Is it possible to write a memory into existence? Or, conversely, to erase a memory by writing another into existence in its stead? The psychologist Pierre Janet, a contemporary of Freud's, famously believed in the value of the "screen memory" for the victim of trauma, who could create a false memory as a shield from the true one as a form of protection. It's a compassionate notion, but one that also makes me uncomfortable, coming as I do from a family that remembers only what is convenient. While I believe that I am the family member who confronts the truth, I have to admit that my own memory is notoriously poor. It is my husband who retains mental records of our thirty years together, reminding me which play or movie we've already seen, what it is about, when and where we saw it. At times even his vivid memory fails to spur my own recollections of the past.
Steve writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and plays. They're often not based on memories at all, but sometimes he uses an alter ego, sometimes his real name; sometimes I figure in his stories as well. Recently I was writing an essay about a nervous breakdown I had more than twenty years ago, and I looked up one of his stories about it. I remembered that he referred to an apparition of the Virgin Mary his character had seen on the mental ward. I found it, not in his story "The World Came Crashing Down on My Wife," but in another of his stories, "Brief Short Story: My Belief in God." (I left the first title in my essay because I liked it: I understand, though, that it is through such minor alterations that the truth is gradually lost.) He did refer to a vision of the Virgin, as I remembered. I didn't see her, in fact, though I would have liked to, and apparitions of the Virgin became an abiding interest of mine for a long time.
The breakdown occurred after a particularly vicious series of English department meetings, in a particularly vicious department known for its political infighting and crucifixion of women. He dramatized the moment when "Julianne" came home from the last meeting before her collapse in his story:
She came home from a department meeting, trembling, shaking. She reached for a bottle in the refrigerator, pulled it out, stood over the sink where she attempted to open it with a corkscrew. She couldn't make it work. She was that overwrought.
The corkscrew clattered on the sink. I said, "What happened?"
She said, "I'm going down."
"Yes, go down then, I'm here."
"They were so chickenshit," she started crying. "So mean. This business is so fucking rotten, I don't know why people stay in it."
"It was so awful, awful awful awful."
Reading his story brought it back to me. That is, the scene here is now lodged in my memory as a vivid reality, but I have no idea whatsoever if it actually happened this way. It could have. Certainly I usually opened a bottle of wine when I came home. The breakdown was also the beginning of my sobriety. The scene is a mythical turning point in his narrative chronicling his belief in God. And it now figures as an actual event in my own spiritual and psychological history.
My strangest experience of watching my past and identity emerge in words was when a one-act play of Steve's was staged at the Marin Fringe Festival. The play revolves around a married creative writing professor's anxieties about his appearance, wardrobe, and his shoes, with glimpses of the traumatic experience of his father's early death. He has a supportive wife who is attempting to persuade him to go out with her. Even on the page, I thought she was a nicer person than I am—patient, loving, which I suppose I am, to a point. On the stage she was even more compassionate. The actress was tall, slender, and leggy, younger than me by a good bit, with short, spiky blonde hair. The actor who played the husband depicted a madman about to break into serious psychosis. He was desperate, ranting, running his hands through his hair, leaping onto the bed and off it like a crazed gorilla. It was fairly effective and believable. Steve and I sat in the audience, watching this couple that was and also decidedly was not ourselves. After the performance the actor and actress came over to us to ask questions; the actress, with not-so-surreptitious side-glances at me, was particularly interested in the wife's motivation and the interpretation of some of her lines. I didn't say much. Steve is intense, he can be very intense, anguished even, but I'm not sure how I'd react if he were a madman leaping on and off the bed.
The interpretation was mostly the brainchild of the mad Russian director, who likes action and drama. We talked to him for a long time at the reception, and he regaled us, in charming and heavily accented English, with numerous stories of his long career in the theater. His central story, one he clearly tells often, was about directing a play of Woody Allen's. He apparently changed the ending substantially. (Perhaps it all turns out to be a dream? Predictably, I don't remember.) "Woody loved it," he said. Woody came up to him after watching the play and said, "Why didn't I think of that?" Of course Woody saying to him "Why didn't I think of that?" isn't exactly the same as Woody saying he loved it. So a memory may be quite clear, but our interpretation may change it nevertheless. We may even add dialogue, over time. (The Russian director didn't. He was well satisfied with the oft-repeated line, "Why didn't I think of that?")
Perhaps some day I will write an essay about the time my husband was jumping on and off the bed in a frenzy, ranting about his shoes. Maybe it even happened, and neither of us remembers it. Maybe the Virgin Mary was hovering several feet off the ground and winked at us both before she vanished. Just like that. The room smelled of roses for days.
published 6 July 2013