Memory Is A Subjective Matter, Part One

by Lori Dwyer on August 29, 2012 · 4 comments

Memories are such subjective things. We alter and taint them, often to our own advantage. The earlier the experience that created the memory or the deeper into your childhood you’re reminiscing over, the more the memory is likely to be impeded by years worth of experience and impressions.

I have two memories from when I was very young. One I’m almost positive is real and as correct as the memories of an almost two year old can be. I only feel that strongly in my conviction because my mother listened in amazement as I recounted details of her and I creeping into the kitchen of the house I only lived in until I was two. I can remember the structure, color and set up of that house while few photos of it exist, especially of the interior. I remember how the kitchen looked, lit by the cold light of the refrigerator as my mum and I conspired to eat a piece of birthday cake I’d bought home from a party that day before my dad, a compulsive midnight snacker, got to it first.

Why I remember that so distinctly, I’m not sure. Quite possibly the effect of that blue light haloing from the open fridge door, changing a kitchen I saw every day into an entirely different place. In the mind of  a not quite two year old, that’s magic.

The other very early memory I think I have is of watching Humphrey B. Bear with my grandfather. If it is genuine, it must be from around the same period of time… he died just before I turned two.

Sadly, as much as I wish it were accurate, I don’t think it is. It’s too hazy, changes too often… it’s the manifestation of facts I’ve been given and photos I’ve seen.

That’s what our mind does. It’s this incredibly complex tangling of pathways we don’t even understand. Our brains have a tendency to take facts we know and couple them with images or sounds or smells that we are familiar enough with to recreate in our imagination. Stir, shake, push to the extremities of your nuerons… and out pops a memory. One so vivid and real and true that it seems as solid as what’s happening right now.

But memory is such a goddamn subjective thing.

I happened to be discussing the Port Arthur massacre with my friend The Doc a few days ago. We argued vehemently as to whether video footage of exists Martin Bryant, gun in hand as he prowls the grounds of the tourist attraction.

The Doc was certain that not only had it existed, he had seen it. He could describe it for me.

No such footage exists, nor has it ever. It’s a memory The Doc’s mind has created for itself, pieced together from massive amounts of media coverage of an event that occurred over fifteen years ago. But he believed it so passionately and was so positive he had seen it, I have no doubt that he would have been able to pass a lie detector test without the slightest hitch of the needle.

Memory experts describe memories as being like a coin on the bottom of a pool. You can see it, if the water’s clear enough. You know it’s there. But it’s obscured, changed and distorted, depending on the water level and clarity. Depending on the time passed, development gained, trauma, distance and so forth; memories become skewed in the same way. (“He was a giant…”)

I had made the naive assumption that my son’s memories of his father would stay preserved and intact, as they were in the months after he died. That the things he would forget would be things I didn’t know he thought about in the first place. That the memories we had shared and discussed between the two of us would be solidified in our common consciousness of them.

Of course I was wrong. Aren’t I always?

There’s a song that features on the Australian TV show PlaySchool on a semi–regular basis called the Dino Stomp. Once on a time it was the soundtrack to my son’s favorite PlaySchool DVD, played on high rotation whenever he managed to con us into turning the TV on. Around the time Tony and I got married, that DVD was still going strong.

Tony and I honeymooned in Port Macquarie (of all places… I’m not sure why, either), and we took our then eighteen month old Chop with us. We listened to that bloody DVD a hundred times over the three days we were away. And we danced the Dino Stomp over and over.

I think the last time I remember doing it was in the lounge room of the Purple House. I can still see Tony and his son laughing, performing all the actions, while I mimicked them with a tiny six month old Bump in my arms.

All of us were laughing.

It was like heaven.

To be continued…

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

karin arnold September 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Memories are ridiculously complex. My memory has made up things, nay people, that never actually existed. But I can see this man from my childhood, I can smell him (sawdust), I know where he worked (dry cleaners) and I can feel this wiry dark red beard. He would tell me the story of when I was even younger and I cracked my head open on some concrete. But when he popped into my memory again, at about 15 year old and I asked my mother about him, she told me he did not exist… and nor did me cracking my head open. Childhood memories make everything bigger, everything lasts longer. The outside toilet I thought I feared from age 3 until 5 or 6 … it was demolished within a month of us moving into the house. I think Chop and maybe even Bump will have memories of Tony that they don't even know about… one day they will just pop into their head and make them smile, maybe they won't even know why or know what the memory is. They may think it is just a memory of a dream. But it will be there and it will warm them


Watershedd August 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm

I think our memory has a way of protecting us to a degree, from the slicing crispness of such pain, so that we can grow even after such devastations. My own memories would perhaps be evidence of that. Mine however, as crisp "stills" like flicker cards for when I was very early. The one's just a little older, but still quite young are more like cines. They never change. But one at least, I'm told, is inaccurate and curiously, it's not a happy memory. Like a said, memory retouches over the worst pain.


Spagsy August 29, 2012 at 1:07 pm

My problem is my dreams. I dream and think it is real.

Reply August 29, 2012 at 8:57 am

I'm fascinated by the idea of memory being subjective. I've seen documentaries and articles about people who remember everything in perfect detail – to some it's a blessing and to others, a curse. Me? My fuzzy memory is a notoriously well-known aspect of my character. I hate it sometimes, but it's just who I am, and I've learnt to accept and to sometimes question my memories and take other perspectives on board as well.
This was such a beautiful post. Don't worry about the Chop – whatever he remembers will just be what he remembers. The sum total of his memories will make him into who he will be, so whatever they are, fuzzy or full focus, it will just be him. :)


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