Posted by Whittier Strong
Yesterday a relative pointed out to me some troubles with yesterday’s post. She said, first off, that I painted my mom to be more naïve than she was. After all, she said, her first husband–before my father–had slept around and run off on her. Second, I had the facts of the divorce decree simply wrong. Our father could take us out of the county but not out of the state, that this is a standard clause in custody arrangements. I maintained that I was right because I remembered. My relative pointed out that she, unlike me, had actually read my parents’ divorce decree.
To the first point: One of the things I don’t like about blogging is the demand for conciseness. Though I could in theory write a 5,000-word blog post, I don’t have the time to write it, and no-one wants to take that long to read a blog post. And so I compress, and avoid explaining some of the nuance. My mother, like every human being on the planet, is a complex person.
As to the second point, I relied mostly on a memory I had when I was ten. My father was going to take us to an amusement park near the Kentucky border. My mother said that he couldn’t because he was violating the divorce decree. The police got involved and everything. (In the end, our father took us, but it wasn’t a fun trip. He sat at the entrance and just told us to run off and do whatever. He wouldn’t give us any money whatsoever for concessions, and they charged five cents for water, and so we ran around on a hot day with no fluids.)
And so I tried to remember why there was the big brouhaha, and I thought it had to do with taking us out of the county. But now I have to admit that my memory was wrong here somehow. The trouble could have been that my father never told my mother directly that he was going to take us on the trip, having my brother tell her instead. It could be that, at the time, my mother misunderstood the divorce decree. Or it could have been something else that I can’t think of right now.
All of this calls to mind two important issues. First, autobiography is not memoir. In an autobiography, the author is reporting history. She collects facts and does research, even though she’s writing about her own life. An autobiography focuses on facts. In memoir, the author relies on her memory and the memory of those around her to inform the writing. And a memoirist is not merely reporting history, but is telling a story. She is using plot devices and story structures and all the other elements we use to tell a good story. But real life is not a “good story”. In real life, things don’t have a beginning, middle, and end–life just flows on. But stories demand a beginning, middle, and end, and so the memoirist frames her life to conform to the conventions of storytelling. Similarly, human beings are ridiculously complex, but for the sake of telling a story, especially a shorter story, the writer doesn’t dive into the 37 reasons why a character does what he does.
I am not an autobiographer, I am a memoirist. That distinction is crucial to understanding what I write. I have no intention to get facts wrong or to misrepresent anyone or anything. But I do try to tell a good story. And if I do get something wrong, as I did yesterday, I want to be called out on it so I can get the facts straight. I have learnt that it is better to be wrong and speak up than to be wrong and remain silent. If I speak up, then my wrongness can be pointed out, and I can change my mind and be right, whereas if I remain silent, I stay wrong.
And then there is the niggling issue of the reliability of memory. Science keeps showing us it’s not particularly reliable. The human brain is constantly restructuring itself and putting the pieces together the best it can, albeit imperfectly. We only have the illusion that our memory persists, when in fact our memory warps and melts and drips.
Is this a terrible thing? I’m of the same mind as a former professor of mine, Leah Savion of Indiana University (probably the best teacher I’ve ever had). She has an idea (which I really wish would get some notice in the academic community) that she calls “naive logic”. It’s the premise that, despite all the demonstrable failings of the human mind–its inconsistencies, its inability to grasp even basic logic, and yes, its faulty memory–it has nonetheless served humanity well for several hundred thousand years and is responsible for getting us to evolve to the point we are at. Therefore, despite our brains’ deficiencies, they serve us well nonetheless and therefore ought not to be dismissed when we delve into a deeper understanding of philosophy.
Now, the implications for this idea are profound in many areas of philosophy and cognitive science, and I won’t bother to dive into those here (because, again, none of us wants a 5,000-word blog post). Suffice it to say that I think I, and all of us, are usually doing the best we can with that wad of grey stuff between our ears. It’s part of why I try to treat people with trust and grace, even when others might consider doing so unwarranted. I believe that to live otherwise would be pretty much impossible. We would always be paralyzed, doubting every little fact of the universe.
So keep doing the best you can. I will.