“I’m not sure why people keep saying my pieces are painful to read,” I say to Justin. “I mean, it’s usually a part of a ‘but I love them’ kind of comment. But yeah, they’re always saying they’re painful. And I’m not sure why.”
“It makes them think about themselves and their lives,” Justin says. “That can be hard sometimes.”
In the year 2000, I fled from an abusive relationship. I moved in briefly with my parents, the most obvious sign that I was desperate to get away from him (I grew up in a high-functioning dysfunctional family, this wasn’t exactly friendly territory).
Even after I escaped my newly ex-boyfriend, I was really scared of him. He was quite a powerful guy in his own little corner of the underworld. I kept worrying that he’d come after me or send someone after me. And because of this, I was so scared I couldn’t sleep. It turned into a vicious cycle where the stress made it hard to sleep and the lack of sleep made it hard to think. Which made me more stressed. And made it harder to sleep.
Over a period of about two weeks of progressively intensifying sleep deprivation, I began to lose my mind.
The strangest thing looking back on that time now is that while my thinking had become disorganized and illogical at the time, I was still making memories. I can remember quite clearly losing my mind. Those memories are terrifying. But they’re also quite vivid and special, because frankly, they’re bizarre. The odd inferences I’d draw from stimuli are completely out of sync with how I normally process information (for example, at the very end right before I was committed, I tried to start a car with a fork).
And my family members had become so distressed watching my quick descent into madness that they started to say rather profound things to one another — and occasionally to me (even though I often responded inappropriately, despite my best efforts to act normal).
And one conversation in particular leaps out to me as I think back on those days.
My mother had crawled into my childhood bed with me and said the most profound thing (maybe — again I was crazy, and it could have been a dream, but it’s what I remember happening, Mom also thinks we had that conversation, and my sister and grandmother have corroborated other memories that I have of the time and they are people with very good memories).
Mom said, “If you could only just forget, you’d feel better. Forgetting helps us let go of the pain.”
I remember thinking how profound this was. How wise. And how helpful it would have been to most people in my situation.
But it wouldn’t work for me. And I knew it. I tried to explain it to my mother then, but my words weren’t making much sense. I kept getting lost in abstractions.
So instead, I told her a story about the past.
I told her how I could still remember standing on the old ugly orange patterned linoleum in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, wearing my fuzzy maroon sweater, the V-necked one.
And I reminded her how she had cut the tags out of it when I was standing with my back turned to her, washing dishes at the sink. How she cut those tags without asking me because she thought they looked itchy (they weren’t). They’d itch her terribly if she were wearing that godawful sweater, she said. So she was going to free me of my misery since apparently I was too proud to do it myself. So she did. And as she brought the scissors down from snipping out the tag, she also caught the tip of them on my belt, a belt that had once been a flimsy shower cap made of pink satin and lace that I had cut up and fashioned into a sash.
I set down the dish I was washing and looked down at the slip of pink fabric sitting there clashing hideously against the linoleum, cleanly sliced in half.
I was too shocked to say anything. And Mom didn’t apologize. Instead, she escalated the situation. I remember that as the moment when she’d finally had enough of my rummaging through thrift store bins and she asked me, point blank, before grabbing one of the spatulas that I had set to dry later, “Are you trying to look poor?”
For my part, I misquoted Marx in response, but the spirit of it was to tell her that I thought I looked pretty chic (as a side note, no one at school teased me for my thrift store finds). And besides, there was nothing wrong with looking poor anyway.
She told me that the way I dressed and the way I acted made her look like a bad mother.
And I snapped back that anybody worth knowing would easily make the distinction between her and me. No problem.
Her hands began to shake, and I thought then that she was about to hit me with the spatula she was holding. People who grow up in authoritarian households know what I’m talking about. You know that moment when you’ve gone too far and the physical punishment’s coming.
But I guessed wrong. She didn’t slap me with the spatula. Instead, she threw it back into the dish rack. And left the kitchen, stomped up the stairs.
I stood there for a few seconds, feeling grateful that I didn’t get hit. But then I heard a loud crash.
When I walked into the downstairs hallway and peeked around the corner, I saw my keyboard sitting at the bottom of the stairs. Gap-toothed, missing the low “C” key. I stormed out of the house, jumped in my car, and drove away before there was violence.
“We were always too much for each other,” I said, or at least tried to say, to my mother in the darkness in those weeks in 2000 when I was slowly losing my mind.
“I remember that day, now that you say that,” she said. “You have a memory like your father’s.”
She was half-right. Dad has a mind for details, that’s true. But he has always had powers I don’t, owing to incredible spatial intelligence (my weak spot, I could get lost in my own house). Dad can draw free-hand the layouts of buildings that he hasn’t stepped in for years.
I got other strengths of my own though. When I was a rookie newspaper reporter for my small town, I brought along a tape recorder and a notebook. But I found I mostly only needed the tape recorder for corroboration of quotes when people came forth to challenge me later with “That’s not what I said.” When I’d check my written notes against the tape before printing the story, I had invariably captured them verbatim.
And my written notes were typically in sync with my mental remembrance of what was said. Dad had building layouts, I had capacious echoic memory and recall for conversations.
But Mom’s memory was terrible across the board. And she was in charge.
She’d say something one day and forget the next. It felt like the rules were ever-changing and arbitrary. As a way to cope, I made sure to track my understanding of what happened in our house in a diligent manner. I kept copious diaries. I knew I could never confront my mom with the discrepancy between what she’d said and what she was now saying she said (and on the rare occasion I tried, it went horribly). But at least I’d know I wasn’t crazy. And that was something that really helped me.
So yes, I’ve always been a person who ruminates on what has happened, who writes it down, who thinks about stuff for a while. I think this was because I was always on the wrong side of my mom’s forgetting. That she would insist that things didn’t happen that totally did.
It wasn’t a conscious decision, more of a reaction. I became someone who wanted to be a person who remembered, to have some kind of continuous timeline where things made sense.
Of course, memory is imperfect (see Loftus, etc.), but my commitment to documenting my life allows me to register that something has happened with a degree of accuracy that’s acceptable to me and to sit with it.
And the way that I’ve made peace with various traumas hasn’t been to forget them — but to understand them. To connect them to the past, present, and the best possible future, by learning the best lesson I can from them.
You Can’t Make Something Un-Happen, So I Choose to Make the Most of It
“We were too strict with you,” my mother said the last time we spoke, a few weeks ago. “It wasn’t fair to you. You were a good kid. We should have given you some privacy.”
“Yeah, you were too strict,” I said, reeling from the shock of hearing her admit this for the first time. “But I think it’s what drove me to become a writer. To find the right words to explain that to you so you could understand. And to explain things to other people, too, so they won’t feel alone. So what I’m doing now is I’m taking those experiences with me and I’m using it to tell stories so I can help other people.”
“Okay,” she said. “You do that. That sounds fair.”
Forgetting might be easy for some people, but not for me. You can’t make something un-happen. So I choose to make the most of it.
It’s Not the Note You Just Played, It’s the Note You Play Next
“I’ve realized lately that it can’t be easy on people close to me,” I say to Justin. “Because avoiding and forgetting pain are sensible. Trying to remember and make sense of it, maybe not so much. Living in the past. My ex-husband always said that I dwell too much on things. Maybe he was right.”
Justin hesitates for a bit and then says, “There’s a blurry line between sitting in it and perseverating.”
“Mmm,” I reply. “I always wonder whether I’m on the right side of it.”
But I suppose it’s like Miles Davis said: “It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note — it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”