – this seemed like a reasonable pastime.
And so it came that, after my business was concluded in the city, I finally went back to this haunt of my childhood just to figure out whether I could remember anything and whether things were still the way my mind portrayed them after all this time. I wasn’t expecting much at all; perhaps just to spend a couple of minutes driving to and fro and then leaving again.
It’s an odd experience living through such a moment. You’ll suddenly be confronted by a range of images; flashes of individual moments you believe you experienced long ago, calling out to you, grabbing your attention and pulling you inwards in a descent into nostalgia, for better or for worse. I immediately recognized the house we lived in – it was fairly close to the edge of the village – and the path I used to take when going to school. I also remembered other details, such as a playing ground we used to go to. It’s the same satisfaction you get when you desperately try to remember a fact, and then finally remember it after torturing yourself for hours. But there were differences, of course.
The most striking difference was the scale. Having been seven or eight years old when we lived there, my perception of everything would have deemed everything much larger than it really was. There was a climbing frame I remembered being so large that I was almost frightened to clamber up to its peak when I was younger; now I tower over it. What used to look like a fairly large place turned out to be a tiny, insignificant – if rustic and interesting – village.
Other things were just as I remembered them. There was a convenience store on my way to school; I had a friend with whom I used to play detective all the time, and we had gotten into our heads that the shop keeper was a villain in disguise. When we snuck in to uncover his devious plotting, he believed we were trying to steal sweets – not a very nice conversation to have. The shop was still there, fairly untouched – I don’t know if I would still have recognised the villain had I bothered to go inside.
But my most vivid memories of the place are attached to the school. It was the first time, I think, I was aware of myself as a proper human being when I started going there. Naturally still in a very primitive state and with more awkward confrontations with other people than one would like to admit as an adult, but for all sense and purposes, I thought I was a being separate from others with my own thoughts and my own little issues to put up with.
I remember quite clearly my first teacher; conversations between her and my mother in which I was told I was a hopeless daydreamer. My best friend with whom I used to play in the cemetery up the road (I was weird). The class mascot, a mouse glove puppet. Playing a silly game which involved pushing other boys off of a log– mainly played by older kids, but I held my own and was said to be ‘a brave one’.
I was struck by a sense of disappointment, however, when I approached the school – not because it had changed drastically, but by merit of the entire original building no longer being there. There was no open yard at the front with the school buildings in the background. It was just one big concrete block, closed off entirely to one’s view. I wasn’t even entirely sure whether this was a school anymore; from what it looked like it might not have been; there wasn’t any writing anywhere to indicate its use.
I parked the car nearby and tried to see if I could recognise anything, but it really looked as different as it possibly could have since I’d been there last. I walked around the block but there didn’t seem to be anything that remotely reflected what I believed it used to look like. It might as well never have existed.
The shock, I suppose, isn’t so much that ‘things had changed’. That’s inevitable, of course, and I wouldn’t have expected everything to remain the same. The shock must have been the realisation that the disappearance of the school meant I could never try and test my memories against reality. My mind was robbed of the opportunity to see whether it had been right or wrong – or, to be a bit more cynical about it, to reconstruct my memories in a way in which it felt nostalgia and convinced me that I had been right all along.
What it does call into question is the validity of my memories. There’s a difference between knowing from a neurological perspective that one’s memories are often false, but another one to experience a breakdown of one’s certainty as a result of being confronted with drastic change after many years of absence. Seeing the old school gone should not have been too surprising, but my mind did experience it as such – evidently the change triggered something in me. I was robbed of the chance to test myself, to validate myself, and so the certainty broke away.
Essentially the ‘narrative’ as painted by the brain as to the validity of one’s memories is fragile, no doubt due to a subconscious awareness that much of it is fabricated, but the subconscious tries to cling on to the fabrication for as long as possible. And, considering one’s personality is largely based on this fabrication, on this culmination of memories which gives us our life experience and thereby our learned behaviour, it follows that it takes very little indeed to create a crisis in even the strongest personality. Not being able to validate this grounding in my memories was like knocking against the pillars of a building to test its firmness. In the end, it takes us to an end of humanity. As Wallace Stevens says in the first section of ‘The Rock’:
It is an illusion that we were ever alive,
Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves
By our own motions in a freedom of air.
Regard the freedom of seventy years ago.
It is no longer air. The houses still stand,
Though they are rigid in rigid emptiness.
Even our shadows, their shadows, no longer remain.
The lives these lived in the mind are at an end.
They never were . . . The sounds of the guitar Were not and are not. Absurd. The words spoken
Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.