It is memory that counts, that controls the rich mastery of the story, impels it along
– Jorge Semprun
If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you would have (hopefully) detected a thread running through the posts, although admittedly a thread barely visible to the naked eye.
Basically, the theme of this blog is the dance of memory and how, as I go about my life, I am simultaneously adding to my store of memories while drawing upon that store to make sense of, and enrich, my experience. I’ve been particularly honing in on my experience of the arts.
But in this post I want to look at memory front-on. I want to confront memory with its disingenuous nature because what’s really fascinating is how fragile and unstable memories are. Professor Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist whose expertise lies in investigating the fallibility of memories. She would likely turn Jorge Semprun’s statement around and say that it is the story that controls memory; that our memories are not objective facts but stories we have created around events.
A case in point: not long ago, a friend mentioned in passing “that time I saved T.” T. was a former housemate of mine and the incident my friend was referring to occurred about 15 years ago. My story and my friend’s matched in that we both remembered that T. had stopped breathing. What differed in our memories was who and what started T. breathing again.
So this is my memory, or rather my ‘story’ of what happened. I would love to be able to draw this because it is such a vivid visual story for me. I’d also like to colour-code the drawing according to what I would swear happened and what I think I have since made up about this incident. Unfortunately, the person who could draw this memory is my friend who has proved to be manifestly unreliable in the remembering department. Of course, you’ll have to trust me on that.
“That time I saved T.”
My friend said he had saved my former housemate by walking her around the backyard. It’s true that after T., had stopped breathing, my friend and another housemate had walked T. around the backyard. But ‘if memory serves me correctly’ this was after I had revived T. by administering first aid in the form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This was the first and only time I’ve done this, so if this didn’t happen I won’t have time to write anything else in my life because I have to go back and question everything that I think happened. I’m still stunned that my friend had completely forgotten about me giving T. mouth-to-mouth as he had watched me do it. Or at least, that’s what I remember.
My friend had come over in the afternoon and I was making us some tea in the kitchen when one of my housemates rushed in and asked me to come quickly. “T. has stopped breathing.” T. was lying on her bed. I recall my first thought being that she was a pretty shade of eggshell blue that complemented the shade of her hair. With her red hair trailing behind her on the pillow, I thought that T. looked like that famous painting of Ophelia. But whether I truly had these thoughts at that time, or have added them since, I don’t know.
At that point, time slowed down and everything I did seemed to have an air of great deliberation. It was like a video I saw once, of a monk walking through the streets of Tokyo (or was it New York?) He walked incredibly slowly among the rush of people, placing the heel of one foot in front of the toes of the other. It seemed time slowed to this pace. But I also recall thinking that I had to act quickly, or T. would either die or be brain-damaged from lack of oxygen.
I had learned mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in Year 8, when I was 13 years old. It was taught as part of PE – physical education. It is physical, I’ll grant that. There’s no getting around the physicality of planting your mouth on someone you don’t find attractive and breathing your breath into them. It seems to me now that as I went through the steps one by one – the checking for breathing, making sure the airway was clear, pinching the nostrils – I also recalled the smell of the dummy we had “resuscitated” all those years before and the giggling of fellow 13-year-old girls as we “kissed” its rubber face. But did I really? I have no idea.
It seems I remembered the PE teacher’s shiny polyester shorts, his squat, muscular legs and boyish haircut. I also seem to recall his determinedly serious demeanour and repressed impatience with the dumb giggling of 13-year-olds. Is any of that true? I don’t know.
I do know that after I exhaled into T.’s lungs a couple of times, she started to breathe of her own accord and I felt relieved. I seem to also remember a sense of surprise and of hiding that surprise from my friend and my other housemate but most of all, from T. After all, who needed to know that until that point I didn’t know I remembered how to do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Did T. really need to see my look of surprise that she was breathing? And did I really feel this surprise at the time and hide it? I don’t know.
I do know that at the moment when T. began breathing, my focus widened and I became aware again of the others in the room – including my friend, who I think had been leaning against the frame of the door, watching me go through the steps of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I asked the two of them to get T. up and moving, while I called the emergency number to cancel the ambulance.
Cue my friend’s memory story, which starts here.
Meanwhile, back in my memory story, what happened next was that I went back to the kitchen and sat at the table while my friend and my other housemate walked T. around the backyard. I started to shake, as the adrenalin surging through my system no longer found an outlet in action, my brain began to compute what had just happened and my imagination caught a glimpse of the other potential outcome.
When my friend said “…that time when I saved T.”, I couldn’t help but find the disparity between our memories funny, albeit in a slightly discombobulating way. It was a concrete example of the fluidity of memory. At least I could rely on my memory for the basic outline of the incident, I thought. But then maybe at that very moment my friend was thinking: “I can’t believe she thinks she gave T. mouth-to-mouth. She’s probably elaborating on some distant memory of first aid she learned at school…”