Malleable Memory

August 18, 2012

Tags: Writing, The Broken Bottle, Jo Joe, Black Bear PA, Fiction, Novels, Essay, Short story, Memory, Mythology, Storytelling, Sally Wiener Grotta

by Sally Wiener Grotta

I often say that my sister and I had different parents. Not simply because she's a few years older, and, as I like to joke, she broke them in for me. Nor is it only because our parents were changed by their life experiences during the years from her birth to mine. It's our personal memories of our parents that can sometimes be so different from each other. Even – or especially – when we are talking about the very same event, same moment, seen and remembered from our own unique viewpoints of the time.

Memory is malleable.

In my short story The Broken Bottle, I refer to Akira Kurosawa's seminal movie Rashomon, in which each witness to a murder tells a different story of the crime – including the ghost of the victim. While Rashomon paints a scenario in which individuals may or may not be lying to us about their memory, I propose that our own memories lie to us. Often they tell us the stories we want to hear about ourselves. And what we want to hear changes as we move further and further away from the truth of the event. (Of course, "want" may be debatable. But I'll leave that psychological discussion to another time.)

Johanna, the protagonist of The Broken Bottle says, "It’s as though the young woman I was back on that wet July night stands in the middle of a polygonal mirrored room. Though she is surrounded by the facts of the moment, all she can see are the distorted reflections, refracting through time."

When I look back on my childhood, which I shared with my sister and my parents and an assortment of friends, family and pets, it's an ethereal landscape. Sometimes shrouded in dense fog. Periodically illuminated, so that specific places or people stand out so clearly that I can actually taste the air, smell their perfume, feel the emotions in the pit of my stomach – especially the shock of embarrassment or great hurt or ecstasy. But mostly, everything and everyone in my past are mere silhouettes. Two-dimensional cutouts, set against vague sensations of love, anger, disappointment, joy, fear. I suppose, in the end, it's the emotions that overshadow all the rest, that become the basis of the personal mythology that we create.

<em>Jo Joe</em> by Sally Wiener Grotta All this came to mind this morning, as I await the final edit of my novel Jo Joe, before it goes into production for publication by Pixel Hall Press later this year. When Judith Ormand, a mixed race Jew, returns to Black Bear, Pennsylvania, the primarily white Christian village where she was raised, she must reconcile her memories to the all too solid realities of Black Bear. She confronts the man who broke her heart as a child, the bullies who scarred her youth, the villagers who had made her feel so unwanted. And Judith is forced to recognize that none of them are quite as she remembered them. Some are far less, some far more than the silhouettes that stalked her nightmarish memories.

Does knowing the "truth" of our personal past make things better? For Judith, I can make it so -- or not -- because Jo Joe is my novel. However, sometimes I believe that our private myths are protective shells that help us move on despite our own failings or life traumas. For an old love I ran into recently, I realized that he needed the sweet memories of our youth, and I wouldn't do him any favors reminding him of his family crisis that had precipitated our breakup.

Memory is malleable for a reason.