The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”
In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.
Below is an excerpt from the first four chapters of The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s gripping hybrid memoir of a murder case and family secrets. Blending crime reportage with first-person narrative of her own struggles, the braided story wrestles with trauma, violence, and the ways we try to understand the past, especially when those we trust betray us. Our thanks to Marzano-Lesnevich and Flatiron for sharing it with the Longreads community.
Note: This work is not authorized or approved by the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center or its clients, and the views expressed by the author do not reflect the views or positions of anyone other than the author. The author’s description of any legal proceedings, including her description of the positions of the parties and the circumstances and events of the crimes charged, are drawn solely from the court record, other publicly available information, and her own research.
The boy wears sweatpants the color of a Louisiana lake. Later, the police report will note them as blue, though in every description his mother gives thereafter she will always insist on calling them aqua or teal. On his feet are the muddy hiking boots every boy wears in this part of the state, perfect for playing in the woods. In one small fist, he grips a BB gun half as tall as he is. The BB gun is the Daisy brand, with a long, brown plastic barrel the boy keeps as shiny as if it were real metal. The only child of a single mother, Jeremy Guillory is used to moving often, sleeping in bedrooms that aren’t his. His mother’s friends all rent houses along the same dead-end street the landlord calls Watson Road whenever he wants to charge higher rent, though it doesn’t really have a name and even the town police department will need directions to find it. Settlers from Iowa named the town after their home state but, wanting a fresh start, pronounced the name Io-way, even as they kept the spelling. The town has always been a place people come for new starts, always been a place they can’t quite leave the past behind. There, the boy and his mother stay with whoever can pay the electricity bill one month, whoever can keep the gas on the next. Wherever the boy lands, he takes his BB gun with him. It is his most prized possession.
Now it is the first week in February. The leaves are green and lush on the trees, but the temperature dips at night. Lorilei, Jeremy’s mother, isn’t working. She rented a home just for the two of them—their first—but the electricity’s been turned off. Her brother Richard lives in a sprawling house up on the hill, but she isn’t staying with Richard. Instead, Lorilei and Jeremy are staying with Lorilei’s friend Melissa, Melissa’s boyfriend, Michael, and their baby. The baby is two years old, old enough that he wants to play with the boy and screams when he doesn’t get his way.
My mother is both child and madwoman, all the time. She doesn’t know what day it is, or what she did one minute ago, or even the names of the few friends who still call or stop by to visit. She gets angry at the trees for dropping their leaves in autumn and can no longer understand why it’s a bad idea to share her chocolate bar with the dog. Dementia has wiped out most of her past, leaving behind a shell of personality that exists in a perpetual, baffling present.
The loss of memory is so awful a prospect, yet memory is, at best, a mixed blessing. It’s a source of torment as often as pleasure, the place where pain and loss reside. Grudges live there, and so do shame and regret. My mother, as far as I can see, is relieved of all those things. The deprivations of her childhood, her difficult marriage, the baby she lost, her thwarted dream of a singing career—all gone now. No memory means no grieving. And yet, there is still that disquiet behind her smile. There remains some unbeautiful mystery in the place she now dwells, something bad that is unknowable to me, unnameable to her.
I keep running up against that something whenever I try to find comfort in my mother’s liberation from her past. It’s so tempting to deny the darkness I see in her, to choose to believe she’s entirely happy, and I’m not sure whether that’s for her sake or mine. Even when I was a little girl battling with her over the dolls, I desperately wanted her to be happy. I realize now that I thought her happiness would make mine possible. My fate was all bound up with hers, and that still feels true. What haunts her haunts me. The darkness is something shared between us, as real as our blood and just as elemental.
Chart from "The Phrenological Journal," (c) The Wellcome Trust
Lonni Sue Johnson was a successful illustrator — think New Yorker covers — amateur violist, pilot, and small businesswoman. When the herpes simplex virus attacked her brain, it caused substantial tissue loss in her medial temporal lobes; she lost almost her entire lifetime of knowledge and experiences, along with the ability to form new memories. In Aeon, Michael Lemonick describes how she’s invaluable to neuroscientists working to understand how we make, organize, and store memories.
There’s no established protocol, however, for probing an amnesia victim on the sorts of knowledge Johnson gathered in her lifetime. The neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins started at the most basic level they could think of – the ‘Who painted this?’ test, which she pretty much failed. Her semantic memory about art and artists, her primary area of expertise, was significantly impaired. Remarkably, though, when the scientists included some of her own artworks in the testing, she correctly flagged every one as hers. Even more surprising, when the researchers added drawings done in a style somewhat similar to Johnson’s, she picked them out as artworks she might have produced. To do so, she had to be drawing on some sort of memory. It clearly wasn’t episodic memory, since artworks aren’t events – but it’s unclear that it qualifies as semantic memory either, since it addresses an ineffable quality, not a set of facts. ‘I don’t think we know how to characterise that sort of memory,’ Barbara Landau, one of the Johns Hopkins scientists, told me in an interview.
Adrian Daub’s fascinating essay in the LA Review of Bookson the Stephen King classic IT — now 30 years old — reveals that the real horror of IT wasn’t Pennywise the supernatural clown, but our own, entirely human ability to forget the horrors of the past.
I realize now that I can’t even remember when I finally picked up one of these errant copies of It and started reading. But perhaps that’s a strangely appropriate mode of reception for a horror novel that reserves its greatest terror for the vagaries of memory. It features relatively little of the kind of horror that has protagonists shining their flashlights into dark corners to face unseen abominations. Instead, it dwells on the horror of having lived with something terrifying all along, of having become blind and numb to it. It strikes me only now, rereading the book decades later in English, that there’s something distinctively American about the pervasive, dreamlike fog of amnesia that envelops the town of Derry, Maine, in King’s novel. Not for nothing does It make its home in the town’s sewers; as one character puts it: “Nobody knows where all the damned sewers and drains go, or why. When they work, nobody cares.”
Atlanta chef and culinary teacher Tim Patridge says there is a difference between reunion and funeral chicken. Reunion chicken, he explains, is fried fast and hot, in a hurry to get to the park and the party. It has a crust that is consequently crisper than the more tender crust of funeral chicken. Funeral chicken is fried slowly. Reluctant for the day to progress, the cook takes her time, turning the burner lower, braising as well as frying. As she stands at the stove, turning the pieces, raising and lowering the heat, she is lost in the act of remembering the person who has gone before. That memory, Tim suggests, may also flavor funeral chicken.
When was the last time you had to memorize a telephone number? For me, that would be more than six years ago, when we moved to another country and my wife got a new phone. Our relation to our memories in the age of unlimited digital storage is far more complicated, though. At the New Statesman, Sophie McBain explores the ways, both subtle and startling, in which the rise of digital media and smartphones has altered our ability — and willingness — to remember:
For thousands of years, human beings have relied on stone tablets, scrolls, books or Post-it notes to remember things that their minds cannot retain, but there is something profoundly different about the way we remember and forget in the internet age. It is not only our memory of facts that is changing. Our episodic memory, the mind’s ability to relive past experiences — the surprising sting of an old humiliation revisited, the thrill and discomfort of a first kiss, those seemingly endless childhood summers — is affected, too. The average Briton now spends almost nine hours a day staring at their phone, computer or television, and when more of our lives are lived on screen, more of our memories will be formed there. We are recording more about ourselves and our experiences than ever before, and though in the past this required deliberate effort, such as sitting down to write a diary, or filing away a letter, or posing for a portrait, today this process can be effortless, even unintentional. Never before have people had access to such comprehensive and accurate personal histories — and so little power to rewrite them.
In 1982, mere weeks before leaving Hawaii, author Linda Spalding had been summoned to serve as a juror on the murder trial of Maryann Acker. She ran five minutes late on the day the jury convened to reach a verdict; the judge promptly dismissed her and an alternate took her spot. Acker was found guilty and has spent the next 30 years in prison.
In this piece from Brick Magazine, Spalding reflects on memory, her own quixotic quest to help reverse Maryann’s conviction, and the outsized effect complete strangers can have on each other’s life.
A few months later, I spent three afternoons with Maryann behind the razor wire and chain-link fence at the California Institution for Women,where she had spent twenty-two years of her life. Because of the murder conviction in Hawaii, the California parole board considered her a serial killer, and with a life sentence they could hold her indefinitely. During those first visits I told her she had seemed frozen as she sat in our courtroom all those years before, never shaking her head or wiping her eyes. Never shouting. Never bursting into tears or insisting on her innocence. Even so, I had identified with her then, and now I watched her closely, trying to decide if my belief in her innocence had been justified.
Memoirist, essayist and poet Mary Karr is often recognized as being the author with perhaps the single greatest responsibility for the resurgence of memoir in bookstores and on nightstands in recent decades. In her new collection of essays The Art of Memoir, Karr presents readers with a book-length craft talk which, true to her style, ranges from allusive to acerbic to profound, all in the span of a page. In the following excerpt, from the opening of her first chapter, Karr uses a little deception and a judicious ‘fuck’ to make a point.Read more…
Ice cream is Proustian. One bite can send you time-traveling decades back, to a hot summer day, when you walked barefoot on shell-dappled Gulf sands, vanilla ice cream dripping over the sides of a cone and onto your fingers. Maybe it was a reward for the first time you lost a tooth, a sweet, cold dish of mint chocolate chip as balm for the pain. A bite of blackberry gelato might conjure up a stroll down a sunny Roman street with a long-lost love. More recently, ice cream has become associated with being a good person and doing good works, even though the product really isn’t all that good for you. Honesty matters. Trust matters. We feed it to our children, after all. This is why Ben & Jerry’s, on its website, stresses its commitment to “progressive values across our business,” “climate justice,” and mandatory GMO labeling. This is why Häagen-Dazs wants you to know that the company has devoted more than $1 million to honeybee survival (“We want to keep those little heroes buzzing”). This is why Breyers pledges to use “sustainably farmed vanilla and fruit” and milk and cream from cows “not treated with artificial growth hormones.” Keeping up with modern times, Breyers also features lactose-free, no-sugar-added, fat-free, half-the-fat, carb-smart, and gluten-free ice cream.
—Mimi Swartz writing in Texas Monthly about Blue Bell, a much-loved Texas company that has recently been plagued by a series of recalls and deaths linked to listeria-tainted ice cream.