Sculpted Memory

by Christine Adams Beckett

My two year-old has taken to gazing at a photo of me that was taken four hours prior to her birth: every inch of my person was swollen, as I stood in pink profile, a seemingly impossible feat of physics. I am supporting a freakishly bulging belly with my cradled arms, as if that section of me would spontaneously separate from my body if I didn’t. I don’t remember posing for the photo, which was apparently taken as I dressed to leave for the hospital, but I have reconstructed the memory to include great discomfort (obviously!) and anticipation.

My daugher is fascinated that she lies, living and breathing, under that stretched-thin sheath of abdominal skin. After asking to see the photo dozens of times we’ve finally, embarrassingly, printed a copy so that she can refer to it whenever the desire arises.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my husband joked with her: “Hannah, do you remember when you lived in there?”

“Yes,” she responded without hesitation.

“What was it like?” he egged her on.

“It was dark, but Mama turned the light on for me,” she declared with assurance.

I ponder the world of play and imagination of a two year-old, wether or not she actually believes her statement with a Dickensian, Pip-like cognition or perhaps has an advanced grasp of metaphor. The photo itself seems to be inventing the memory. She has been told that she was there and now she has incorporated the image, with her own delightful insertions, into her creative memory bank.

It amuses us, but in reality we all do the same exact thing: construct our own memories to suit ourselves. My older two children swear they have memories of their early years, which were spent in Paris; but when asked to describe them in greater detail I realize that what they are spitting back to me is a blow-by-blow description of a home movie I filmed myself.

My husband is convinced that people don’t actually go to Disney Land for a good time, since all that’s involved is long lines, painfully squeaky sneakers, a homogenized version of the real world. They go for the photograph, the reconstruction of an event that was sheer annoyance in reality. Couples spend thousands on a wedding photographer, but forget what they ate at their reception. The Christmas card photos open up and entire can of memory worms, mostly all of them glossed over images of a perfectly coiffed gaggle of children with faces scrubbed clean, straight As on their report cards and absolutely no sibling rivalry whatsoever.

Refreshingly, my sister-in-law in Wisconsin kept a series of shots from one holiday doing exactly what everyone’s kids do on such occasions: fight, sometimes pull hair, make bunny ears behind one’s head, cry a little, perhaps project a little snot from the nose. I had wished she had sent the entire series in her holiday card. It would have been comic relief, the real moment, similar to that Christmas letter we got from an acquaintance one year about how absolutely terrible his year had been: “Little Suzie got kicked out of college, my mother died a slow agonizing death and my wife left me.”

As much as we try to forget the painful stuff, gloss over it like a shiny perfect Christmas card photo, the memories remain, often times reinvented and molded over the years, to suit a new perception, based on experience. In a recent article in Wired Magazine, Jonah Lehrer outlined recent scientific research that proves that “our memories are not inert packets of data and they don’t remain constant. Even though every memory feels like an honest representation, that sense of authenticity is the biggest lie of all.” Instead, we inadvertently embellish them, change them, sculpt them to suit our ever-changing personas. And the most astonishing: those memories that we recall most often, the most haunting ones and the most pleasant, are the ones most artfully arranged, losing most of their accuracy.

The most accurate memory is the one that is recalled years later, the one we haven’t revisited. That untouched nugget of the past has been left to remain in its more virgin state, untouched by our sculpting neuro-pathways. The literal reasonings lie in a network of neurons, electro-chemical fabric which involves the all-important proteins – what Lehrer calls “cellular bricks and mortar” – of recollection. On a more emotional level we can call it what it really is: the unique, overwhelmingly personal, us.

Hannah will learn in years to come, sadly, that the memory she had of lights being turned on while she swam about en utero was an invention, or at least learn that the social norms of saying what we believe or wish to be true is not acceptable. Most childhood development specialists argue that long term memory happens when fluent language skills are established. Unfortunately, memory of life in me is impossible for her.

My mother likes to talk about an article she read in a magazine years ago about a child who begged her parents to be left alone with his newborn sister. Her parents, fearing natural rivalry issues, feelings of displacement, were concerned but reluctantly agreed. With the help of a baby monitor, they kept close tabs on the child who simply wanted to ask the baby, in hopes she could answer: “Baby, what does God look like? I’m forgetting…”

Similarly, Hannah is creating a new protein-rich neuro-pathway that she likes to revisit over and over again based on a comforting curiosity. Maybe she simply believes that she – as a tiny being – had cognition while floating about completely protected, without experience, without connection to the world. There is power in that thought: I could perceive even before birth.

Or perhaps the sun peeked through to those tiny, registering, fetal eyes the days that I wore a bikini on the beaches of St John while 8 months pregnant. Perhaps it is I who forgot what it was like to be totally enveloped and protected by another human being. Perhaps I have lost that electro-chemical pathway in a jumble of others, firing away at the best way to envelop my own children, now that the world has its grasp on them, throwing them every imaginable curve ball of perception to every sense organ of their small bodies.