03 | Memory and Procrustean Narratives

memory/1 The faculty by which things are remembered; the capacity for retaining, perpetuating, or reviving the thought of things past.

Procrustean/ Of or pertaining to Procrustes, a robber who in Greek legend stretched or mutilated his victims in order to make them fit the length of his bed.

~The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

“Frequently, our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other, and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are solid and reliable.” Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author.

This is what I remember about Saturday, June 8, 1973.

I remember Betty’s call that morning. The hopeful look on Doug’s face that said, maybe she’s coming around. That day being special because Doug’s kid brother, Greg, was coming for his first karate lesson. Me sneaking into the empty pool next door because it was already so hot. Seeing Duane on the studio bench in a white T-shirt under a long-sleeved dark plaid shirt. The bruise on his forehead. A lawn chair fell while he was doing spring cleanup with Betty, he said. She hadn’t told me he was coming.

Why was he there? To pick up Greg, he said, show him your place. Our last time with Betty was at a restaurant. When Duane toasted our future she cried, and when they dropped us off she wouldn’t come in. She made us promise her one thing: that Greg would never know we lived together.

After the karate class, Duane drove us home. He gave Doug a six-pack—not 3.2 beer but the real stuff, warm from the car. While Greg looked around, Duane sat on our daybed with his head in his hands. Then he abruptly stood and said they had to go. I wonder what’s wrong, Doug said, I’ve never seen him like this. We left to pick up Doug’s wedding suit—his first suit. When we got back the phone was ringing. Come home, a neighbor said. Your mother’s dead.

In 1973 the only person who interviewed me was Duane’s defense investigator. He liked my description of Duane’s clothes. No one asked about Betty’s call, the beer or the bruise.

When you don’t know the bigger story, all you have are the details. From them you weave a hopeful narrative: She called because she’s coming around. He gave Doug the beer because he recognized his son was a man. All will be okay if Greg never knows. But what about the bruise?

Because details don’t fit a story that’s wrong, it doesn’t mean you got the details wrong. Years later defense lawyers will pound you in briefs and on the stand. You’re out on a limb, no one else saw it, after so long how can you be sure? Those memories’ stubbornness—the fact that they don’t fit—makes them indelible. And you retained them because you re-categorized your narrative into a new one of hope: That one day you will know.  

Do you have stubborn memories? If they didn’t fit, did you change them or the story?

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