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#2 Should we trust our memories?
Where to start when you can’t trust the starting point
She’s waiting at the end of a driveway to a small bungalow, below a massive bank of fir trees, waving at me with her arms stretched overhead. Short blond hair. Men’s khakis. Unblinking blue eyes. When I finally reach Elaine, a crow lands several meters behind her on the lawn next to her driveway, a solitary dark spot in the dry grass that extends from the side of the house to the ravine running behind Elaine’s backyard.
Sometimes I’m biking with my younger sister through the old farmland surrounding the small subdivision where we used to live, high up on the ridge above Cordova Bay, overlooking the hundreds of small islands that separate Vancouver Island from Canada and the United States. Sometimes our mother is shouting “Slow down!” from behind us. Sometimes I’m alone on my yellow BMX, pumping the bike pedals until the back of my legs burn and the huge leaves of the broadleaf maples begin to blur overhead.
Other times, I have my face pressed against the cool glass of the sliding doors on the patio behind Elaine’s house. I can feel the bass from the music inside rumbling through the glass into my cheeks and hands. Sometimes the crow from the lawn is up in the trees, teasing me with its grating caws and croaks and rattles. It’s always summer and the doors are always locked, but there’s never more than one crow.
Beginnings are difficult for me, but not nearly as hard as the end of things. Maybe I misled you last week, launching this whole thing with Elaine’s email. That email came later in this story. Much later. But where do you start when you can’t trust the starting point?
Because it’s January and the beginning of a new year, this question has been keeping me up at night. Daytime curiosities take on new dimensions after nightfall. A few days ago, I rolled over in bed, mind racing, and spent the early hours watching the hue of our white bedroom wall turn from black to grey to faint indigo—a sure sign that blue hour had arrived and sunrise would soon follow.
Five, our Boston terrier, usually emerges from under the comforter every morning around 5:30 AM and shakes the sleep off to start his day. This is also a convenient way to let us know he’s ready for breakfast. Yet that morning, he was still a snoring lump at Steve’s feet.
I checked my phone. 4:04 AM. False dawn. Another confusing beginning. When I turned over to face Steve’s side of the bed, his eyes were wide open, staring at me. I tell him I’ve been thinking about Elaine again, but he looks skeptical.
He said, “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming about waking up and doing laundry?”
“That sounds more like a nightmare,” I said.
“But you love doing laundry”
“No, babe, I don’t.”
“Well, Sean—” <dramatic pause> “—sometimes we hate the things we love most.”
You’d be surprised how many days start like this. A couple of weeks ago when we were making breakfast, Steve asked to meet me in my office. When I asked what the fuck he was talking about, he walked into the laundry room and started laughing.
Steve and I are almost twelve years into our relationship together. Steve likes to cook elaborate meals. I do most of the clean-up and dishes after because, like my father, the first question I ask whenever I open a dishwasher is: who loaded the dishes like this? I’m also the one who picks cold, soggy food scraps out of the sink drain after Steve’s cooking sprees. (For the record, I hate this but that’s love folks.)
I plan, Steve fixes. I dramatize, he never takes anything too seriously. I count my lucky stars that we’re able to laugh most things off and can both compromise. The biggest point of conflict in our relationship (for me at least) is that Steve speedwalks like he’s training for the Olympics and I like to walk slow so I can think and talk—pretty small and insignificant considering we live and work together 24-7.
As close as we are after all these years, there are still things I’ve never told Steve about this story. I only started talking to him about Elaine last year. He knows my mother died in 2001 and that I was in a serious car accident before she passed away, but I haven’t talked to him about what that accident did to my memory. When I woke up in the hospital, most of my childhood was missing. There were specialists and tests and a court case. The question of whether I can or should trust my memories consumed such a large part of my life and still troubles me still decades later.
I wonder what Steve will think reading this for the first time.
Believing your memories are true doesn’t make them true. I know this. Yet as comforting and easy as it is to leave the past unchallenged, it’s becoming harder for me to leave things as they are. The only way I can trust my memories is to prove them, but I have legitimate concerns about this. To paraphrase a text my stepmother Allison sent me last week: if I attempt to reconstruct my timeline, will I find other of my narratives shaken?
Thank you for your messages and emails and texts about last week’s post. The question about the reliability of our memories is as personal as it is controversial. It sparked the Memory Wars in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s also a subject we’re exploring in a feature documentary we’re currently shooting called Satan Wants You.
I’d be curious to hear what you think of this TED Talk by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a scientist and psychologist who researches the malleability of human memory.
A few years ago, we interviewed Dr. Lawrence Ward for a short film of ours called The Day Don Died. He told us that stories (and memories) can shift and change every time you tell them. This person laughed here, so you embellish that part of the story in every future retelling. Another part of a story gets no reaction, so you leave that out next time you tell it.
He compared the reconstructive nature of storytelling and memory to the childhood game of telephone, explaining that by the time the story reaches the last person in line, it will be so changed and distorted that you might not recognize it at all.
Which puts the onus squarely back on me: how am I going to prove all this?
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