University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik discusses “neural storage,” the nature of memory, and the beauty of Mexican seven-layer casserole.
Recently my friend Sandye and I were drinking some local microbrew in Fells Point, and she reminded me of the time we were in Newfoundland and met these guys who served us delicious beer they had made in their garage. “It was the first time we ever had homemade beer, remember?” Sandye said. “And it was the first time I truly liked, even loved, beer.”
I put down my glass, pressed my lips together, and squinted into the middle distance. “We were in Newfoundland?” I finally said.
I think it is exactly because of my terrible memory that I have become a memoirist. If I don’t write it down, I’m sure to forget it. Even writing it down is no guarantee. Sometimes I read about my past in old books of mine and I have the same reaction other readers do. I did that? Are you kidding me?
While other memoirists seem to have unlimited drilling rights in the rich territory of childhood, I am largely reduced to the retailing of the immediate past. Memoirs of the Month, as it were. My childhood is a lighted button in an elevator, a metal milk box, a parquet floor. All overused and worn out by now. If only I could remember one thing I haven’t already remembered, one brand-new memory never handled, never pulled apart and tatted into lace.
Even if one is not facing senescence, as is your humble reporter, neural storage isn’t as permanent or as reliable as one might hope. Everyone is forgetting everything all the time. Fortunately, it seems the government is about to spend a great deal of money on mapping the brain, as they have previously done with the human genome. Surely they will be able to pinpoint the location of the secret warehouse where all the missing memories are stockpiled.
It will be on a flat, empty highway under a low gray sky, a cinderblock building with tumbleweeds cart-wheeling past.
It turns out quite a bit is already known about the subject of forgetting, as I read in an excellent book called The Seven Sins of Memory by Daniel Schacter. The author, who is a professor of psychology at Harvard, offers a breakdown of the various types of forgetting and misremembering, which I can share with you only because I took notes.
1. The Sin of Transience. This is the forgetting that occurs over time in people of all ages. For example, in the days after your father’s funeral, you had a pretty clear idea of what leftovers were in the fridge, and even what shelves they were stored on. Now you only know there was so, so much food.
2. The Sin of Absent-Mindedness. The forgetting caused by not paying attention in the first place. You were peering into the street trying to figure out who was pulling up in a taxi when the neighbor who brought the Mexican seven-layer dip introduced herself, and that is why you don’t remember her name.
3. The Sin of Blocking. It’s on the tip of your tongue. It begins with an S. Steinway? No, that’s the piano. It will come to you a couple of days from now.
4. The Sin of Misattribution. You remember Mrs. Clark as being the neighbor who brought the famous dip to the funeral, but it was actually the one on the other side, Mrs. Steinholz.
5. The Sin of Suggestibility. You think it was Clark because when your sister tells this story, she always says it was Clark. And now you feel quite sure of it yourself.
6. The Sin of Bias. Steinholz was generally an obnoxious woman who once called the cops on a party at your house and caused everyone a lot of trouble, so you don’t think of her as being kind after your father’s funeral. Clark was the nice one, right? The pretty one, too.
7. The Sin of Persistence. If only you could stop thinking about the goddamn dip, it’s been almost 30 years since your father died. But it was the first time you ever had avocado or refried beans, and now whenever you eat them, these memories come back, tattered and partial as they may be. And then you tell the story — Believe it or not, the first time I ever had Mexican food was after my father’s funeral — and after a while you remember the story more than anything else.
I dedicate the preceding exercise in fiction writing to the non-fictional memory of my father, who died on April 4, 1985. I was remembering it as March 5th, but then I looked it up in a manuscript stored on the hard drive of this computer, and I stand corrected. I will have to call my sister Nancy and tell her; we spent 15 minutes earlier this morning recalling the beautiful Steuben vase my mother won in a golf tournament. It was smashed by a cat named Tiger when she jumped on the table to bat at the plastic drinking straw someone had stuck in it. I don’t remember this as clearly as Nancy does, though when she brought it up it started to come back: perhaps, she wonders, she remembers more vividly because it was she who left the straw? She says we were terribly rude to Mommy about the loss. Mothers now ourselves, we hate to think of this. On the other hand, this is one of those brand-new, never-before-remembered memories I so enjoy. A lovely fluted crystal vase rising straight out of the neural muck.
Disk storage, camera phones, search engines, sisters and old friends — all sweet blessings to the aging brain.
According to Dr. Schacter, the seven sins may cause us problems but they play a positive role as well, preventing us from becoming overwhelmed with useless information. One certainly doesn’t need a blueprint of the inside of the refrigerator in March 1985, and perhaps they all had to go to make way for the current layout, specific down to a tiny Tupperware containing garlic aioli, wedged at the back of a shelf.
Let me get that for you, maybe with some carrot sticks.
Despite its frustrating and unreliable operation, memory creates identity. Even what we misremember is part of who we are, the gaps filled in artfully by a web of guesswork. Perhaps it is no surprise that I misremembered even the conversation about the missing Canadian memories. We were not in Newfoundland, we were in Nova Scotia. The Sin of Beer is missing from Schacter’s list. If the fates allow it (a phrase I am typing more and more often because if you think you can’t count on the past, you should see the future), Sandye and I will celebrate the 50th year of our friendship in 2018. All sins will be in play. It will be unforgettable.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.