How do we know what we know? Locked in the folds of the hippocampus are the beginnings of memory. The brain, an inexact and largely unknown organ, holds the book of our life. As we know, the recording mechanism is not at all like a digital HD video. It’s more like an old school VHS cartridge where over time the magnetic coating flakes. This fact has deadly consequences every day when people are convicted or murdered by the state based on someone’s memory. Time and again, memory has proven faulty, even about mundane things like where you left your car keys, what is that person’s name you now have to introduce to your partner.
Over the last couple of days I’ve witnessed my father struggle to remember and lie boldly to save face. He suffers from dementia. His memory fires in disjunctive bits and pieces where nothing seems to cohere into a complete or coherent narrative. He can no longer remember when he was born or how many children he has. When he’s asked to supply such information, his brow knits in concentration, trying to access a part of his brain that is no longer there. Finally, he’ll look up and smile and provide a clearly made-up answer. A week ago, he broke his hip. He broke his other one three months earlier. When he’s asked what happened, he responds, “I tripped in the garden.” In truth, he fell while getting out of bed. The rehab center where he’s been since being released from the hospital the first time had not checked in on him for at least eight hours. They had essentially abandoned him. At some point he wanted to get out of bed. Perhaps he had to go to the bathroom. Since his memory is gone, we’re not sure. What we are sure of is that for hours no one showed up to assist him. It’s a tragedy, but at least that was just one of a lifetimes of traumas, as we all have, his hippocampus can no longer access.
I have spent my adult life worshiping before the alter of Literature with a capital “L.” My romance with the muse has led me places I would never have conceived. It has also been a major contributor to ruining my relationships with those closest to me. For the longest while, I deluded myself into believing that “my” sacrifices were worth it because just around the corner I would discover the great work I was destined to create. About five years ago, in the shadows of my disintegrating life, I stopped looking and waiting. I moved on. Since then it has been a slow process of letting go the assumptions and biases that defined me for so long. It always surprises me when something I’ve come to believe so deeply isn’t necessarily so. Over the years I have told myself and my students that the element that makes a story memorable is trauma. All great stories are intertwined with the struggle against some sort of trauma. It could be war, rape, family violence, drug addiction, whatever. No matter what the trauma is, a story can’t be compelling without it.
I have shaped my narrative similarly around trauma so much so that I have, more often than not, been unable to take personal agency in my actions. As I reflect on my history, what stands out are those moments of trauma—violence, rape, emotional abuse. For so long, I could not break out of that karmic bondage. When I sat down to begin the first scratchings of a memoir, I looked back and tried to remember my earliest memory and found a memory that contained no trauma. It was laid out in my mind as rather benign and perhaps a bit naughty, but that was it. As I compared earliest memories with friends, I found that it was a mixed bag, some remembered trauma, some were so prosaic as to be not memorable at all.
Richard talked about playing with his favorite toys in the corner of the family living room, while Rico’s memory was wrapped in fear and anxiety as he shared remembering panicking that he, his brother and mother were going to be bombed in their South Bronx apartment. Rico’s spouse Heloisa recalled her family rushing out of their home in Nicaragua during an earthquake. Meg told me about her frustration at being trapped in her crib at home and the playpen at her uncle’s house and not being able to climb out, and perhaps go rogue or at least commando. Tanya related a moment of joyous elation “admiring my new blue Keds as I was swinging on a swingset with a neighbor, a fellow toddler, who did not, poor thing,, have new blue Keds.”
When I plumb these deep recesses, I come up with two memories. I’ve decided which came before the other, but it’s mostly a real chicken/egg sort of thing. The first memory I recently confirmed with my sister who was there in the basement of our Drexel Hill home, just outside of Philly. My mom, sister, and I were in the basement. My mother had been doing laundry, and she required us to be in the basement with her so she could keep an eye on us. The memory really starts after this. We are sitting in front of the television. I have squirreled in between my mother’s legs on the floor. Mom is wearing slacks. I can feel the texture of the fabric against my cheek. My sister is sitting with her legs crossed within reach. We are all looking at the television. It is November 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy has just been assassinated in Houston. We are watching the aftermath. I remember Kennedy’s picture flashing on the screen. I remember a lot of grays because it was a black-and-white TV. Mom was stricken. I’m not sure how much my sister, who was nearly six, understood what was happening, but I vaguely knew that there was a president of the United States. I just wasn’t sure what a president was or what the United States was. I was almost three and a half years old. One would think that this would be the memory that takes priority over all others. It is one of the defining events of the 20th century. I was there. Or at least, I was there in the basement of a house in a middle class suburb of Philadelphia. This memory is clear as a photograph.
This other memory, however, pushes itself forward and demands primacy in my hippocampus. The logic behind this conclusion is that I was wearing short pants and Kennedy was assassinated in November so it seems reasonable for me to conclude that this second memory occurred prior to the first. I know this is my earliest memory because it happened in the summer, just before I turned three or right after. The other criteria, which makes this memory mine and mine alone, is that I was alone. No one, not my sister, not my mother, not my father, not Mary Lawler, the girl who lived behind us, could have polluted these depths. They weren’t there.
The memory is not particularly detailed like the Kennedy assassination. It’s stripped down like memories from so long ago should be. There hasn’t been any embroidering. Essentially, one summer afternoon I was playing in our back yard and a notion came upon me. I stopped whatever I was doing and went back behind the cedars that sheltered part of the yard. I unbuttoned my pants, pulled down the zipper and let my shorts and underpants drop to the ground. Then I squatted and proceeded to take a dump. I remember it feeling really good and pleased with myself because I didn’t have to interrupt my play with going into the house and being interrogated about whether I washed my hands, etc. What happened afterwards is lost to the mists of time. I imagine that when I came inside my mother asked my why my pants weren’t zipped and buttoned. I wasn’t able to manage those mechanics yet.
As I reflect back to that time, I am amused that my earliest memory would be of taking a dump. It seems so prosaic and human. It contains no trauma. Instead, it is a moment of release. Over the decades I have thought about this moment many times. I don’t know if this is true, but perhaps someone lodged in my unconscious I am trying to return to the ur-shit that marked the beginning of my marking the world that I am here.