Monday, January 2, 2012

The Truth About Memory

There is a plethora of research on the topic of memory accuracy. One need only search the internet using those terms to find numerous scientific studies discussing theories about it—Gestalt tradition, special memories, schema theory, post-event misinformation, memory for gist….well you get the gist. But, this is not a scholarly article. Instead, it is simply my musings on the fact that I have come to realize my memories of past events might not be as accurate as I have always assumed them to be. 

I am not talking about the kind of memory we are all afraid we might lose one day—how to get to the grocery, for instance, or the name of our spouse. No, I am talking about the good ole memories of past events, the stories out of which we have spun our identity.

This realization--that maybe my memories of past events are not always accurate—feels important to me, not because I am afraid I will start forgetting them, or not because I am going to start questioning the accuracy of everything I think I remember, but rather, because it feels like a more reasonable way of considering past events and by consequence, the way they have shaped my life.  

This must be a big problem for memoirist—the accuracy of the details as they write. I know that when I am recalling events from childhood, like in my last post about life-long friend Noni Wood, many of the details are sketchy—like where an event happened, in what year, at what age, who else was there, who said what exactly, and so forth.  With thought and exploration, I found, I could begin to reconstruct some of the details, but I know that even details I would swear are accurate, can only at best be branded as “my version of the story.” And, my version is important only because of the impact it had on me at the time and the impact, it apparently still has on me because I am recalling it now.

What I am not talking about is the inaccuracy of such details, like whether or not someone really was a drug addict and went to rehab. I know the big things are accurate. I am talking about some of the finer points that don’t alter the impact of the event as life-shaping but lose their sharper focus over the years. For instance, I recently heard a couple arguing over whether it was 2000 or 2001 that they went on a particular cruise. It was ridiculous discussion because what they were concerned about didn’t alter the point of the story which was that the husband almost missed getting back onto the boat at one of the ports-of-call. 

Memory and Salvador Dalí

What made me start thinking about this topic was a recent trip I made to the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Dalí is a wonderful place to visit. It is a mecca for those interested in his work and in American Surrealism in general. While there, I picked up the museum catalog, something I always do because I love the words used to describe art. The day following the visit, I read the catalog and happened upon this passage in reference to a Portrait of My Sister, (1923), about Dalí and his sister, Ana María. (I have found another references to this work, that shows its titles as, Portrait of My First Cousin, 1923.) Here is what the catalog says of this work:

Another interpretation of the over-painting is that it reveals the tension growing between the artist and his sister. Close during their youth, Dalí and his sister grew distant once Gala, his future wife entered his life. The two women disliked each other from the start. When Dalí published his creative biography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, in 1941, filled with outrageous and shocking stories about his behavior as a boy, Ana María felt compelled to challenge his carefully orchestrated stories. In 1950 she published  Salvador Dalí as Seen by His Sister, presenting his youth in far more ordinary terms. Instead of a monstrous child, she presents her brother  simply a spoiled child, and she blames Gala and the Surrealists for encouraging his aberrant fantasies. (34)

This painting which is actually two portraits, can be seen as an early (Dalí at age 19) example of Dalí’s propensity to compose work that is not simply a retelling of the visual image but rather an exploration of life’s complexities and possibilities. The original portrait—the one that is considered to be right-side up, is more neo-classic in its conception while the second portrait—the one that is upside down—is  described by the catalog as Cubist. The catalog suggests, the version of Ana María painted upside down, is most likely a reflection more of new artistic influences in the young painter's life although it is not entirely out of the question that the very different portrayal was a reflection of their changing relationship.

The point of this story is to highlight how different the two versions of Dalí’s early life are—his memories of his early life presented in his autobiography, versus his sister’s memories of his early life as presented in her biography of him. Dalí chose to tell his story of being an outrageous child because it suited his self-image. Ana María chose to portray him as merely spoiled because that suited her purpose of getting back at Dalí for abandoning her as his model and confident in favor of Gala Éluard, new life-long model and wife. I haven’t read the two books so, I can’t say which feels more believable to me. Unless you are testifying as an eye-witness in court—it’s pretty much irrelevant; but it illustrates my point perfectly. I would likely have a different, though close, version of an event—say, the time when as a child, I bit a hole in my sister’s red sweater—than my sister would have, or than, say a friend would have, or than my husband might have of some other shared event.  I believe, we create (or rather recreate) and cling to memories that support the image we have of ourselves, or at the very least are versions of a truth about ouselves we have come to believe in or want to believe in.  

I don’t think I have always understood that. Instead, I have been more inclined to believe my version of the important stories of my life is accurate, or at least, more accurate than anyone else’s version. Interestingly, doesn’t this suggest that there might be a reason for things, like forgiving and reconciliation since there is the possibility we might be seeing the event wrong? Or, might this be reason to put some things where they belong, firmly in the past and not a part of our present? The catalog says that Dalí and Ana María never reconciled. Clearly memories are tied to something deep and life-shaping in us.

Capturing the Facts in Photographs and Journals

On my trip to the museum and to St. Petersburg, I took a lot of pictures. I always do and that got me to thinking that maybe it is this problem with memory and its inaccuracy that drives me to take pictures and to keep a journal. I want to remember a sunset, to remember what someone’s face looked like at a specific moment—my daughter’s face, my husband’s face, for example, or perhaps a sunrise behind a bridge.

On the first day of 2012, the sun rose at 7:35 a.m. just behind the bridge that crosses the cut from the Gulf of Mexico into Clearwater Harbor above Sand Key. The sky was layered with pinks, corals, yellows and blues. I was there with my husband. The view from our hotel room was beautiful. I am sure I will remember it vividly for the rest of my life, but I took a picture of it just to be sure. 


  1. I found this most interesting, as my siblings and I not always have the same recollections on past. At the same time we vividly see things the same in our memories..
    I enjoyed this reading...and will remember every word, to the best of my memory..

  2. Thank you for your comment, Noni. I know you have a lot of siblings and thus a lot of versions. I think that over the years, we sometimes come together in the story because we tell it together over and over. I know that has happened in my family.

  3. Grace, I also enjoyed your piece and found it very interesting. Especially the part about the red sweater. It also sent my mind back to that time. I didn't remember the sweater at all so I called Marg. I asked her, "What's with the red sweater?" She immediately said it wasn't red it was grey and that you bit a hole in it. And that it wasn't her sweater, it was mine. So case in point our memories are different. After thinking about it for a while, I did remember being terribly mad at you, but decided that you were worth much more than a sweater. So I had a good laugh and went on with my evening. Love You Sis

  4. Marilyn, Too Funny! You are right, case in point. Margy says the sweater was gray but I can see it in my mind as red as an apple. And, I didn't remember it was yours and not hers until just now. I got into a lot of trouble for that. . .which I should have! Next time at lunch the three of us should compare the notes on the sweater story just for fun. Love you too, Sis!


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