On Memory and Truth
Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. Barbara Kingsolver
Biene and I once witnessed an accident while driving to Vernon over the icy highway on a cold December morning. The car ahead of us showed some extremely erratic behavior and seemed to be out of control as we saw it slipping and sliding on a curvy downhill stretch. A few seconds later, it had collided with an oncoming pick-up truck. Fortunately, nobody was seriously hurt. The truck driver and his pregnant wife emerged unharmed from their vehicle, while the owner of the small passenger car was frantically running around, often looking down over the edge of the ravine on the other side of the road, as if he had lost something during the accident. He did not seem to care much about the occupants of the truck that he just had run into and kept shouting anxiously, “Lucy, Lucy, where are you?”
A few months later, a police officer knocked at our door and presented me with a subpoena to make myself available as a witness at the Vernon Court House. Memory is defined as the mental capacity of retaining and reviving impressions or of recalling previous experiences. My particular memory of the accident on the Monashee was very accurate, and I assumed that it revealed the truth and nothing but the truth. However, when the Crown prosecutor quizzed me on the details, I realized that logical thinking had filled the gaps created by the bizarre behaviour displayed by the man who had caused the collision. I did not know that the concern for a little dog could be more important to anyone than the well-being of one’s fellow human beings, especially if you were responsible for causing their harm and grief. My logic demanded that the man was calling his female companion who might have been thrown out of the vehicle and might have been severely injured. I am mentioning this incident to increase awareness at the very start of my project that things are not always what they appear to be and to be aware of the potential flaw in the relationship between memory and logic. Distorting reality as a result of this flaw then becomes a major problem for anyone attempting to describe personal experiences of the past.
There are two kinds of memories. The first one is very much in line with the typical dictionary meaning, it is the one that retains and recalls a sequence of events. The other one is extremely subjective because it has to do with feelings of anxiety, contentment, happiness, sadness, depression, trauma etc. associated with the chain of events in the outside world. As time passes, it is possible that one aspect will almost completely fade away, while the other one remains vivid and strong allowing us to relate one type in accurate detail, but not the other. I feel that both play an important role in the creation of a story, which at least in part will be an autobiography.
Another aspect in the discussion of memory is the human tendency to present oneself in the best possible light. Based on their research of the human psyche, psychologists assert that our perception of the world is being modified by our value system, religious beliefs, biases and prejudices, and past experiences, just to mention a few. The desire to live in harmony with oneself has often a warping effect on what is stored in our memory and also tends to distort our perception of the world around us.
Our human nature often entices us to share with others experiences that have made a deep impression on us. Of course, we wish to present them in glowing colors leaving out details that detract from the beauty of the story and adding what may not be necessarily true, but serves to embellish the tale. We have all heard about the fisherman whose catch became bigger and bigger with each additional recounting of an incredible fishing trip. What really intrigues me is the fact that if we tell a story often enough, it takes on a reality of its own. At the end we love our story, even though it is a tall tale, so much that we begin to believe ourselves that it actually happened exactly as we described it.
So what at first appeared to be a rather large, but simple chronicler’s task turned out to be a bumpy road with nasty pitfalls lurking at every turn of the way. To avoid getting trapped in a quagmire, a lot of questions needed to be answered, before I even started. How much is too much? Does the story become burdened with trivial and uninteresting material? And equally important, how much is too little? Put differently, do I omit something that is essential for the understanding of the family members and myself? Or would I be so timid and cowardly as to turn into a dishonest writer by cutting from the narrative that which ought to be included out of fear to present others and myself in an unfavorable light? With these introductory remarks, I have already granted a glimpse into my way of thinking, and in that sense the autobiography has already begun.