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Your Origin Story Is Probably a 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. 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.