Remembering for Others

by Victoria Durnak

My son turned one in February 2017. I love being a mother, but one thing terrifies me: that I am responsible for keeping the memories of these early years, as research shows that mostly we don’t remember anything from before our third year.

So I keep a diary. I make a memory book, documenting important events in my son’s life. Cold facts such as the headlines on the day he was born, the price of butter, flour, and gas. But also things that are up for interpretation, like his temperament, favorite objects, foods. Other things I just rely on my memory for, even though I am often confronted with my own fictional tendencies.

For a long time, I thought that my mother, my father, my sister, and my sister-in-law had all been to therapy without disclosing the reason to me. I planned to write a book where I figured out, through conversations, what they didn’t want to share with me, and why. I approached them, one by one, and found out that it my mother and sister-in-law were the only ones who had visited a therapist. For a moment I had mistaken Norway for Argentina (or New York?).

In 2013, a piece on CNN announced that being in therapy is the norm in Argentina. The country has the highest per capita concentration of psychotherapists, many of them psychoanalysts, in the world. When Vivi Rathbon moved from the United States to Argentina after graduating from college into a tough job market she got herself an analyst as well. “It was really awkward at first […] It’s very Woody Allen. You’re laying there, the analyst just says, ‘OK, talk.’ ‘Talk about what?’ ‘Anything.'”[1]

“The therapist” is an archetypical character in popular culture. It is an impartial someone, often with glasses and a woolen sweater, who can rummage our minds and help us make sense of ourselves. It is a person who can get to know us and carry around our memories—like an external hard drive with analytical powers.

Today we also trust our gadgets to remember for us. There are smartphone apps to remind you to buy milk, keep track of passwords, birthdays, and so on. Some apps even play the role of “surrogate therapists.” Live OCD Free, for example, is a tool for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Let’s say you cannot leave the house without locking the door multiple times. Now you can exit your front door, open the app, and a countdown timer appears. If you keep yourself from locking the door multiple times, you receive a reward; if you can’t, you press the “Just gave in” button. Either way, you generate charts for yourself, and for your actual therapist—if you have one—to evaluate.

Having a small child can feel like locking the door multiple times, out of necessity rather than compulsion. Endless repetition is healthy for my son’s brain. He eats at approximately the same intervals. He sleeps at approximately the same intervals. We play with the same things. We build a tower, tear it down, build a tower, tear it down. Are you thirsty? Should we go outside? There are so many things for him to learn. I repeat, and when he understands he laughs out loud.

In “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” Freud discuss screen memories, a recollection from early childhood that may be false and that masks another deeply emotional memory, like childhood sexual trauma. I don’t think that false memories have to come out of repression, but it is intriguing to consider how our imagination adds to our memory, especially in art.

In Oscar Masotta’s El helicóptero, two groups mingle after experiencing two kinds of happenings: one group has been to a small theatre, the other group has seen a helicopter fly by with a famous actress sitting next to the pilot. The artwork is partly produced in the conversation among the attendants about what they saw, or what they remember.

While staying at my in-laws’ in the days before my son’s first birthday, I came across Per-Oskar Leu’s essay about his mother, “Kari Mette Leu.” While I read, my father-in-law was listening to old tunes and cover versions of them on YouTube. When you start thinking about remembering and repetition, you see it everywhere. Anyway, in the essay Leu presents objects that belonged to his mother, who passed away when he was six and a half years old. These objects are now artworks. And here it is the son—and his art—that function as the memory of the mother. He writes: “Being a keen gatherer of memories as well as things, I was disturbed to hear the nuts and bolts of recollection explained on a popular-science radio show. Apparently, when retrieving an event from the vault of the mind, the brain doesn’t recall so much as reimagine, tainting the memory with a range of ingredients in the process: fragments of other occurrences, newly uncovered details, current thoughts, figments of the imagination.[2]

Throughout 2016, I lived in Norway’s seventh largest city, Skien. I got a stipend to stay in the family home of playwright Henrik Ibsen. In January 2017, I exhibited drawings of every person I could remember from my stay. Drawing them felt like spring-cleaning. Still, even though I ended up with eighty-eight portraits, there were a lot of people I forgot. I had not fallen off my horse, like Ireneo Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Funes the Memorious,” whose fall is suggested as the explanation for why he could suddenly remember absolutely everything.

Forgetting a little bit is irritating, forgetting a lot is frustrating, and forgetting everything is … I don’t know. Sad, but somehow neutral? My grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease. She has been through stages of anger and confusion, but now that the disease has wiped her whole memory clean, she just sits, silent and passive, no longer expressing anything when we come to visit.

My grandmother being ill with this mysterious disease might play a role in my anxiety about remembering for my son. Especially since I am—due to the lack of sleep, I hope—extremely forgetful these days. I forget where I put things, what I am about to say; I even forget simple words. A friend who has a son two weeks younger than mine feels the same, and confided in me that sometimes she struggles to keep in contact with herself. Who are we when we are unable to remember?

Even though it might seem like forgetting is a drift towards the threshold of non-being, there is also another side to it, according to science journalist Anil Ananthaswamy. In “The Unmaking of Your Story,” one of the essays in his The Man Who Wasn’t There, he points out that Alzheimer’s disease “challenges those who argue that the self is best understood as constituted of and by narratives—and that there is nothing else besides these narratives.”[3]

Without memory, sais Ananthaswamy, we are still bodies that are subjected to experience. An accurate description of my son and my grandmother—the only difference being that one of them is about to start a cycle of narratives, the other one has lost hers forever.

Someone in between those two states is Alice, a linguistic professor played by Julianne Moore in the 2014 film Still Alice. The resourceful mother finds herself diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and we follow her as she builds systems to keep the disease at bay for as long as possible. Throughout the movie we are confronted with the fact that there is only so much we can do to control our vulnerable recollection. “So live in the moment, I tell myself. It’s really all I can do. Live in the moment,” Alice says.

The way I see it, both art and life are built on three principles: before, now, and after. Planning, executing, and documenting. If Alice is a spokesperson for the “before” and the “now,” Canadian artist Leanne Shapton literally illustrates the “after” in Was She Pretty, where she draws portraits of her friend’s ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends. Small texts emphasize how we categorize and remember our past lovers, the impossible standards we set for each other, often after our relationships have ended. We are then left only with our memories, sometimes manifested in objects, as Per-Oskar Leu’s essay also shows.

“When Eugénie moved in with Stuart, she came across a woman’s winter coat in his closet. She asked him how long it had been there, and he said about a year. She asked him whose it was, and he said it belonged to his ex-girlfriend and he was just keeping it in case she wanted it back.[4]

Shapton and Leu both remind me that the stories are there even though some of the people involved might be missing. This takes away some of the pressure, for me at least. It is also comforting to think that even though my son is currently a body (with strong opinions!) subject to experience, he will gradually take over the narrative, no matter how much of it is a product of our imaginations.

  • 1.
  • 2.
  • 3. Anil Ananthaswamy, The Man Who Wasn’t There: Tales from the Edge of the Self (London: Dutton, 2015), p. 37.
  • 4. Leanne Shapton, Was She Pretty? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), p. 135.