On Memory and Experience

I recently thumbed to the end of a book I’m currently reading (curious to see how many of the remaining pages were the main text, how many were notes and bibliography), when a sentence jumped off the page at me.

It was this: “I have tried to compensate for the frailties of memory in three ways.”

My eyes skimmed the rest of the paragraph, while additional words stood out as though bolded: supplemented recollections, … consulted articles,reviewed transcripts … — official investigations, … academic journals, … video footage.

The book was The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes–And Why (a pandemic read for me, though pandemics don’t appear in the book itself … though 9/11 does, relating the experiences of survivors who escaped the towers). The author was Amanda Ripley, a senior writer for Time magazine who’d already covered disaster reporting before performing the extensive research and interviews for this book.

I’d stumbled upon her Author’s Note.

But I found myself wondering, well into a first draft of this post: Was it the first sentence on that page that had caught my eye? Or was it that sentence, further up the page? —

“It is important to acknowledge, though, that memory is imperfect.”

I cannot remember. Honestly.

As an essayist, I find memory intriguing: the ways in which we remember, what we remember, and when (with all the mind’s unexpected triggers- without-warning). And how we’re also so often wrong, in the sense that what we remember doesn’t match up with verifiable facts. “The slipperiness of memory” is a commonplace phrase in creative nonfiction circles.

But Ripley doesn’t simply slide over memory so quickly in a need to document. Nor is she outrightly dismissive of it.

In fact, she acknowledges that the “distortions of time and space happen for good reason” in survivor’s accounts, as she explains in detail elsewhere in the book. Such as the memory of slowed down time, so much so that survivors can remember reading individual words on papers that have been thrown into the air during an explosion … or the inscription on a bullet whirling near them.

For the purposes of this post, perhaps it doesn’t matter which sentence I read first. It is a minor detail after all, one which perhaps even the most Puritan of Truth essayists would let pass. But it does, almost too perfectly, serve to illustrate the author’s point: that we cannot rely on memory.

As a society, we privilege well-documented sources over memory – that isn’t news. But as I thought on this, I began to wonder, why we also privilege recent memory over the lens of experience?

I find it difficult to record things right away, especially difficult ones. I’ve not experienced the kinds of extreme disasters which Ripley’s book documents—plane crashes, fires, floods, hurricanes (maybe the tail end of a hurricane or two). But I think, in a way, we experience other kinds of disasters in our everyday lives—any sort of sudden or unexpected loss or disappointment can be a personal tragedy. It is of these I find difficult to write in the moment.

There’s something that Time does, though, to ease the writing. Perhaps it’s no more than my brain catching up with my heart. I don’t know. I just know I need the time to process, to let my mind wrap around what’s happened. In the field of creative nonfiction, it makes better writing, too.

Montaigne, the revered father of the essay, championed experience. Phillip Lopate, a contemporary essayist, wrote a significant essay called “Reflection and Retrospection.” But he’s quick to point out that this takes work. To put it another way, experience is not simply the passage of time.

In her book, Ripley documents when a significant passage of time had lapsed between when the disaster occurred and her interview about it with the survivor. At least once, she highlights that especially in these cases where events happened two or three decades prior, the unreliability of memory should be taken into account.

But what about the unreliability of the immediacy of an event?

I feel that, sometimes, I’m still so raw and in shock after something has happened that I’m unable to give an accurate accounting of it. I gloss over some things, leaving them out. The perspective that comes with reflection and retrospection hasn’t had long enough to work things out, to come to another understanding, a deeper meaning than solely a visceral experience (though this is important, too).

I need that space to create narrative out of seeming chaos. Or at least, arrive at a complicated understanding.

That being said, I still remember watching the TV in disbelief that fateful day in my tech-savvy communications class, when it looked like someone was playing with airplanes and special effects. Nineteen years later, I still don’t know that my brain has caught up.

Photo “Memory” © by Heather Thomson, Salisbury Cathedral, England, 2015.