Close Readings Blog

Origin as Myth

As I write my memoir about my childhood, I am constantly sorting through voices in my head. Memories that I have taken for granted for decades of my life begin to reveal their sources in my parents’ voices, their motivations, their interest in shaping my personal narrative. Do any of us know our origins? Our early years? What happened? Parents must, and do, fill in the gaps, but their words may not equal the memories imprinted on our bodies. Do they emphasize a violent encounter that imprints on us prelinguistically? Do adults try to rewrite a day of torment as not so bad? Or replace years of trauma with fake smiles in a Polaroid shot? In the book The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy, written in collaboration with his psychotherapist, Arabella Kurtz, J.M. Coetzee wonders about the childhood “memories” we take as reliable stories of our origins but that are actually edited selections made adults: “I ask this question with the example in mind of how adults continually entrench memories in children: ‘Don’t you remember how…’ I am properly wary of using myself as an example, but let me nevertheless assert that I have no recollection of the time before I was about four that was not reinforced, if not actually installed, either by my mother’s words or by a snapshot explained to me by my mother. ‘Don’t you remember? That was your third birthday. That was when we were living in that ugly old house on Warrenton, where it go so hot and the mosquitoes buzzed all night.’” He goes on: “I have a scar on my right thigh. The scar is there. so something must have caused it. But my only memory of what happened was supplied by my mother, who told me of the accident that occurred in 1942 as a result of which I have to have three or four or five stitches. ‘And you were very brave....

Apocalypse of Memory

“My story has to start with that night. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it’s where my story has to start. When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to darkness.” – Indra Sinha, Animal’s People I am reading Animal’s People by Indra Sinha about the 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, often called the worst industrial disaster in world history. This novel is on my syllabus next semester for my new “Environmental Apocalypse” course. My reading of literature could be divided into three categories: (1) memoirs, which I read obsessively to study the form as I write my own book, (2) literary works that I use in my Environmental Studies classes in my job as a professor, and (3) essays and novels I read purely for pleasure with no productive goal in mind. But when I read, these boundaries pretty much fall away, and all blend together. For example, teaching Environmental Apocalypse overlaps with my memoir: living in, steeped in, childhood trauma, and not knowing if you will survive feels apocalyptic in many ways. I didn’t have that language as a child or a teenager. I would never have said, My parents’ marriage is an apocalypse.” Because in many ways I was born into a world already fallen apart, where my life was regularly threatened. There was no previous safe space that disappeared as the anchors of reality floated away. Apocalypse was everyday. In Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, military vet and philosopher Roy Scranton says something similar: living through the war in Iraq, where his life could end any moment, has prepared him for climate collapse. In Animal’s People, the protagonist, Animal, has been born into apocalypse. My story has to start with that night. He had a few years of life before the Union Carbide plant exploded chemicals into the slums of...