Something I see in manuscripts I edit (and in my own writing) is how layered and difficult the issue of memory often is. Unpacking a memory, especially a childhood memory or the recollection of a traumatic event, is a bit like peeling an onion. There is, of course, the original memory you hold in your mind, which can often be spotty and full of holes. And then there are the multiple layers of interpretation that have been stacked upon that original memory over the years. The things that have been forgotten, the various embellishments.
As writers we need to acknowledge the imperfections in our own memories, because a claim to perfect memory simply isn't going to be credible for the reader. Also, our minds tend naturally to block out difficult or traumatic events. Here's an example of a writer sorting through the layers of a traumatic childhood memory. This is from Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, where Karr is talking about being farmed out to a neighbor family when her mother "was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous":
I don't remember who we got farmed out to or for how long. I was later told that we'd stayed for a time with a childless couple who bred birds. Some memory endures of a screened-in breezeway with green slatted blinds all around. The light was lemon-colored and dusty, the air filled with blue-and-green parakeets, whose crazy orbits put me in mind of that Alfred Hitchcock movie where birds go nuts and start pecking out people's eyeballs. But the faces of my hosts in that place--no matter how hard I squint--refuse to be conjured.
It is interesting to note how sensual this memory is. It was famously observed by Proust how the senses can bring back to us, unbidden, memories we might otherwise not be able to recall. In Swann's Way, Proust samples tea and a madeleine (sponge cake), and his whole boyhood town of Combray is suddenly recovered by his mind:
As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of my madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.
As writers, we can look for these sensual "Proustian triggers" in our own work in order to summon the past into the present, such as with familiar smells, foods, places, and so forth. The important thing is to show the process of remembering.
Once our original, spotty memory is unpacked, though, that is only the beginning, the core of the onion. Next there is the question of How something has been remembered. Often the way things are recalled can be influenced by current motivations, or by family myths and stories. Here's an example of this phenomenon from Vivian Gornick's wonderful memoir, Fierce Attachments. In this example, Gornick's mother is telling the story of how she was fondled by her Uncle Sol, a soldier who had returned from the first World War to live with her family, when she was sixteen.
He didn't say a word to me. He picked me up in his arms and carried me to his bed. He laid us both down on the bed, and he held me in his arms, and he began to stroke my body. Then he lifted my nightgown and he began to stroke my thigh. Suddenly he pushed me away from him and said, "Go back to your bed." I got up and went back to my bed. He never spoke one word about what happened that night, and I didn't either. (p. 8)
Each time Gornick's mother tells the story to Gornick, "it is both the same and different because each time I'm older, and it occurs to me to ask a question I didn't ask the last time around." Gornick says, "The first time . . . I was twenty-two and I listened silently: rapt and terrified." (p. 7) The second time she heard the story, Gornick says, she was thirty:
She repeated it nearly word for word as we were walking up Lexington Avenue . . . When she came to the end I said to her, "And you didn't say anything to him, throughout the whole time" . . . "It just seems odd not to have uttered a sound, not to have indicated your fears at all." (p. 8-9)
The third time she hears the story, Gornick is nearly forty. She says, "Ma, did it ever occur to you to ask yourself why you remained silent when Sol made his move?" Gornick's mother angrily retorts, "Are you trying to say that I liked it?" (p. 9)
Whether or not Gornick's mother liked being fondled by Uncle Sol, this example shows how malleable and subject to reinterpretation memories are, especially family stories and myths. The way we recall things can be greatly influenced by the stage of life we are going through. So, for example, a wedding might be recalled one way by a romantic young teenager, and another way by an adult woman about to enter into her own marriage.
Finally, there is the outer layer of the onion: It is often necessary in our writing to leave room in the present for those who are still standing around to account for what has happened in the past. In Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, for instance, the narrator has retold the story of his troubled brother's death (in a fight) when they were both teenagers. Maclean and his father both recall in the book what a beautiful and skilled fisherman the dead brother was, but we don't hear them discussing the brother's death until near the end of the book, and something is still missing. At last they talk about the brother's untimely death, and their discussion includes this passage:
Once my father came back with another question. "Do you think I could have helped him?" he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. "Do you think I could have helped him?" I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?" . . . "It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."
I guess the thing to take from this lovely passage is that the final accounting we seek of our memories often defies us. Still, it is important to ask these sorts of questions, and--when we are writing about the past--for us to show the struggle we go through to make sense of what has happened, even if--in the end--we are unsuccessful at doing so.