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. You didn’t cry.’ So I became the kind of little boy who doesn’t cry. An instance of how implanted memories can exert a force well into the future.”
I like how Coetzee used the word install. I obsessively look up words in dictionaries. Even when it’s obvious they mean because they are such everyday, common terms. I like to see how “the experts” struggle through nailing down a meaning, how they capture nuances, subtleties, tensions that are nearly impossible to define. When I looked up install, I was amused to see the following synonym listed: load. It reminded me of loading software onto a computer. Installing a program. Installing a memory. As a child, for a while, I obliged the memories that were installed in me.
In my latest excerpt from my memoir manuscript, “The Perfect Times,” published on Tamim Ansary’s Memoir Pool site, I write, “As a child, I didn’t know what happened, so I put together a story with whatever information I could find.” The story goes on to reflect on the tension between what my mother taught me about my first three years of life and what was missing from her account, and I’ve tried to create a narrative voice that relates the way her accounts, her scrapbooks and stories, became archived in my mind, meaningful to me in so many ways–but meaningful not because they were true or complete but because I integrated them into my sense of self. I believed them because I needed to. “The Perfect Times” is about my childhood faith in a fabricated past, a past that once I realized the problems my parents had, started to reveal many more complications. I focus especially on the baby scrapbook she painstakingly put together, including images, cards sent when I was born, birthday cards when I reached Year One–a scrapbook I poured over as a young girl, repeatedly re-installing her memory, a living archive rewriting time:
Mom made a scrapbook. Did she do this for herself? Did she do this for me? I’m not sure. My first smiles, my first giggles, my first run across the Jansens’ yard—all were documented with photos, and the details handwritten in the box next to First Word, First Steps, Favorite Toy, Favorite Food, on special note cards made for babies’ early years. My mother was aware of time, conscious of how fast everything changed, but she followed others’ rules for what had meaning. Favorite Toy, Favorite Food, What Makes Me Laugh, Favorite Song. These details do not help me now. What I’d like to know: When was the first time I heard my father’s voice on the phone?
I read her captions, and how she inhabits me, speaking for me when I have no voice:
She wrote captions as if she were me. She took on my voice. In her captions, I’m always talking to her, about her, thinking about her. There are no independent moments. Everything I do relates back to Mom.
Many parents might do this, but I suppose the question to ask is, When does it stop? We do we reboot? Un-install? When does a parent say, That seemed good enough for you as a kid, but now let’s get all the difficult questions answered and out of the way so you will know where you really came from.
My mother installed the software, and I ran the program until I started writing my own book.
“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 Bhopal, but he can’t remember them and that doesn’t matter. I don’t remember anything about it, though I was there, nevertheless it’s where my story has to start. My own childhood had a few possible years before the violence began. (I wrote about those years in “Perfect Times,” an essay published by fellow Afghan-American writer Tamim Ansary.) What you don’t remember is still filled with stories, others’ stories, who tell you want that time meant. You weave those accounts–often/sometimes fabrications–into your own memory.
Animal’s People makes apocalypse a buried memory, prelinguistic, installed by others–in contrast with the fear of apocalypse in popular (and even academic/intellectual) culture today. A well-known eco-critic, Lawrence Buell, once wrote, “Apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal.” Apocalypse as metaphor, apocalypse as narrative ending–that is not what apocalypse is for those who have survived trauma. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is not a projection into a future. It’s not a threat, the possibility of horror and the fall of civilization. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is an already-happened prelinguistic memory. In Animal’s People, apocalypse is a town. The novel is set in Khaufpur, a fictional name meaning, literally, Town of Terror. Narrating his beginnings, Animal explains, When something big like that night happens, time divides into before and after, the before time breaks up into dreams, the dreams dissolve to to darkness.