I didn’t know anything about repetition compulsion then and still don’t. Why the baby tosses the rattle out of the crib and then cries at its loss, only to repeat the same act again and again. As if we can erase the pain through reenactment. Or master it by asserting our will.
I went back to the same dead end street in my home town and just stood there. I must have looked odd with my hands in my pockets, head down, pacing back and forth. Brooding over the loss of a girlfriend and returning to where we’d parked that night. Not sure why I was there but convinced that by going back I’d figure it out.
I have tried to bring back the dead by willing them alive. It could be like that story of the monkey’s paw where you get what you wish for but it comes with a cost. You sacrifice your own nature by superseding it. And yet I am drawn back to this same ritual each time I write, convinced of some hidden treasure. A squirrel burying nuts it can’t retrieve, how the tail curls like a question mark. You are trying to preserve your life by replaying it for anyone who will listen. Digging for nuts.
I went back to the mid-70s with my therapist in her dimly lit room. It is like dropping into a computer-generated landscape of your mind with your younger self the avatar. The figure moves in stilted frames through rooms, searching. The therapist guides you to move the avatar closer to what needs attention, the problem. To go back and find the splinter that’s caused the swelling. The avatar, your younger self, must find and remove it. You are controlling the avatar and at the same time not believing it is real. You are alone in the game but there are many versions of your self blocking entry to the source, protecting the pain. It’s a treasure you don’t really want to find but must.
Still with some faith and hope you could heal, you transport yourself through time and space to the four walls of the home you grew up in. You are back in the summer of 1975 with detail you hadn’t considered in years. The trim of the windows, how they clasp shut, a calendar on the wall, the feel of the sheets. The look of the closet door and bed springs. Memory is attached to the senses, reawakened there.
Your challenge in this game, to win, is to change how you feel about the memory. To undo the power it holds over you. To throw the rattle overboard but this time, tell yourself it’s okay. Don’t feel bad about it. Use your older, wiser self to comfort your avatar…and heal.
But we get stuck trying to locate those pivotal moments that define us. It’s not enough to tell the truth in autobiography, or the truth is too much for you, the writer, to stand.
The story of your life is a series of well-told lies delivering a feeling of truth. No different than the lives we live. It isn’t the truth, but a sense of it we want. As readers, as travelers through this life, memory is one thing but the feeling it conveys is another.
And so truth is in feeling. And that’s what makes memory so hard. We don’t want to remember the really hard times, so we protect ourselves by forgetting. But what’s where the story is. And you have to go inside yourself to dig it out, then accept what you find. And know that you can’t put it back. There’s a reason we hide some things and leave the dead to rest. I aim to revive them.
This post inspired by a story written by Alexander Chee, “The Guardians.” Interview here.