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Monday, December 14, 2009

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Hindsight

 Whoever said that hindsight is 20/20 probably never studied memory.   If anything, hindsight needs bifocals and blinders.  On the one hand, memory is extremely susceptible to the decay of time; the details slowly get effaced, warped and rearranged.  But there's also problems in the way we record memories in the first place.  You see, ever since I did some digging into the cognititve/ psychological aspects of autobiographical memory for the class I teach, I've become extremely sensitive to the vagaries of memory and the way in which we schematize our stories for different purposes.  In layman's terms, we have to fit our memories into stories-- and the story format we use to make our memories make sense can change the details we remember.  For instance, Schacter's The Seven Sins of Memory and Memory Distortion are great reads for the general reader-- but they'll make you a little bit hesitant about what you say you "know" you can remember.  On a more abstract level, James Young's book The Texture of Memory gives a wonderful case study of how we put those memories to use and build a sense of our histories and identities.  His book focuses specifically on Holocaust memorials, and it's fascinating.

One of the little exercises I have my students do in class is to research a personal memory; they do interviews to get three different perspectives on the same event and then compare them to see where the differences lay.  A lot of times the differences are just a matter of emphasis, but many find substantial errors in one version of their memory.  One student a couple years ago discovered that her childhood memory of a fishing trip was, in a phrase, a complete fish story.  She put people in the story who weren't there, changed locations, events... everything.  She concluded that she had told the story so many times since she was a kid that the story became what she remembered and not the actual event.  She was extremely interested to discover this so many years later. 

I thought I'd try the same thing by researching a little bit to see if I can find holes in my own narrative.  Now that I've told my story and have had a bit of time to reflect upon the version I told you, here's a list of the places where I think my mind might be playing tricks on me.  Some of them aren't very important.  Others make a lot of difference.  I'll be interested to see what others think:
  •  Looking back, I don't have a darn clue when that rally thing in Prexy's pasture was.  I found a picture from the memorial in Prexy's on the UW press website that really looks like the thing I attended, but that was on October 12, the day that Matt died.  Was it really that late when I had that meeting with "Sascha" in Prexy's Pasture?   I have no idea; it does, however, make her words to me make so much more sense.  If this is the case, then I had unknowingly collapsed two different events: coming back to campus and seeing the windows of White Hall, and the rally in Prexy's, and that makes the first few parts of my story and my motivation for each event extremely problematic. 
  • I took a look at my old papers I wrote for Dr. H., and I don't think there's any way he could have been the reason that I had read Angels in America.  The time line doesn't fit.  When I dug out my old drama textbook, I saw the cover and remembered the correct circumstance:  the picture from the play on the cover of my Bedford Anthology of Drama piqued my curiosity, so I read Angels on a whim.  Then I begged Dr. H. to let me use it in a paper.  I suppose that this life-changing text got lumped in with the other things I read at Dr. H's suggestion because of the significance I attach to both him and it. 
  • I'm not sure if my totally spooky encounter with Fred Phelps and seeing Romaine were on the same day or not; as I reflect back on these encounters, I sort of remember the protestor-pens in different configurations in relationship to the Student Union.  So, I'm wondering if these were at different points.  Maybe I've collapsed these two events together, too.  I'm positive, however, that Romaine and the pizza party were the same day because "Sascha" and I talked about the angels. 
  • Originally, I had clean skipped past the Henderson trial in my head and went straight to McKinney's because I had a clear anchor point for McKinney's trial-- the NPR reporter.  I had to look up the date of Henderson's sentencing to remember when it happened, and that straightened everything out in my head.  This is probably because of the problems I mentioned earlier-- like the suicide-jumper in particular-- taking precedence in my mind. 
So, the things I had wrong are interesting in of themselves. I was also struck by the things I chose not to tell in my story:
  • When a bunch of us met in Prexy's for that spontaneous vigil and we talked, there was actually a major disagreement between a few of us.  I wondered aloud how anybody could feel justified in what they did to Shepard, and a woman sitting across from me took serious exception to that.  The tension (I think) came from the fact that I was convinced at this point that it was a hate crime and maybe she wasn't.  In any case, she didn't think that the crime reflected a judgment on Matt's sexuality. Why didn't I think to bring this up?
  • I never told you about the heated arguments I had with my father about the Matthew Shepard case.  The worst one was (I think) just a couple months after the Equality Week march, and I got so mad at my father I stormed out of the house.  He insisted on comparing Shepard to a prostitute: "what do you think he was getting in that truck for?" He kept saying.  My family's views on sexuality were a major point of contention my first summer back home, and that antagonism was a major factor in my deciding to live elsewhere the summer of my sophomore year.  That's the reason that I was so nervous when my father heard I was on NPR: I was afraid of starting a new row with him over the case, this time over the phone.

    I should qualify, however, that my brother is extremely accepting of gays and lesbians, as was my grandmother.  (My sister has come around, too.)  Grandma worked as a nurse in a terminal ward, and some of her fondest memories of being a nurse were of the AIDS patients she befriended on her floor back in the eighties.  I credit her for a lot of my comfort with the LGBT community. 
  • One of my favorite professors was called for jury duty on the McKinney case.  He got struck from the jury pool because he was resolutely against the death penalty.   I guess this just didn't fit into the story story I was telling. 
  • And one of my gay friends in Laramie had been the victim of a vicious hate crime.  He didn't want anyone to know. 
And there are a couple things I'm still not comfortable telling you without checking with the others involved. Sorry.

What this list tells me is that, looking back, my memory is cut-and-pasted, trimmed to fit some sort of narrative structure guiding my journey through my head: my coming-of-age story, for instance, or the  story of "political awakening" that's running through it as well.  I really hink that the Bildungsroman schema I had in my head accounts at least some of these silent mistakes.  The thing is, it's impossible to tell a memory without a narrative to give it meaning, and yet the narrative I tell will inevitably edit what I tell to fit the schematic form, its themes, or even the goal I have for the telling.  That doesn't make my memory special, and it certainly doesn't make it any better or worse than anybody else's memory, either.

It does, however, demonstrate vividly a point that is easy to forget when we read The Laramie Project:  all these personal recollections get edited twice.  The second editing is by members of Tectonic Theater in order to make all those polysemous voices fit together into one narrative.  The first editing process, however, is by the tellers themselves-- and that is a crafting process almost nobody is ever privy to seeing.   When we think of The Laramie Project as an artistically crafted piece of nonfiction reporting, we should at least be cognizant of the forces that craft the form of that narrative before Tectonic ever sees it.  We should ask:  what narrative schema informs the telling of each of these narratives?  To what purpose is the narrator telling this story to their interviewer?  And what sort of changes will that make in each of their tales (and in our own)?  Those will be questions I come back to several times as I explore The Laramie Project. 


A sign at 1st and University Streets, Laramie WY, courtesy of gregor_y's Flickr Photostream:

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting.

    About 25 years ago I began transcribing my diaries of about 15 years earlier on to computer. Then in 2001 I began doing it seriously, copying all previous transcriptions into a text database program, and transcribing the others.

    I added a notes field for explanations, and adding things I had left out, but which in hindsight seemed to be more important than what I wrote at the time. I noticed that some things in my diary differed from stories that I told about the events, and it illustrates very well the process you describe.

    I thought that this must be what happeend in compiling the New Testament, especially the gospels. Events that had taken place 40-50 years earlier got condenced into an anecdotal form, and were passed on like that. And when I told others anecdotes about events in my life or things I had witnessed, I tailered the story to the audience, emphasising things I thought might be of more interest to them.

    In my family history blog I described my childhood memories of meeting a distant cousin, Gillian Bradbury. In telling others of that branch of the family I mentioned seeing them three times as a child, when I was 7, 9 and 12, and I thought it was on the last visit, when i was 12, that we had discussed our relationship and what sort of cousins we were. That was my memory of a conversation that took place at an old Boer War cemetary in the late afternoon in early 1954. But in actual fact it took place 3 years earlier, in late 1951. I had been telling people the wrong thing. We had indeed stayed at the hotel in 1954, but it had changed hands, and my cousins had moved away, so I only met her twice as a child, when I was 7 and when I was 9.

    In transcribing my diaries I discovered several errors in the chronology of my memory, where I had conflated separate events. Some had taken a fairly fixed anecdotal form.