Friday, 3 January 2014

Yours, Mine and The Truth

I read an this article yesterday on story editing - not what you might think. Rather the editing of our own stories. It extolls this as a way of coping with unhappy memories. It may be valid as a way of helping little boys cope with scary monsters, but if there is a way to avoid this phenomonon, I think we could all use a pointer on how to.

I remember distinctly, the day I realised that my mother's memory of things that had happened in my lifetime, were not a true representation of what had actually occurred.

In our back garden, we had crazy paving.


I remember it being laid, seeing the underside of the paving slabs, with their pimpled 'bubble-wrap' surface. As with all home improvements, my mom was at the helm, her small, compact, Irish body sweating over the pieces of broken paving slabs. She was angry then, most of the time. Angry or elated. Cursing mothers who used Baby Buggies with, "They should be put against a wall and shot!", or clutching her hands to her chest with a gasp of divine elation over the prospect of a custard tart and cup of tea.

Some years later, I heard her tell the story of the crazy paving, how hard it was, that it was a really hot summer and... she was seven months pregnant with me.

Hm.


On another occasion, she retold the event of my sister, Tracey, breaking the coffee table in the front room. It was one of these.
1960's, G-Plan, teak and glass coffee table

Now, in our house, most of our furniture came from second hand shops and jumble sales. If we bought anything new, it would be low cost and made of highly synthetic materials, like these...

These one actually look OK. Ours weren't velevet.


The coffee table was not a low quality item. Just do a search on eBay. They're still revered as classic, vintage items of quality furniture. Although I have no distinct recollection of when the coffee table came into the house, I'm pretty sure that it was via a jumble sale, not MFI, so it would have been a while after it first appeared in the market in the 1960s. Why is this relevant?

Well, Mom was overly upset about the ruination of her precious coffee table. To justify her extensive annoyance she explained that the table only meant so much to her because she had had it since before Tracey was born.

Impressive, given that Tracey was born in 1960.


This talent for rewriting the past, or editing her stories, led us to believe all kinds of things about her life, her parents, our father, each other, God, the Devil, and the world in general. But Mom didn't edit her stories to create happy endings, or deal with monsters. She invariably edited them to create monsters where none had been before.

Every story ended in some form of tragedy. Everyone, even her beloved brothers and sisters of faith, had said something or done something cruel or hurtful.

For example, one year she came to stay with us for a week. She had an apartment all to herself just a short, 10 minute walk from our house. We would collect her every morning and driver her home at bed time. On one occasion, we collected her and she'd cleaned the apartment (obviously). She showed us the frying pan and said that she hadn't cleaned it. She then recounted a time when she was staying with a family in Florida. Like her, they were Jehovah's Witnesses. She had become friends with them on one of her annual trips across the Atlantic. The family had all gone out shopping and Mom had stayed home. She decided to clean the place (obviously) and she had cleaned their frying pan. When they came home the woman of the house was furious with her. According to my mother, the woman had gone on and on at her about how it had taken years to season the frying pan and it wasn't meant to be cleaned, not ever!


Really? What are the chances that that actually happened? Either the woman was a bitch, or Mom had, again edited her story to make that woman a bitch, to make her the monster at the end of the story. If it had indeed actually happened, and Mom wanted to explain why she hadn't cleaned the frying pan, she could have simply said, "I didn't clean that pan, in case it's been seasoned." No monster.


I realise that, in me recalling these memories, I am in fact doing some editing of my own. It's inevitable. As explained in an episode of In Treatment. Gabriel Byrne goes to see his therapist, Dianne Wiest, who explains, here, that we alter our memories so that they don't conflict with the present.

For a more authorative source, here's a quote form a short article in Psychology Today.

Dr. Daniela Schiller, of Mount Sanai School of Medicine, says, "My conclusion is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings. Your memory is who you are now."

I don't know why my mom's past has to be edited into a horror story. I don't know what it is about her present that makes the need for past monsters so pervasive. I do hope that knowing about this phenomenon will make me more tolerant of other people's versions of 'the truth'.

In the meantime, I will endeavor to edit my stories to enrich my life and the lives of my loved ones, to have angels and rainbows and unicorns at the end... or, at the very least, a good laugh.


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