Thursday, March 28, 2013


Igor Morsk

Because -- answered the foreigner, staring through half-closed eyes at the sky, against which black birds, anticipating the evening cool, were silently silhouetted -- because Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil, and has not only bought it, but has already spilled it. So the meeting will not take place  ~ Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

How do great writers create such compelling scenes and characters? Their secret is vivid details (Gustave Flaubert:“Le bon Dieu est dans le detail” -- “God is in the details”) Anton Chekhov put it this way: “Don't tell me the moon is shining: show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Why does Bulgakov’s passage seem so “real”? Because of what one is tempted to dismiss as “irrelevant details”: the half-closed eyes, the sky, the silhouettes of blackbirds, the anticipated coolness of the evening. These serve not only to delay the humorous passage that follows, making it all the more funny, but also to ground it in the world -- or maybe to create a world we can see in our minds and believe in. 

Anna Goryacheva, Bulgakov’s communal apartment neighbor, alleged to have inspired the character of Annushka


In “Entrance,” Rilke shows that it takes very few details to create the world!


Whoever you are: when evening comes,
walk out of your room
where everything is known.

Your house is the last one before the infinite:
whoever you are.

With your eyes, which in their weariness

barely free themselves
from the worn-out threshold,

you lift very slowly one black tree

and place it against the sky: slender, alone.

And you have made the world.
And it is huge

and like a word ripening in silence.

And as you seize its meaning with your will,

tenderly your eyes let go. . . .

~ Rainer Maria Rilke (The Book of Images, trans. by Edward Snow)

Place one slender black tree against the sky -- “and you have made the world.”

(Shameless confession: I’m so reluctant to leave my study that actually I’d like to try Kafka’s advice instead: just sit there and wait for the world to come to me and roll in ecstasy in my feet.)


Typically, though, poets and writers aren’t as minimalist as Rilke in their creation of the world. Most like to bestow on the reader a proverbial “wealth of details.” Let’s take a look at how Philip Levine uses details to create:


When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He's tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn't decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, "Would you like to eat?"
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
"wooden Jew" and "lucky meat." He's been up
late, she thinks, he's tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if "their booth" is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, We keep you clean
Muscatine, on the woman emptying
his waste basket.
. . .
“And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?

~ Philip Levine

I love the sudden switch to F. Scott Fitzgerald and "no second acts in America." Bringing in a real person, a famous writer, a colorful and tragic figure, lends further reality to the poem.

I also love

The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.

These are exactly the “irrelevant details” (but note how charged with symbolism; note “heaven” rather than “sky”) that create a sense of reality.

The ending feels inevitable (I mean this as a high compliment): these two are now more real than you or me. Anna Karenina is certainly more real, Gatsby is more real, Huck Finn is more real, Jean Valjean is more real . . . the list could go on.

It's done with details. And by letting us into someone else’s mind. In this case, Levine lets us into the woman’s mind. He tells us what she thinks, and we are hooked: she becomes real. She’s now more real, this “second act” Norma Jean (let’s name her after a glamorous, tragic actress; why not) than Levine himself.


Demanding Reader, do I hear you protest, But Oriana, you still haven’t told us where those “vivid details” come from.

I think the best answer was given by Carl Gustav Jung over a century ago, during a time when most mental illness was labeled “hysteria” and mental patients were treated with cold baths, an improvement on the cruelties of the past. (Those who saw “The Dangerous Method” may remember that the special cold-water bathtub had straps so the patient couldn’t escape.) Amazingly, Jung explained hidden, appropriated, false and fragmentary memories in a way that makes sense in the light of modern neuroscience. His explanation also accords with Freud’s position, now validated, that cognitive processing is unconscious.

Let me quote from one of my own blog post, a great favorite of mine: what pleasure it was to research the material and write it!

In 1902, Jung published his doctoral dissertation, “On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena.” He diagnosed his cousin Helly (disguised as “S.W”) as suffering from hysteria, a broad term used to explain a great variety of unusual symptoms -- in this case trances, fainting spells, and changes of voice and personality meant to represent different spirits. The medium, however, was not an actress consciously putting on a performance. The “spirits” emerged from her unconscious, which had absorbed and transformed material found in books, but no longer consciously remembered.

Jung cited an analogous case described by Théodore Fluornoy. Fluornoy’s medium described her past lives on earth as a member of a noble family in India, as well as her past lives on Mars. She even spoke “Martian,” which Fluornoy recognized as glossolalia (“speaking in tongues” -- ululations which do not correspond to any known language). The French psychiatrist was able to demonstrate that his medium’s tales could be traced to what she’d read, but later apparently forgot.

In 1905, Jung wrote an essay on cryptomnesia as a source of creativity. Works of art did not arise out of nothing; they were novel transformations of previously absorbed information or memories of actual events. In Richard Noll’s words, “new combinations of memories . . . or previously learned material are the wellspring of creativity.”


Cryptomnesia also accounts for cases of unconscious plagiarism. Jung found Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra to be strikingly similar in places to passages by Justinius Kerner. Jung contacted Nietzsche’s sister to find out if the philosopher had read Kerner; she confirmed that Nietzsche had read Kerner in his youth. I don’t suppose anyone really cares if a giant like Nietzsche unconsciously (or even consciously) plagiarized an obscure spiritualist author, but I was pretty stunned when I read about it. True, ideas do not arise out of nowhere, but are a collective creation more than we like to admit. We may stand on the shoulders of giants, but those giants may have stood on the shoulders of dwarfs. 

These days we are aware of the related phenomenon of “false memories.” In a sense, most of our memories are false, if they were to be compared to a videotape recording. No one is shocked anymore if a psychologist states that most things we remember never really happened, or at least they didn’t happen the way we say they did. Memories are only partly based on actual events and partly on what we have absorbed from books and movies and the stories told to us by others. The unreliability of court witnesses is legendary. Human memory is continually constructed rather than recorded in an unchanging form. We don’t necessarily consciously lie about our past; we select, embellish, and “confabulate,” according to the meaning that particular events have for us now.

(end of quotation from Jung in the Land of the Dead)

Memory is excitingly corrupt in its effort to make a coherent story. ~ Patricia Hampl



But let me get back to the critical importance of DETAILS. When I was a beginning poet, a late bloomer at 26, I gave a sheaf of poems to a young man I was dating. The next time he saw me, he said, “Those poems were a revelation to me: you come from another culture.”

I glory in the fact that I didn’t say what seemed obvious: “I thought you already knew that.” I was beginning to grasp the reason why those who knew me still didn’t quite “get it” that I came from another culture. People tended to assume that my childhood was just like theirs, complete with Mr. Rogers and the Howdy-Doody and the rest of the alien (to me) universe of the American popular culture. My poems supplied the missing details of a different childhood. Now that other world from which I came could become more real.

But another smart young man at the Beyond Baroque workshop took me to task for those “magical Polish poems.” “You present an unreal, folkloric country,” he said. John Guzlowski later called this a “golden memory,” citing his mother’s tales of the woods near Lvov as a lost paradise, their purity a contrast to the fallenness of America.

Compassionate Reader, please imagine several pages of response to this which I ended up deleting. Let me just say that there are many reasons why recall is selective, and recall after a great loss is particularly so. Childhood memories are bittersweet at best, and we keep that diffuse gold of forest sunlight just in order to survive. And details that get repeated become easier and easier to access.

Eric Kandel

Forgetting does not mean that the brain erases memories. It means that the access to them is difficult, sometimes impossible. For instance, I never manged to recall the name of an abandoned village in Mazuria, a name that I vowed to remember all my life, a magic word would allow me to enter the imagined past.

Mazury region, former East Prussia

In the forest near the lake we found,
half-buried in white sand,
a weather-scarred plaque
with the name of a German village.

We stared at the steep fence
of the Gothic alphabet.
Around, like a prayer for the dead,

the long shush of wind in the pines.

I repeated the name of the vanished
village like a spell. 

I thought we’d always find

that greenest of all the lakes,

crowned with the tallest pine
where we sheltered from rain.
He put his jacket around me.

The needles shone with drops,

a forest of crystal. But I forgot
the spell – the lake nameless 

among a thousand lakes,

the evenings hyphenated

with golden dashes of the fireflies.
The village weathered into silence – 

a memory of a forgetting

I would remember all my life.

The name started with an A,

as in always, and ended
with an N, as in never.
In between, forest and wind –

the dead keening for the dead
in the amber forgetting of pines.

~ Oriana, April Snow, © 2011

Yes, the motorcycle rider existed, and the lake, the pines, the plaque, the rain. Not that they had to exist. Nor can I name that place, but that doesn’t matter either. It turned out that I didn’t need that password. Out of the great nowhere of the trillions of bits of information in my brain, one day I thought about that Mazurian summer. I remembered the rain, the bleached wooden plaque, the whiteness of the fine sand in a ribbon of beach (isn’t it mysterious how memories, like  thoughts, arise?). Detail by detail, I created a world. 

Vladimir Kush, The Walnut of Eden

Special thanks to Mikhail Iossel for the opening quotations.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened. ~ Mark Twain

Last week I had a close encounter with false memory. I was in the process of working on a new essay. One morning I opened the file and was shocked to see there was only one page. Yet I remembered several sections, and the order in which they followed! My first assumption was that I accidentally deleted the rest. Gradually I realized that I wrote the whole complex post only in my mind, so vividly that my brain had assumed the work had already been done.

Writers understand that they must not talk about work in progress: the risk is that they will lose the motivation to put it on paper, the brain somehow assuming the work has already been completed. So you don’t “talk out” the piece. “If I tell you, I will never write it down.” Bars are full of people who tell fascinating life stories full of colorful details. “You must write a book about it,” the listeners invariably say. But the book never gets written. It got “talked out.” As far as the brain is concerned, the work has already been done.

Now I see that even thinking out a story or an essay vividly enough can lead to the same illusion. If you are a writer, you may even come to believe that you did write the piece -- but where is it? It’s part of the larger phenomenon that includes the false memory syndrome, false confessions, dubious childhood stories told in therapy, confusion of something experienced in a dream with reality (I experienced this myself a couple of times; fortunately there were others to correct me), or being so affected by something you read or saw in a movie that you incorporate it as part of the story of your life. When Hillary Clinton told the story of running under gunfire after she landed in Sarajevo, she sincerely believed it -- but others revealed it to be a false memory.

One time I made several conspicuous notes to remind myself to refill a prescription from a mail-in pharmacy. Two weeks later, the order still had not arrived. I called the pharmacy, only to be told that the order had never been received. My guess is that every time I wrote one of my several reminder notes, I performed the action of ordering a refill in my mind, until eventually I was convinced that I had already done so. Instead of writing all those notes I should have gone straight to the phone.

I remember reading an article that warned about using “creative visualization.” It can lead the brain to assume that the action has already been done when in fact nothing has been done except in imagination, and now the motivation to do it is weak at best. I experienced something related  to this drain of motivation when I wrote a lot of poetry. If I knew exactly what I wanted to say, the poem already fully born in my mind, I had to force myself to write it down. It seemed just so much tedious scribbling, the adventure of creation already over.

And I remember endless times during readings or in poetry workshops when the poet’s introduction -- or afterword -- was more riveting by far than the poem. “Oh, you must include that,” we’d urge the poet. Nothing came of it; the telling pre-empted the writing.

We all know people who “only talk about it, but never do it.” We accuse them of laziness and other “character defects.” But their lack of action may simply be the effect of talking about something too much. My principle (alas, I don't always stick to it) is to “talk on the page.” Now I see I must even “think on the page” -- “writing in my head” may lead me to believe the actual writing has already been done.


I posted my recent “close encounter with false memory” on Facebook, and John Minczeski sent me this story:

Once, while working with a class of Kindergartners, I asked how many of them remember being born. One or two raised their hands. Then others, the more they thought about it, could remember. Soon, almost the entire class “remembered” being born. What was it like, I asked. Weird, one of them answered. There were all these babies there.

Gwyn Henry responded with this wonderful story:

My younger brother, as a 3-4 year old, always said he remembered being in a big pen in heaven, where God kept all the babies. When it was his turn to leave, he was "let out" and came to us. In my brother's story, it is interesting to remember that in our small town, surrounded by rural communities with crops & farm animals, it was common to see animals in a “pen”... chickens, horses, cattle, pigs, etc.

This reminded me how one time in fourth grade I swayed not only the whole class but even the teacher by passionately claiming to have seen something -- I no longer remember what :) After a few minutes, once my excitement passed, I realized that it never happened; I only wished it had happened. This was also the first time when I realized I had what I call my "voice of power"; it carries great conviction. I only hope I didn't tell too many falsehoods, of course never intending to lie. 

And think of the people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. They appear extremely sincere.
(By the way, where have all the UFO abduction stories gone? Nowadays, it’s the near-death experiences. Again, I am not saying that people who relate those experiences are lying. They did see those things in their mind, just as drug users really do go on a “trip.”)

And of course there are the notorious cases of people who tell a deliberate lie and over the course of time come to believe it. It’s a rare prison inmate who admits to having committed the crime for which he was convicted. I conducted some writing workshops in prisons and met only one such man; the rest claimed to be the victims of a judicial error. I could not help but be struck by what appeared to be passionate sincerity of those pleas of innocence. After all, it’s only normal that we start believing our lies (the well-tested theory of cognitive dissonance is one way to explain the phenomenon). It’s normal to believe our false memories.

There is also the phenomenon of “source amnesia.” Deborah Digges, one of six daughters, wrote somewhere that when it came to childhood memories, she could never be quite sure if something really happened to her, or to one of her sisters. 

John Minczeski concluded: Memory is so damned interesting -- false memories, elaborated memories, siblings remembering the same event with wholly different details. I can completely understand how people with active imaginations can “invent” a memory without meaning to, or even appropriate someone else’s memory.


The stories about babies kept in a pen in heaven are charming. But back in the eighties I had a friend who told me, with great conviction, that when she was a toddler her parents sexually abused her as part of the “ritual child abuse” practiced during the Satanic “black mass.” I was skeptical. Her grandparents were Orthodox Jews; her parents went to the temple now and then to honor tradition. “You actually remember that they did those things to you?” I asked. “I repressed those memories,” she said, “but I am slowly recovering more and more details.”

She seemed completely convinced that even though she didn’t quite remember it (“I repressed the memories”), her parents were Satanists who had taken part in rites that included violating children. I continued to be skeptical,  which angered her. This wasn’t the main reason why we eventually parted ways, but it did bother me that she would make this horrific accusation against her parents. Why would a middle-class, middle-aged, educated Jewish woman suddenly want to believe that her parents were sadistic Satanists? Why would anyone?

(The reason I bring up the Jewish angle is that for many centuries the Jews were accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Christian children as part of their religious practices -- the so-called “blood libel.” The sudden cropping up of “Satanists” practicing “ritual child abuse” was a strong echo of that.)

The following year, while visiting Cambridge, MA, I more or less stumbled into a lecture on “ritual child abuse.” The large auditorium was packed. The woman lecturer had a PhD in psychology, and there were probably many PhD’s in the audience (this was close to Harvard Square). The lecturer said that only now do we realize the extent of the problem: thousands of children raped as part of Satanic rites. She presented case after case in explicit detail. Sickened by this pornography of bizarre sexual violence, I left, but kept wondering. It just did not seem probable. 


An 1895 etching purporting to show a Satanic "black mass," complete with child sacrifice.

Later it turned out that some people “remembered” those Satanic rites -- and other kinds of abuse -- only when their therapists used leading questions, hypnosis, and visualization techniques designed to “retrieve repressed memories.” Legal suits and counter-suits resulted. The idea of false memory implanted by the therapist prevailed. Not very long ago I read an article about a woman who falsely accused her father, and how she later asked for his forgiveness. Realizing the monstrous nature of her previous accusations and the suffering they caused, she wasn’t sure if her father would forgive her. The loving man that he was, he did. She was left with the searing question, “Why was I so ready to believe that my father had abused me, and dismiss all the evidence I had over the years that he loved me?”

This reminded me of another article I read, about a rape victim who mistakenly accused a man she picked out with complete certainty from the police line-up. The man was later released due to DNA evidence, and the woman felt horrible. She tearfully begged the man to forgive her. He did, but she knew she would have to live with the knowledge of having caused so much suffering -- all because human memory is far from being a videotape, and the brain is not a computer. (By the way, the stories of ritual child abuse became mostly discredited during the nineties; Elizabeth Loftus is credited with having done ground-breaking research on false memory.)

And what about memoirs filled with false Holocaust memories? We have at least two cases on record where the author was found to have invented the whole saga. I too met a woman who told me how she spent the war years in hiding (in a city park, of all places). What didn’t fit is that she looked much too young to have been born before the WWII. Still, maybe her plastic surgeon was a genius . . . 


We have always known that young children are very suggestible and easily confuse fantasy and reality; that’s why the legal system tries to avoid using child witnesses. But adult witnesses have also proved to be unreliable; that’s why the need for corroboration and physical evidence. Now that we have DNA testing, some of those convicted on the basis of witness testimony have been freed (as for those got exonerated only after their execution . . . I don’t have the strength to finish this thought).

Yet those witnesses were not deliberately lying; they were convinced that they were telling the truth and testified to it under oath. True, we’ve always known that human memory is fallible, but as fallible as that?

Mark Twain famously said, “The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened.” We nod and chuckle. But I wonder, with some apprehension, how many times tribes or nations went to war because someone had a convincing-sounding false memory (or simply a dream, for that matter).

I've also met intelligent-sounding adults who entirely believe that we remember our birth in every detail, but later repress those “traumatic birth memories” (think of the New Age "re-birthing movement" that started in the seventies; adults sitting in a tub of water meant to simulate the womb until the “memory” of how they were born, everything they experienced during the process, came to them; in fact they had pre-natal memories as well, down to remembering being a just-fertilized egg cell. Simply hyperventilating for a sufficient length of time is also said to lead to those “memories.”) If you google it, most entries are from “true believers” in the validity of birth and pre-natal memories.

Oh well . . . back when I was in the pen with all the babies, I said, “I want my parents to be scientists. I want my mommy to be in brain research, so she can explain all about the brain to me.” And that wish was granted . . . but that didn't protect me from forming some false memories, since apparently the problem is universal.


John Guzlowski:

I had a friend in grad school who had a terrible accident. He was in a coma for two months. When he finally got out of it, he asked his wife for his dissertation.  She said, "You haven't started writing it yet. You just had the topic approved before the accident." He had written the whole thing out in his coma.


I think Freud was typical of intellectual geniuses: he was either terribly wrong or luminously correct and a century ahead of his time. He turned out to be right in postulating (my spell-checker just suggested "postal") that all cognitive activity is unconscious; some of it is then communicated to the consciousness (what I call "email from the other self"). How often do we say, "Writing comes from the unconscious" without pondering what it means? Yes, you may say, but in a coma? Isn't cortical activity absolutely necessary? We don't really know. Dreams apparently originate in subcortical structures. And there are various degrees of coma, with different types of brain function still present. I know a ghoulish-sounding story of a man coming out of coma while already in the hospital morgue! (google “waking up in the morgue,” and you will be amazed.)

Back to the starting point: what I find fascinating is that if you “visualize” and/or otherwise have a lot of mental activity about something, you may create a false memory of having done it. I love what Mark Twain said: The secret of getting started is getting started. It's not “visualizing getting started.” Or, as Zig Ziglar said, “Do it, and you will feel motivated to do it.” Tush to the cush, fingers on the keyboard. A real writer is one who really writes. ~ Marge Piercy.

You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. ~ Zig Ziglar


For a post on cryptomnesia, a related phenomenon, please see

For more on the work of Elizabeth Loftus on false memory, click on this dramatic talk:


Interesting post, Oriana.

I've found the notion of the seven sins of memory helpful. Here's an introduction to the idea.


Thank you for the link. I am planning a sequel on “creative memory.” Among other things, I will discuss encoding, storage, and retrieval. 


My favorite and most  thought-provoking sentence is this, “I wonder, with some apprehension, how many times tribes or nations went to war because someone had a convincing-sounding false memory (or simply a dream, for that matter).”

Picasso said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." This beautiful essay is composed of the lies of memory that makes us realize the truth.


Thanks for commenting. Yes, false memories can have terrible consequences. I only speculate about the possible wars, but we do know that some people were imprisoned and even executed mainly because of the false memory of a witness who was fully convinced s/he was telling the truth. (Imagine someone imprisoned merely on the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness!)

I wonder how many times we don’t even begin to suspect that our memory of a particular event may be false, especially in our age, when we are bombarded with an excess of stories and images. No wonder the brain sometimes appropriates those stories as our own. No wonder, either, that whole mythologies spring into being and then evolve according to the new meaning people see in those ancient legends.

In the upcoming blog, I will use the idea of the “ground of meaning” that Joseph Campbell introduces in relation to mythology:


I had to smile when I saw the picture of the sheep that accompanied my brother's story in your blog. It brought so sweetly to mind the concept of babies as “lambs,” and there they were, the "lambs" in the pen, waiting to be born!

Interesting too, that since my bro inherited our family's "farm," he has begun to keep sheep to keep the pasture "mowed," and they are multiplying like rabbits. So his association with sheep has survived into his 50's to become a great pleasure for him, much of his time spent with their care, feeding, birthing, building pens to keep them out of his garden & his wife's flowers, etc. Perhaps that early myth that he created for himself was a self-fulfilling prophecy. :)


This is a wonderful story -- thanks for making us smile. Yes, he obviously had an affinity for lambs already in his early childhood. Lambs and calves look so totally innocent and non-aggressive, how can we not love them. Now, if we learned to “grant innocence” to humans as well . . . I think we’re slowly progressing in that direction. I don’t hear much anymore about “being born in sin” and being such dreadful sinners we require a blood sacrifice (indeed “being rinsed in the blood of the Lamb) to “make us clean.” Let’s hope that in the future lambs will be enjoyed just for their “gamboling.” 

Hyacinth sends us a comment in the form of a poem:

Sunday Mornings

The vast sadness of my family
falls with a sigh as if I threw the fabric
of our lives into the air, and as it’s falling
each of us catches a different corner.

Over pancakes with blueberries, scraps
of memory are sorted and pieced
to fit a quilt of truths. No agreement,
no confrontation, each astonished
that no one remembers the way they do.

My mother said I couldn’t have remembered
the day my father put his fists through
all the windows of the house. She said
I wasn’t home from school so why do I see
his white shirt sleeves rolled above the elbows,
bloodied hands, hear his primal howl.



“So why do I see . . .”  Why indeed? Where did that “memory” come from? The speaker probably heard an account of that day of father’s rage. She may have read a novel that described a similar incident. And finally, it’s not so difficult simply to imagine this emotion-charged scene. Everyone agrees that young children can’t quite tell fantasy from reality. But older children and even adults can still easily confuse the two. Something vividly imagined becomes quite real. It can be encoded (encoding is the first crucial step in memory formation) just as strongly as an actual event. It’s not just liars who come to believe their own lies; we all come to believe our confabulations.

Memory constantly evolves, is constructed with each telling or revery. But the really wonderful thing is that it has no past tense -- it arises like a resurrection or a dream, and we may well ask, “Did that really happen?” No, not the way we remember it, since the present constantly changes the past according to what is important to us now. New images and new meanings are superimposed, the blanks filled in. As Una’s poem hints at, collective memory enters into it too -- and that includes literature.

Some of you know that my "second mother" was my grandmother Veronika, a survivor of Auschwitz. She and I slept in the same room. Didn't I hear her gasp and moan and scream in a nightmare at least once -- maybe several times? Don't I remember her waking, crossing herself, and putting some valerian drops in a glass? Didn't she sigh an enormous sigh, the collective sigh of all inmates, before settling down to sleep again, her head on the pale pillow already funereal?

I can't be sure. I've read too many books, seen too many movies. It may be a false memory. But it seems so real . . . And false memory, too, can profoundly affect our lives.


You bring up an interesting topic; as an old sailor I recall sea stories of adventures in ports and seas where perhaps my memory is foggier or I incorporate others's stories into mine. My last year in the Navy I kept a journal of my cruise to the Mediterranean and looking through it I am amazed at what events I forgot and what events I recall vividly but did not write down; and I kept this log daily updated. Some details I left totally out of the log; either I have embellished them in my mind and they did not happen as I recall or maybe they did and I just didn't record them. There's a great story about the English poet and novelist Malcolm Lowry who also was a terrible alcoholic. He flew into New York City once and a customs officer asked him what was in the large suitcase he had, he is reported to have said, 'I don't know, let's find out.' Upon opening, all it contained was a lone football boot...and a copy of Moby Dick. I don't know if it's true but I would like it to be!


That’s my own experience reading my own journals -- of sorts, since I never kept a journal in the classic sense of the word. All those details I entirely forgot! And things I never wrote down, that turned out to be the most vivid memory. Up close, we don’t even know what’s important -- or which detail will keep haunting us.

Thanks for that precious story about Malcolm Lowry. Alcoholics and memory -- that’s another topic that should be explored, since you never know what they’ll encode and remember. But to some extent, that’s true of all of us -- we just can’t know. I remember having said, “I’ll remember this all my life” -- and years later, all I remembered is that I said I would always remember. Never underestimate the power of forgetting. 

And of unexpected recall: Lowry, who took up drinking at 14, reminded me of someone I knew who also began drinking at 14 -- something I'd rather forget. But we don't get to choose. Well, to some extent: we can choose to go over pleasant memories, which then become stronger -- never mind the inaccuracy . . .  And that reminds me that during depression the access to positive memories is blocked. Memory is so amazing . . .