For Harper’s Magazine, Sallie Tisdale looks into the science of memory as she interrogates inaccuracy in remembering, and what that murkiness means to those who write and read memoir.
We swing between the poles of persistence and transience, and we all suffer from what one scientist refers to as a “proneness of memory to error.” As soon as a memory is activated, it is suddenly fragile again, subject to interference. It must be reconsolidated every time. With each pass, tiny deformations appear. You can’t tell what has changed, because each time you recall a memory it feels correct.
This writer’s self can’t stop telling stories, but I may never write memoir again. At least, I won’t make the same promise. I can’t. This doesn’t feel like a loss or a change in the script; I am working on a book about the past right now. But the interrogation has changed. Lived life is past and present and future all receding at once. What we long to hold on to, we lose; what we remember is often what we would just as soon forget; the future is always bearing down, an endless distraction. I know myself as a glitter of synaptic activation, a flimsy thing easily swept aside. A ceaselessly increasing sum materializing out of nothingness, each integer instantly flung behind me. I am persistent. I am transient. Memory is not a fixed object, and neither am I.