ON MEMORY AND FORGETTING
ON MEMORY AND FORGETTING
I worry about my memory the most on Mondays. Small talk in the office always includes an ask about the weekend. “Oh, not much,” was once my false modesty. Now it’s just forgetting. I find myself on the bus, trying to remember, to fill the coming ask. More than anything else, I’m embarrassed at 28 to forget.
The daily rush keeps the darker questions at bay. What does it mean to not remember? Why am I not remembering? And when I forget, what exactly do I lose?
For much of my life, memory has felt like the key to understanding myself. Growing up with Sailor Moon, I was steeped in stories of past lives and hidden memories. It was more than seeing girls fight evil. It felt larger than life: these characters were reincarnated, their memories hidden from them until the right time (conveniently within the first season). Through memory, they discovered their context and their destiny.
Can I really claim Sailor Moon as the source for my understanding? After all, I had forgotten most of the show’s plot. Only when I read the manga recently did the story come back into focus. Before then, it had been shadows of a story: an evil queen, lurking on the dark side of the moon, a young girl, trying find her way.
Now that I search for that storyline, I come up empty-handed. Did my imagination go awry or just my memory?
One of my friends has a nearly perfect memory. I was envious of the detail until I realized the cost. She can’t forget the stories you tell her. She can’t erase the memory of being told to tape her breasts together ‘for one good one’. All of it comes with her. It doesn’t matter how they’ve treated her, good or bad, she remembers them. With the weight of so many histories on her, I pray they won’t bury her.
The question her story gave me: how do you move on when you can't forget?
Forgetting can be a privilege in so many ways. In April, our family had gathered from all over the country. Racism bobbed up in our sea of white faces.
“I thought it was over,” my aunt said. For a second, I was drenched in shock. What did she consider the end? Did racism end with the death of Jim Crow? Did we bury it as Barack Obama arrived to the White House?
Judaism reveals another power in forgetting. In Psalm 88, there is a hell called the land of forgetfulness. Here even God forgets you.
There are some things our bodies won’t let us forget. Studies show both animals and humans can pass trauma in their epigenetic material. Trauma can impact the way our genes express themselves. A previous generation shares these horrors through the body, trying to prepare a new generation.
Learning this has left me with more questions than answers. I am afraid of large, bulky men. I always have been and I don’t know why. I'm afraid of their strength overpowering me, of the weight holding me down, unable to leave. Is this my family’s history of domestic violence flaring up inside me? Or is it a fear from living in rape culture? I wish I could pull apart my blood and read it like a story. But we're only beginning to understand its language.
Slowly, my mother drops memories of my deceased grandmother like afterthoughts. Each of these retellings becomes a vivid memory for me. Once, we were walking as an ambulance screamed past us. She told me how she hates them. Each screech reminds her of her deepest fear: was the car coming for her mother?
Yet, she states them like facts. Pouring orange juice at 3 years old to revive her mother. Five year old hands steady enough to inject insulin. Snapshots I wouldn't believe, but my mother is a terrible liar. This is the only childhood she’s known.
We are walking through the De Young’s exhibit on the Summer of Love. A technicolor haze is projected in the room as it highlights LSD, voices frenetic in their attempt towards liberation.
“Your grandmother wanted to participate in an experimental trial of LSD," my mother says. My brain struggles to keep up. I can't see the bouffant hostess tuning in and dropping out.
Of course, my great-grandparents said no. Of course, my grandmother obeyed, taking another step toward her terrible marriage, only stable on paper.
“She was willing to try so many things,” my mother says, her face lost in the technicolor blur.
I know this is my mother's history. Each step toward my grandmother is covered in my mother's mind. The dead won't speak. Still, I cling to memories of memories. It's all that's left beside an enigmatic smile, frozen beneath the glass.
Despite my struggle to remember, some memories come up unbidden. In a bookstore, a Papa Roach song comes on. Suddenly, I am two people at once. A part of me is 12 years old at the beach, mouthing along to the words. All it takes is one song and I can feel all the emotions inside of that girl, ready to explode. With one song and it’s all familiar again.
At the same time, it’s never been stranger. I am 28 years old, in this bookstore. I am scanning the titles. The angst feels strange inside me, old and stale. That girl, fact or fiction, is still here, a shadow contouring the present.
Katie Simpson is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The Hairpin, Entropy Magazine, and Brooklyn Magazine. When not writing she loves people watching and travelling. You can find her online at https://twitter.com/honest_creative.