Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Problem with Writing Memory

I just finished a really great read, Annie's Ghost, by Steve Luxenberg.  The book follows Luxenberg's  search to find out about the sister his mother hid from her family her whole life.  A few weeks before his mother dies, she reveals the sister to a social worker who then mentions her to the family.  All are shocked.  

As a writer and journalist and son, Luxenberg takes on the awesome task of trying to uncover the sister Annie's story.  This involves a thorough investigation into the mental health system in Michigan, particularly focusing on the city/asylum called Eloise in Detroit.

Here's an interesting paragraph that nicely crystallizes the essential problem with writing nonfiction, particularly distant histories:

(Anna, in this paragraph, is a cousin who knew his mom's secret about Annie, the hidden sister):

"This is a case history of the difficulty with reconstructing long ago events, of the intricate patters of trouble caused by time and memory.  Here I am, reinterpreting my mother's life, trying to replace the distorted picture that I grew up believing with the part that had been airbrushed out, and now I have two versions of this key moment when Mom is declaring her desire for secrecy.  While I have no doubts about the crux of Anna's story -- I know, after all, that Mom did keep the secret -- which version comes closest to how Mom actually expressed that desire?  Was she elliptical and polite, "I would appreciate it …," as Anna's first version suggests?  Or did she issue the equivalent of an ultimatum, "Anna, you are welcome in my house only if …," as her second version implies?  And even if Mom's exact words had been imprinted somehow in Anna's memory, what about Mom's inflection,her demeanor, her body language?  Was she stern, or sad, or nervous, or demanding -- None of the above?  All of the above?  -- when she branded Annie as a taboo subject in her house?

Those nuances lie beyond my reach.  I cannot wrest them, undistilled or unvarnished, from Anna's memory.  Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do."

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