If memories are just stories we tell ourselves, how can we write our lives?

Fawn Parker's new novel What We Both Know shows why it's so hard to write the truth while trying to work through past traumas.

Fawn Parker's What We Both Know shows why it's so hard to write the truth while trying to work through trauma

Crop of the cover art for Fawn Parker's What We Both Know. (McLelland & Stewart)

Shelfies is a column by writer Alicia Elliott that looks at arts and culture through the prism of the books on her shelf.

When I was in the throes of psychosis nearly two years ago, there were some experiences I believed to be firm and true. One involved me walking into the gardens of Osgoode Hall on Queen St. West in Toronto, sitting down under a tree, and asking spiritual forces whether I was safe. I was listening to a song by the band Best Coast, and as I looked around me, the moment my paranoid eyes landed on a person in a baseball cap who sat under a tree not far away, the music changed to "Clampdown" by The Clash.

I hadn't changed the song, as far as I remembered. It had changed by itself, as though by magic — something I took to be a sign, a warning. The person I saw when that song came on was clearly, in my mind, an undercover police officer. Possibly involved with CSIS. The title of the song was a warning, too. "Clampdown." The police were going to clamp down on me soon.

Once I was no longer in psychosis, I looked back on this memory often, puzzled. I couldn't make sense of it. There were lots of songs between those two on my playlist. And I remember the entire London Calling album playing in order after "Clampdown" mysteriously came on, so it couldn't possibly be that I accidentally hit shuffle, then turned it back off without realizing it — could it? How had the song changed by itself? 

Ojibway author Richard Wagamese wrote, in his novel Indian Horse, "All we are is story… It is what we arrive with. It is what we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story." So many of us believe our memories are firm and true, the way I did with my memory of that day in the gardens. But really, we have no way of knowing. We can't merely rewind and replay, as though our memories are sealed forever on an unchangeable tape. That's simply not how our brains work. All we really have are the stories we tell ourselves.

The brain, and therefore the memory, is actually suggestible, taking on new information every time we recall an event. If our brains are essentially telling a story each time we recall an experience, thereby changing our memories in the process, then what does that mean about truth? What does that mean about the weight — and responsibility — of telling stories? How can one truly understand, interrogate and reconcile the events of a person's life if all you have are memories, as easy to bruise or bite into as an overripe peach?

Fawn Parker digs deeply into these questions in her latest novel What We Both Know. The book's narrator is an academic and aspiring writer named Hillary Greene. Her father, a revered Canadian author who went by the name Baby Davidson, can no longer take care of himself alone, and so Hillary leaves her life behind so she can care for him, as well as help him piece together his final work: a memoir. 

The problem comes in when Hillary tries to determine how she should write her father. Should she write him in a way that upholds his current image as a titan in CanLit — or as the man who gleefully admitted to abusing his position to prey on his female students? Her father isn't in a position to either help or resist, as his own memories are failing. He moves in and out of the past and present so often Hillary can't pin down what she really wants to know and write about — which is what happened between her father and her sister Pauline, who died of suicide one year prior. Did he sexually abuse Pauline? And is that why she killed herself?

Hillary has her suspicions. Memories of her father standing in Pauline's doorway. Feelings of nausea. Words unspoken by her mother. The clues like the blurry edges of a black hole, stubbornly defying all attempts to shine a light on it. "What did you do to her, what did you do?" Hillary thinks as she stares at her father in one of his rare moments of lucidity, as if he would admit it to her even if he did remember.

"Sometimes I go so far as wondering if the forgetting is an illusion, or at least a mechanism of self-preservation. If one day he realized who and what he is and it overwhelmed him to the point of sacrificing his entire person, severing his engagement with the world."

And therein lies the problem. How can Hillary ever know what happened when the memories she needs access to aren't hers? When Pauline is dead and her father's not a reliable narrator, if he ever was one? Is Hillary herself a reliable narrator when it comes to her father, her sister, her life? Are any of us?

Hillary grapples with this question throughout the book. For instance, she has a memory of her father playing Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" and dancing with her in the living room, his hands under her shirt on her bare skin as he lifts her into the air. It's a brief memory, but she's unsure if it's even hers. "I remember this scene because it is featured in one of [my father's] short stories, 'Dancing on the Head of a Pin.' And because of this I don't know how to distinguish the memory from the writing. It is possible it never happened at all." 

This confusion lines up with what we currently know about how memory works. As neuroscientist Daniela Schiller from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine explains in a presentation to MIT Technology Review's 2013 EmTech conference, although we believed for at least a century that memory was fixed, it's not. Our brain does not record our experiences like an objective camera for us to review and replay, unchanged, whenever we wish. Instead, when we experience an event that our brain has time to process into a memory, it's called "consolidation." And each time we recall that memory, the act of retrieving and re-storing means it has to go through consolidation again in a process called "memory reconsolidation." 

"We don't really remember the original event," Schiller explains in her presentation. "What we remember is the last version of it, and each time we retrieve, we revise our memories." This means our memories are less like finished products and more like rough drafts, ready for us to edit any time we get new information about that memory.

To expect our memories to be perfect and pristine, according to Schiller, is to miss the point. "Memories are actually not accurate. They weren't even designed to be accurate. The purpose of memories is to tell us something about ourselves relative to the past, and that helps us make better predictions for the future."

If memories are revisable stories that we tell ourselves about what happened to us, what we've done and what that means about us, then these stories are just as suggestible and selective as memory itself. This means Hillary's suspicion that her father has forgotten as a method of self-preservation must be at least a little accurate. If he didn't want to think of himself as a monster who, in some way, was responsible for the suicide of one of his daughters, he simply wouldn't recall, record or ruminate on the memories he had that could make such a case. 

How can one truly understand, interrogate and reconcile the events of a person's life if all you have are memories, as easy to bruise or bite into as an overripe peach?

Indeed, as Hillary works through the detritus of Baby's life — receipts, journal entries, photographs — trying to construct a narrative for the memoir, she realizes that he hasn't written about his family at all. It's as if they don't exist to him. This erasure is an imbalance Hillary can't reconcile. How can his actions — which impacted her mother, her sister and her in such monumental ways, shaping their lives into scars picked at so often they're unable to fully heal — be so inconsequential to him? Can he really forget the harm he's done so easily, write it out of his story as if it never happened?

This is the most devastating realization of all: that an event that harmed you in ways that impact you for the rest of your life — an event you relive without wanting to, revising and restoring that memory each time you encounter it, making it either worse or not as bad or neutral as needed — could have been so inconsequential to the person who enacted it that it is not even worth remembering. Not even worth a note in their journal.

It's hard to know what the truth of a memory is. Even the neuroscientist Schilling doesn't have an answer that's rooted in science. In an interview, when asked how to "know the reality of a memory," she, in fact, gestures back to art.

"Art has a very intimate relationship with memory," she says. "The only way to keep memories as they are … is to carve them into a story or art form that captures the original emotion." So it seems Wagamese was right: all we are is stories.

In this determination, Wagamese, Schilling and Hillary are all in an agreement, of sorts. Though Hillary is recording another's memories, she's highly aware of the power of art, of story, to create truth and capture emotion. To revive a once-forgotten reality, make it live and breathe again.

"My own hands have been omitted from the scene," Hillary says toward the end of the book. "But that is the power of the author, is it not? Behind the keyboard, I can make truth. I can resurrect moments between Pauline and Baby, I can make them true again. More so, even. I can lock them away in the minds of readers all over the world. And then no one will forget, and if they do, they can read it again."

For she, at the end of the day, is the one with the narrative power when she writes her father's story — not him. Not anymore.


Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer living in Brantford, Ontario. She is the author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground (Penguin Random House, 2019).

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