Memory and Memoir

by Jason Tougaw

People ask me how I remember so much of my childhood? Part of the answer is that I have an obsessive memory. Some people respond to hardship and trauma by forgetting. Some doing it by remembering. Some with a confusing combination of both. Any of these responses can be therapeutic; any of them can be painful or destructive.

But that’s only part of the answer. Memories enable us to feel cohesive through time, connected to our pasts, to other people, to history. Memory is notoriously fallible, but that word only applies if you think the point of memory is accuracy. It really isn’t. The point of memory is that feeling of cohesion. Memories change with every recall. They’re primed and distorted by situations in the present. Memory need not be accurate to be functional—to help us cohere through time, to connect with people important to us, to stitch our lives into history.

Accuracy matters. I don’t mean to say it doesn’t. But it’s just not the primary function of memory—and it’s also an impossible dream. A memory doesn’t duplicate the past. It recreates it.

I had all this on my mind when I wrote The One You Get. I got into the habit of recreating memories—my own and those of other people. I’d think about the event, or scene, starting with what I knew about it. Then I’d imagine concrete details, in an almost meditative way, letting them come to me. I’d describe the details that felt right, the ones that helped me build what felt like a true reconstruction of what the memory felt like.

I wanted to get at a couple of types of truth. My family’s telling and retelling of our lore is one kind of truth. The stories change with the narrator and with time. It’s obvious they’ve strayed pretty far from any kind of literal past by the time we start hurling them across a table at Thanksgiving. But in the telling, we’re saying, “This is who we are.” We’re arguing about who we have been or might be. We’re making ourselves. The fantasies and ruminations we all carry with us as we move through life are another kind of truth about who we are. These are almost always solitary, unshared. I wanted to share some of mine.

I didn’t fabricate events in the memoir (though some are composites). The scenes I describe either happened to me, or happened to an intimate who told me stories about them. I figure my versions of these stories are as true as anybody else’s.

Memory is not so different from imagination, if you think about it. They commingle with just about every act of remembering or imagining. Every memoir is a remaking the past. Rather than avoid or work around that simple fact, I decided to play around with it.

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