Memories, Nightmares, and Sin by Shane Borrowman
February 27, 2014
Posted By: Shaunescy
Maybe twenty years ago, I was teaching nonfiction and writing about my childhood. In particular, I found myself writing about dreams—about nightmares so terrifying that their fragments remain with me even now, at 43. Like most of my early memories, I don’t really have a timeline that I associate with these dreams—no context, no idea how old I might have been at the time they plagued me.
So I called my mother, which is a good strategy for pretty much every situation.
I don’t remember the exact dialogue. But I remember the question I asked: “How old was I when I had all those nightmares about being kidnapped?”
I remember waking up screaming night after night, remember my parents running into my room to comfort me. The memories are in fragments, but they have the color and texture of any other childhood memory. I remember the light from the small aquarium on my dresser shimmering, its shadows darting, until mom or dad would snap on the overhead light, its fluorescent glow eliminating all darkness.
So I asked my question about when this period of night terrors happened, and silence fell on the telephone line.
“That never happened,” my mother finally said. She said it much nicer than it sounds, but her denial of a truth I remembered was complete.
Only a few weeks ago, I found myself in another role in a similar sort of conversation. I was in my living room, in my favorite brown chair, talking with my daughter. She’s eight—the age I would guess I was, more or less, when I (maybe) had all those nightmares that I remember. Those nightmares my mother denies.
Somehow, Sam and I ended up talking about the weather, which hadn’t yet turned polar, and then an odd thing happened. Samantha began by asking, “Dad, do you remember that one day last winter, when the weather was perfect?” She went on to describe the sparse cloud cover, which gave us almost full sun. She described how there was almost no snow on the ground, just a few dirty piles in the shade. She described how there was only a little wind.
Sam really got into this. I was tickled, since the writer in me loves to hear that much detail, while the parent in me just loves to see Sam get excited as she tells a story.
But her story was all setting and no action, so I finally asked her, “What were we doing?” She didn’t even hesitate before giving me the answer: “We were playing catch with the football. The big one.”
That’s what she calls the regulation-size ball we have. It’s nearly too big for her hands, but it’s the only one I can catch. I seem to be Nerf-challenged.
I found myself thinking about this conversation later. I haven’t really stopped. I don’t know if Sam was describing an actual, specific day, a day on the calendar that could have been recorded in factual terms. It’s possible.
But she’s wrong about the key event: Sam and I couldn’t have been playing catch at any point last winter, not with that football. I just bought it six months ago. And 99 times out of 100, if we’re in the backyard playing, her twin John is with us—plus my wife. If we’re outside, then we all tend to be outside.
Sam’s memory is complete, however, and her memory of that day, should it continue to hold a place in her mind, will ultimately become the memory of that day. Maybe she’ll even write about it.
I keep thinking about my memory of nightmares that I may not have had and about playing catch on a day that could have happened but with a football Samantha and I didn’t own yet…and when we wouldn’t be likely to be alone, although it’s not impossible.
Those two memories may be made up almost entirely from fiction.
I had nightmares as a child; I believe this because I still do, especially if I take something to help me sleep. But I also accept that I may be remembering only a single bad dream about kidnapping, something that resonated so loudly in my child mind that it has only gained in volume as it’s echoed through the decades. My mother would have no incentive to lie to me about such a thing, and obviously she was older at the time and thus more able to remember. Given that my memory is of waking my parents up with my shrieking—in the middle of the night—I’d guess that it’s the sort of thing a parent would tend to remember.
And Samantha is remembering real moments of the two of us playing catch in the backyard, but she’s likely taken dozens of different days and formed a single, idealized memory that stands for the rest. When we play catch, it calms her. She has always enjoyed physical activity more than I did at her age, and I’ve likely played more football with her than I did with my own father (through no fault of his…I just wasn’t an outdoor sort of kid). If a slightly warped memory of an event that didn’t literally happen as she remembers it still brings her joy, then there’s no call for me to get in the way.
Ultimately, neither Sam’s memory nor mine does either of us any harm. But they point to the fragility and malleability of memory and to a fundamental flaw we all carry with us.
Harvard’s Daniel Schacter has identified seven “sins” of memory, and I won’t walk through all of them now. Too much sin for one blog. His book’s accessible, intelligent, and well worth reading. I’ll walk through the one most relevant to families, to those of us who feel compelled to remember.
One of memory’s sins, argues Schacter, is “persistence bias”—the inclination we have to ruminate and obsess, especially about emotional memories. We go over events again and again, calcifying the narrative in our heads. We do this, sometimes, even if the narrative we impose only amplifies and intensifies the pain. We think about one specific point, one angry conversation or hateful comment or inappropriate public comment.
(An authorial intrusion: The following paragraph felt unnatural to write, mostly because I wanted to tell a specific story about a specific relationship that ended badly. Apocalyptically. But there’s no way to tell that story without embarrassing myself, my spouse, my kids, and a range of other folks who generally don’t deserve to be punished for knowing a writer.)
We tell ourselves the story about ending a relationship. The story cooks in our minds. We tell other people the story, altering details (highlighting some things more than others, deleting things that no longer seem relevant, probably making a few things up to add drama) to fit the audience. For one listener, we frame the memory/story as if we were victim. In another setting, we become an active, angry agent of change—probably one who knew the exact cutting comment to make for crushing effect. Which happens maybe three times in the average person’s life. Probably not in the story we’re telling ourselves and others, though.
But this is never, ever (hopefully) a matter of deliberate deception. It’s just how our minds work. Some memories, especially the painful ones, stick. We deal with them by pushing on them and pulling at them persistently until we find some sort of balance…even if that “balance” is achieved by distorting the facts of what happened. (Academic postmodernists bristle at a word like “facts”—but I don’t. Some things happen. Other things don’t. Not all of reality is up for grabs, and not all perceptions are equal.)
Samantha tells herself the story of the two of us playing catch with our regulation NFL football on a perfect day last winter. This memory establishes its narrative rhythm through persistent repetition and sticks largely in that form for reasons beyond itself—for the happiness it brings her, I hope.
I remember my nightmares of being kidnapped, remember them coming night after night after night. If I’m right about when this may have happened, then it may have been somewhere in the wake of my older sister’s death. If I was only seven or eight years old, I can imagine how my mind might have taken her sudden death—impossible to understand, then—and cross-linked to another fear that involved someone being suddenly gone forever: kidnapping.
I don’t know if that’s true. It could be.
It’s my story, though, and I’m sticking to it.
With Love, Dad
Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western. He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films. He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.