Here’s something I recently learned when I found an old diary detailing a road trip I’d taken fifteen years ago: my memory is not reliable. Reading the specifics of that trip, I was amazed not at just how much I didn’t remember, but by how much I remembered incorrectly. It was like seeing the photograph on which an Impressionist painting had been based. The diary revealed the hard edges and sharp shadows of the experience, while my memory, with its muted palette and sentimental leanings, was a veiled and softened representation of the truth. It made me realize that what I remember about my past is most likely off-base.
Over the past several years, I’ve written dozens of Man About TOWN essays. The fact that this magazine pays me for these is a constantly recurring miracle for which I am considerably grateful. Writing about my personal experiences is cathartic, and I’ve often compared it to a therapy session, but one where, at the end of the hour, the therapist hands me a check instead of the other way around. And while I believe these essays to be faithful descriptions of things that have happened to me, I’ve started to concede that my memories enjoy a bit of poetic license. In forming memories, my brain acts like a film editor, cutting certain details and exaggerating others, while heightening the comedy or the drama to make me either the hero or the victim, whichever is better suited to ensure I remain the star of the show. And if we are not the star of our own show, then, honestly, what is the point? As Thoreau said in the beginning of Walden: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”
My eighty-year-old mother has recently been diagnosed with dementia, and despite not being able to remember what happened yesterday, or for that matter five minutes ago, she recalls with great confidence events that occurred when she was a teenager. But as time passes, even those old, deep-seated memories, accurate or not, are beginning to evaporate under the heat of her condition. What’s happening to my mom is scary, and, being a narcissist with hypochondria, I worry that dementia is in my DNA and that it will visit me sooner rather than later. But perhaps I have always suffered from some form of it. If I constantly forget where I put my car keys or often walk into a room, glance around, then think to myself, “Why the hell did I come in here?” then why should I believe I can accurately remember the details of my sixth-grade school year or a conversation I had with a visor-wearing rube on a Disney cruise in 2009?
In The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams suggests that memory is seated predominantly in the heart and therefore cannot be trusted. But as long as I accept that my memories are just slightly fictionalized stories I’ve convinced myself are true, then why split hairs? Tom, the narrator of The Glass Menagerie, says that the story is “…truth, in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” But in the stage notes, Williams writes that “the scene is memory and is therefore nonrealistic.” So, like Tom, while I may have full confidence in what I am telling, I am still what we all are when we share the stories of our pasts—an unreliable narrator.