In the Spring 2016 Intima, an essay entitled “A Life Less Terrifying: The Revisionary Lens of Illness” by Ann Wallace beautifully captures the ethereal nature of memory. She opens, curious, how Frederick Douglas wrote three memoirs over thirty-six years, asking the question, “Surely, those early memories did not change. Or did they?”
When I was two-and-a-half, I was prancing around the livingroom in a polka-dot bathing suit. There was a horse inner tube snug around my waist. I turned and saw my sister Kathy, diaper pin in hand, with a mischievous grin across her face. Suddenly I felt a push. As I burst into tears, my horse began to deflate before my eyes. I was heartbroken. It was then that my mother walked through the door, my Dad’s arm encircling her waist. She was smiling as I ran to tell her what Kathy had done.
While the truth of the memory stayed the same, the details had changed with time. Till I was in my mid-twenties, my memory stopped at my mother smiling down at me. I did not recall seeing the baby, Carol, in her arms. I had always wondered why my mother looked happy when I told her about my little tragedy. It wasn’t till shortly after the birth of my first child, in my own psychoanalysis, that my thoughts returned to my earliest memory of my sister Kathy’s attack on my beloved horse. This time when I retold the story the image shifted before my eyes, and I could clearly see my mother, just home from the hospital, holding the swaddled newborn Carol in her arms. Twenty plus years later, lying on the couch, the thought that had entered my two-and-a-half-year-old mind came back to me: my mother’s stomach had popped.
Both memories—with and without baby Carol—were filled with the exact same emotion of loss and betrayal, but the earlier version had photo-shopped Carol right out of existence. I was protecting my mother, not wanting to see her as the betrayer. And I was protecting myself—Kathy was the envious one, not me.
How can we be sure which is the “real” memory and which just an “illusion”?
I see this phenomenon of shifting memories with patients I have treated who return years later when going through a divorce. The husband described in the past as part of the “we” that had shared a hilarious visit to Graceland, or thrilled at their home remodeling job, is now the “him” that could only take off three days for a vacation, and the “him” that wanted the cheaper cabinets, whose doors now don’t work. The warm memories vanished, repainted by the artist in a different shade.
If simply living life revises what we know to be real, neither I, nor anyone else can ever recapture what in fact we experienced. All that remains of our past are our emotionally true memories, colored by our current state of mind.
Kerry Leddy Malawista is a writer and training psychoanalyst in Potomac, MD and co-chair of New Directions in Writing. She is permanent faculty at the Contemporary Freudian Society and has taught at George Washington University Psychology Doctoral Program, VCU and Smith College School of Social Work. Her personal essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines and literary journals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Zone 3, Washingtonian Magazine, and The Account Magazine. She is the co-author of “Wearing my Tutu to Analysis and Other Stories” (2011, Columbia University Press), co-author of Who’s Behind the Couch (Karnac Books, 2017) and editor and author, The Therapist in Mourning: From the Faraway Nearby (2013, CUP) and other scholarly chapters and articles. She is a contributor to The Huffington Post.
© 2016 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine