Posted by: Robin | May 20, 2008


In my family my memory is considered freakish. I have extensive childhood memories beginning at the age of two (I know that because we moved to a different  house when I was three and some of the memories involve my oldest-younger brother as a baby). I inherited it from my dad, but no one else in my family seems to recall much of anything of childhood or later in the detail I do. About twenty-five years ago I heard this described as a writer’s memory, which I immediately took to heart as proof that writing was my destiny. I’m pretty good at recalling information, too, but it is in life memories that my brain most shines.

When my husband first decided to be a pastor, among other things (like seminary), he had to go under care of the local presbytery in Rochester, NY. They sent us both to Princeton to go through a vocational assessment that included me as spouse. There were IQ tests (we were a point apart but the cadgy psychologist thought he was so cute when he refused to say which of us was smarter), aptitude tests, a couple counseling sessions, and Don did the inkblot test. The most fascinating question was “what are your first three memories?”. I’d never before considered that with zillions of memories, even a freakish memory (except for that singular woman noted in National Geographic and on ABC’s “20/20” who remembers every minute of her life) forgets more than they remember, so why of all the possible memories do we remember the ones we do? The psychologist proceeded to display a disconcertingly accurate understanding of my core issues and how I view and relate to the world from three slices of memory when I was two.

Lately I’ve learned a lot more fascinating things about memories and how certain of them become hotwired into our brain, and our brain uses them as a filing system for new experiences to save time. A series of recent articles in National Geographic’s Adventure magazine discuss how that hotwiring and filing system works for and against people in emergency survival situations.

So all this learning about memory has brought much self-understanding (and I’ll admit enjoyment), but lately I’ve discovered the pitfalls, and I’m a little shaken. Since I have a higher volume of specific memory than most of the people with whom I have close ties of blood or friendship, I have unconsciously for years assumed I had a better handle on what was. Especially where the first twenty-five years of my life were concerned, my life story as I perceived it became a monolith, a Stonehenge, of the way it was.

The first thing that began to undermine my certainty was hearing my adult children’s perceptions on their childhoods and our parental relationship versus mine. Not only was it a matter of remembering different things, but also a huge difference in emphasis and value placed. It helped me to see that my memories of my childhood very early were shaped, and particular memories retained or discarded, according to my juvenile interpretations of the truth of my life. For thirty to forty years those unquestioned assumptions have continued to color my experiences.

Then to better evaluate whether I’d written the voice of a teenage character in my novels too maturely, I reread my high school journals. My memory of my voice at the time was accurate, but I’d written almost nothing about the memories and experiences I valued most, even then, and certainly since college. I also had almost zero memory (with one exception) of how often my dad (whom I didn’t live with) came to my rescue when my car broke down or needed some kind of practical help. My father was a difficult man, and all his children have the scars to show for it, but there were some very good things, however unbalanced the ratio. I’d done his memory the injustice of not integrating this truth into my filing system. And then lately, three people from various stages in my life have gotten back in touch. Their memories of me have been another surprise, and flatteringly positive, but at odds with how I thought I was being perceived, which my retained memories support. I had to face that certain givens in my experience, neatly packaged and understood, have to be dusted off and painted in gentler colors.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, and some of that is because it’s all so new, but I like that I’m no longer sure about the whole picture, and that all those memories I let slide because they didn’t fit the narrative I’ve created for my life may change the story entirely . . . or maybe not. Surprisingly I find the uncertainty liberating. The old story hung pretty heavily around my neck. Maybe I had this underlying assumption that I had to live by the memories and within the patterns they formed. All the blank spaces in this changed perspective give me a lot more room to breathe and just be who I am and where I am right now in all of its colors. The memories can take care of themselves.



  1. I always knew you were a complex character, but this helps me understand why a bit better. I remember a lot of things from my childhood, but with pictures/slides of so many events, I often wonder what I truly remember and what is there because it’s been “refreshed” so many times over the years. But I know I don’t go back to age two.
    BTW… would sometime really like you and Mary to meet. That would be special for me.
    Hope the eyes are okay.. tried emailing you but think I used the wrong email.
    Saw Prince Caspian on Sunday.. thought it was better than #1. At least the kids are older and more believable that way. And have been humming/singing the theme from Indiana Jones in anticipation…what’s not to like about a pure fantasy/adventure movie done with tongue planted firmly in cheek…you know they had a blast making the movie because they don’t take themselves too seriously.

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