It seems as if memory — both when it works and when it doesn’t — is in the news a lot today. In the world of science, we’re being told that, if we moisturize our bodies, we may have a better chance of preventing Alzheizmer’s, as well as a host of other illnesses.

Elsewhere we read that, if you apply electrical stimulation to elderly people’s brains, you can revitalize their memory so it’s as if they’re in their 20s again. A lower tech suggestion is just to eat lots of garlic.

Memory is also an issue in politics today. Hillary Clinton, for example, might be called the Queen of Forgetfulness. Writing about his Whitewater investigation, Ken Starr said he knew Hillary was lying because she claimed more than 100 times not to remember anything. In connection with the investigation into her email server, Hillary again suffered from sudden-onset Alzheimer’s. I think we can confidently expect that, as the Department of Justice under William Barr turns its attention to the decisions that led to the Obama administration spying on Donald Trump, this same sudden-onset Alzheimer’s will turn into a D.C. epidemic.

I’ve been thinking about memory a lot lately, and not just because of health and politics. I think about it in relationship to myself, because I take so much longer to remember new information than I used to. When I was young, if something interested me, I had a mind like a steel trap. Tell me once and you were done. Now that I’m older, no matter how interested in something I am, you have to pile-drive it into my brain to make it stick. It can be very frustrating, although I console myself with the thought (possibly true) that I compensate for my lack of memory with an increase in wisdom.

Mostly, though, I think about memory because I’m working on a novel based upon my family’s history. I think of it as a fictionalized memoir.

My family’s history is, I think, a very interesting history, taking place across Western Europe and the Middle East from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century. During that time, some of my family rose from poverty and some descended into poverty. Some barely made it through the Depression and some rode it out in style. Some escaped the Nazis, some were killed by the Nazis, and some embraced the Nazis. Some witnessed the end of Empire and some were there at the birth of a new nation. It is, I believe, a compelling story and one that I hope I’m capable of telling.

A number of the seeds for the story started with family dinner conversations. At the dinner table, I learned that my father enlisted in the military the day war was declared. I learned that my mother, who was half-Jewish, was always a Judophile. I learned that my father served for four years in the British military during WWII. And I learned that my mother saved her little sister when they were in a concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies.

These and many more were the foundation myths of my childhood. When I started writing the novel, however, and set out to pin down those core family stories (which I did after both my parents had passed away), I learned that they, and many others, were untrue. Whether I looked through the family papers I inherited, talked to other people who had shared experiences with my parents, or did online research, I kept running up against the fact that my parents’ memories did not square with reality.

I learned that my father only enlisted in the military more than a year after war was declared, although he almost certainly did so for the reason given in family lore, which is that, having left the kibbutz he helped found, he was starving on the streets and signed up to get a square meal.

I learned that my mother, despite being half Jewish and having spent several years in British mandate Palestine with Jews as her only and dearest friends, still viewed people who looked too Jewish as “greasy yids” and “boring because they were Jews.”

I learned that my father did not serve four years in the military, but only two — although in that time, he was in both the Battle of Crete and El Alamein, the latter of which left him so shell shocked he got a medical discharge immediately after.

And I learned that, while my mother did do work in the concentration camp that helped save her sister, her sister also did work that help save my mother — it was a team effort, not a matter of solo heroic resistance on my mother’s part.

When I first made these discoveries, I thought, “My parents lied!” Since then, though, I’ve decided they were not lies at all. They were, instead, readjustments of memory, a type of personal myth-making in which most people engage.

Some people engage in this myth-making to add color to their memories, so they’re more interesting in the retelling. Others may do it to wipe away shame about things they saw, said, or did that, while not criminal, show them in a bad light either to the world or to themselves. My parents engaged in both types of memory retrofitting.

Given their motives in jazzing up the details of lives that were too exciting even on their own terms, I suspect that, had my parents been given the chance to have their memories zapped backed to their 20 year old selves, they might have said “no.” After all, accurate recall was obviously too painful or boring in the first place, so why would they want to revisit it a second time around?


Photo by jarmoluk (Pixabay)

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