Memoir is a genre at the edge, a liminal space where autobiographical facts meet with the fiction writer’s techniques, where perception collides with imagination. These works have often been questioned on veracity and ethics, but as advances in memory studies bring to light the plasticity of our recollections, the discussion becomes ever more fraught. This paper, a conversation between my creative practice and cognitive neuroscience, presents writing at the intersection of body and landscape, living and dead, physical and psychological. It argues that the body is a spectral space, and one which can be (somewhat) understood through an examination of our layered and shifting self. Writing life and the body, this paper gives voice to cross-hatched perspectives on identity, love and grief, exploring the people, places, images and objects that continue to haunt my work and memory. It suggests a blurring of lyric essay and memory studies might better express moments of internal crisis and confrontation arising in bodies haunted by their pasts. Therefore, it encourages experimental forms of memoir, embracing more fractured, unstable, digressive and self-referential modes which reflect our current understanding of memory as a re-creation, rather than a record of experience. The paper welcomes memoir working at/on the thresholds, and tries to articulate the value of liminality in the form.
Keywords: Memoir — Memory — Autobiographic memory — Cognitive neuroscience — Embodied writing — Fragmentation — Experimental memoir — Lyric essay — Grief
All of us, haunted and haunting1
‘We are the directors of the film we are making—but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.’2
My sister dies suddenly, aged 35. So suddenly that within the space of hours my phone will receive both chatty text messages about her weekend and a voicemail from an unknown number, imploring me to call back, quickly, to ‘hurry—it’s not looking good’. Mia’s death remains one of the pivotal events in my life, yet my recollections of that day are a confusing handful of razor sharp details and total blanks: smells, images, snatches of dialogue peeking through a fug of confusion and anger and suffocating sadness. I often wonder how those memories crystallised; ask myself, of all the thoughts and feelings and fears of those days, why these were the things I noticed, saved for later. Who or what makes these decisions on my behalf?
I decide, of course—or, more specifically, my brain does. And I need only speak of that day to my mother or sister to realise how different the stories replayed within each of our memory montages are. Impartial, passive observations and recollections do not, cannot, exist, for every scene lived or relived is shaped by our brain, and is uniquely ours. Even when there seems to be no obvious guiding principle behind the details we choose to exaggerate or elide.
Poor sorting … it all gets dropped, the big stuff enmeshed with the grainy soft stuff. The indiscriminate mess … it forms a long train, so that seeing it all, one can trail events back. Guess at them. View time. And by way of the whole scattered and shifting pattern, by the gathering eye, make something of these loose details, collecting. (Purpura 2006: 92)
This lyrical description of glacial formation strikes me as an apt metaphor for the traces of the past left in our minds and lives, and what’s to be gained by thinking on, or studying them. The ‘big stuff’ stays, for obvious reasons, but the tiny details which remain and surface in the process can be just as revealing.
My memories come in flashes and fragments, some refuse to leave and constantly replay; others hover in peripheral vision, move in and out of focus or ‘wobble’, depending on when, where and why they are called on. Susceptible to subtle yet significant changes, memories are fluid, and in this constant neural sift and sort of big and small, momentous and mundane, I reflect often on what goes, what stays, and why. Unsurprising, perhaps, that it’s moments of emotional crisis and trauma which loom large: the sudden death of my sister, obsessive and fractured romance, my father’s mental illness and our estrangement. But it is how these things crop up in my recollections—the smells, textures and sounds which trigger my thoughts—that really fascinate me, and make me want to know more about the ways our brain receives and stores information, the way it forges connections and pathways—how that indiscriminate mess works itself into some sort of discernible pattern.
Remembering is a complex cognitive activity, a synthesis of several processes across numerous regions of the brain, synapses, cells and circuits in constant flux. We may use the single term ‘memory’, but within that is nested a whole system of distinct/discrete components working together to create an impression of unity. We’ve known for some time there’s no single storehouse of information hidden in the brain (Prebble, Addis and Tippett 2013). But we barely understand what is there, even now, even though our memory is, in the words of Luis Buñuel, ‘what makes our lives … our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing’ (1983, cited in Wood and Byatt 2009: xi). An awful yet awesome realisation, perhaps. In every sense of those words.
‘One need not be a Chamber—to be haunted—’3
The image of her, stretched out on my couch that last day. It will not leave. The contrast of a pale, puffed face to the chocolate leather. Her swollen ankles crossed, raised, eyes closed. An arm flung overhead.
That dark blue wall behind her head will soon sing with my children’s bright crayon and poster paint offerings, smiling suns in the sky. But for now, it is a photo of three violinists in Budapest, sombre looking brothers taking themselves and their music seriously. Snapped by my husband on his adventures, it is an image I have always loved.
Only in the days and weeks after that phone call, after that day, will I look differently at those men. Through swollen, red eyes, I will fixate on their determined refusal of eye contact amongst themselves, each slightly tilted away into his own space; each body reminding that they are three separates, even if they sometimes play as one. Some days, I read it as a sign of their disinterest, perhaps a sibling squabble. Others, it seems to speak only of deep understanding and connection, each brother able to predict where the other will go next, anticipate any change of time or pace which may come.
I think again of that last time Mia and I sat, two silent sisters on couches, in my house, drinking tea, staring dumbly at children’s television. Me not asking the questions I should or could have; the blood slowly clotting in her leg, her body conspiring against us.
‘I must fight, always, against forgetting …’4
On the radio, I hear about a man who has lost the ability to form long term memories. Goldfish-like, he lives in a sort of permanent present tense. I think of him often.
Our first Subway ride in New York, my three children clambered to hold my hand: they hadn’t done that for years. Even now, I feel the warmth emanating from those soft palms, the pressure of fingers curled so tight around mine that I could measure the timing of their blood’s thump.
I think of that poor man, unable to trap such moments, to realise how precious these flashes that collapse time and loop back to the past. How they can sustain us. But then, on the days where I’m wading in memory, knee-deep in viscous guilt and regret; then, on those days, I imagine the freedom of an eternally clean slate.
‘Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after.’5
He’s in that bed, swaddled in hospital sheets. Breath short and shallow, eyes closed. I squint toward a too bright, too blue day. Pick at the stitches of a patchwork quilt with my nail.
My father is dying. Dying not so slowly any more, but surely. Cancer, blooming in lung, bone, brain. As the doctor talks, I think of red dye dropped into water. That stupid ad on TV. Sard? Napisan? I forget what it was for.
It seems impossible that this should happen surrounded by sunshine, Dad’s body reduced to a series of markings and numbers on charts. My father is dying. Dying in pyjamas still so fresh from the packet the folding creases have not yet flattened out.
I sit and watch him doze, my brain trying to mesh this shrunken figure with his former anger and muscle. I want to say something. I know he is dying, but my voice halts. Time folds on itself, and once again, I’m seven years old, watching him stretched in front of the TV in that no man’s land between work and dinner. I feel the carpet scratch as I kneel and force my arm under his, snake it across his belly to perch my head awkwardly on his chest. ‘I love you Dad. Do you love me?’ The only sound in response, a steady wheeze of breath. He shrugs out of the hug, pushes my arms away.
On the table, next to his hospital bed, inside twin scuffed black vinyl boxes, two pairs of glasses line up—one for distance, one for reading. He hasn’t been able to use either for days. Steadfast in her refusal to visit, Mum has sent with us a letter; a letter that tries to say all the things that she can’t or won’t. Because, after all, my father, who was her husband for twenty-four years, is dying.
But as my sister reads it for him, through half-choked sobs, I don’t really hear the words. I look at Dad’s hand and think instead of the texture of his best pale blue dress-shirt—his only one. Remember the way I would trace its embossed lines down his arm, the smooth cool of black and silver cufflinks. The strange intimacy of watching Mum knot his tie. He might hum or whistle under his breath. He always smelt of Old Spice.
I fill out his meal request. Roast dinner tonight, with trifle to follow.
‘I sing the body electric …’6
Why these leaps within memory, this unpredictable assembling of thoughts, crosshatched between the joyous and tragic? A few scientific clues, comments, for those who are interested. The average human brain holds approximately 86 billion neurons, or nerve cells. Meshed in a network, they pulse sensory, perceptual, affective and behavioural information (McClelland 2011). Each neuron has an average of 10,000 discontinuous contacts or synapses with multiple connections. This makes the number of possible combinations between neurons almost beyond comprehension: ‘on the same order of magnitude as the number of positively charged particles in the universe’, according to Jean-Pierre Changeux (2011: 56). Electrochemical ‘firing’ passes information between the synapses, neurotransmitters releasing a signal which either prompts the receiving cell to also fire, or inhibits it from doing so.
Jonah Lehrer describes it in layman’s and literary terms thus: ‘… when Proust tastes a madeleine, the neurons downstream of the cookie’s taste, the ones that code for Combray and Aunt Leonie, light up. The cells have become inextricably entwined; a memory has been made’ (2007: 83). This Proustian moment embodies our current understanding of the way associations are formed in the brain and memory; it bears out the present maxim that, when ‘cells fire together, they wire together’. Messages repeatedly travelling the same pathways strengthen and transmit faster, unused or ignored pathways lose power. Our brain is plastic, able to organise and reorganise to be as useful as possible, reinforcing and growing new connections even as others are severed.
Difficult to grasp, this system where a memory exists as nothing more than a subtle shifting of weights between synaptic connections. Strangely apt for it to all boil down to a matter of communication, the encouragement or discouragement of. Unnerving, to be dependent on electrical charge, relying on some sort of path burned through synapses which my brain continues to follow. Difficult, unnerving but kind of exhilarating too, to know that our bodies sing with minor voltages.
And suddenly it is another body, a different bed, I am thinking of. I recall the feel of veins pulsing beneath my touch. Slate grey iris, tiny beads of sweat clustering on skin, the set of jaw muscles behind carefully chosen words. A hint of Jack Daniels on breath, from the pores. I sometimes wonder where I live in his recollection; what sends him back to those selves and spaces we once curled close within. Something must. Because I know memories are tripped by external or internal cues, even if I’m only beginning to grasp how or why. Kandel tells me the very same sensory and motor neurons that create a memory are those called into play when that memory is retrieved; that differences in environment and experience mean ‘the architecture of each person’s brain is unique’ (2006: 218); that when we do find ourselves in a similar state of mind, or similar place to the time of encoding, our body and brain ensure recall is inevitable. Unstoppable.
I have an odd vision. Of moments, memories, balanced and teetering—equilibrium barely maintained. Some Rube Goldberg contraption, its hair trigger scanning for those scents, songs or places I have marked as his. Nowhere; everywhere: this is where he lives for me, now. ‘We don’t get to choose what or whom we love,’ Maggie Nelson reminds. ‘We just don’t get to choose’ (2009: 5). And Bluets’ tangle of musings and memories, its obsessive associations, reassure me that in this constant circling, I am not alone. Oh, Maggie, you know the remembrance of things past can preserve us, and paralyse us too. Sometimes (oftentimes), it feels like it’s doing both at once.
haunt \ n (14c) 1: a place habitually frequented 7
A family calendar fills with specialist visits: crayon, pencil, glitter pen, names and times scrawled with whatever is to hand. I learn the sneaky places to park at the hospital. Work out who makes the best coffee.
Mum’s at my house to mind all the grandkids. I lean in to kiss her cheek goodbye, and she stops, midway through making a sandwich.
‘You know, you’d be within your rights to leave him to it. What did he ever do for us? Never had time for anything much but his mates and girlfriends.’
I look at her clutching the butter smeared knife, salty tang of Vegemite in the air.
‘No, he probably doesn’t deserve it, Mum. But we want to be there.’
A raised eyebrow, pursed lips. Lisa and I hurry out the door.
Thirty minutes later, father and two daughters huddle close, shoulders rubbing as sweaty legs grip plastic seats. There’s an easy flow of chat as we flick through waiting-room magazines.
‘God, her hair looks awful!’
‘And that dress. Yuck.’
‘Mmm, look at that. Pork belly with sticky Asian sauce … Remember that recipe Mum used to make?’ Heads nod, agreeably. Mouths water.
‘I could make that for dinner Sunday if you like, Dad? I’ll need to nick the recipe though. Create a distraction.’ Throats are cleared in unison but that first slow tear is still unmistakable.
Giggling like a kid, Dad says, ‘You just have to do it quick. Like ripping off a Band-Aid. Ready? On three.’ His cough almost smothers the sound. But he keeps coughing. Can’t stop until he’s scarlet-faced and almost out of breath.
Bookend daughters rub his back, his newly bony knee. ‘You okay, Dad?’
‘Want a drink of water?’
‘Nah, don’t fuss, I’m fine. Bloody lungs. Should have ditched the ciggies years ago.
Wouldn’t be here if I did. Idiot.’
‘Here’s a Sudoku, Dad. You like them, don’t you? Do that to kill some time. Can’t be long now.’
haunt \ vt (14c) a: to have a disquieting or harmful effect on b: to recur constantly and spontaneously to c: to reappear continually in 8
For a small house, there seems too much glass: the ratio of solid to see-through slightly off. Through these large windows, this expanse of French doors, light should stream, motes of dust dance. But they feel like exposure rather than a view to freedom, Mum always prodding us to close the curtains—especially at night—for fear of who may be looking in. Our house likes to keep its eyes closed. Blinkered.
Asbestos walls which cave easily to Dad’s fist or heel. Wood veneer furniture, its slippery gloss scarred, pale ply shards breaking through. In a room of peeling wallpaper, two couches and two chairs huddle, their coarse brown Berber fabric snagging fingernails or rough heels. One arm of Mum’s chair sags slightly, like that of a stroke patient. Heavy pine coffee table, bought at a local shopping centre display, the woodwork made by inmates of Fremantle prison.
If he is home, my father stretches on this lounge-room floor, cushion under and arms behind his head, ankles crossed. We watch TV without discussion. Sitting on Mum’s lap, her breath ruffles my ponytail: so close, so laden. The steady thump of her heart reverberates through the chain-bracelet of my spine. I can’t see his face, so watch those feet carefully. Know they will rub together as he snarls or complains. When they go limp, fall softly sideways, gentle snores will follow. With the inhale and exhale of his breath, our bodies soften, shoulders drop and fingers uncurl.
The carpet beneath him is a swirl of browns and yellows. I sometimes lay on my stomach and trace the patterns. They don’t go anywhere. Up close, I realise just how knotted and tangled they are. Can see the pile and tuft of the carpet. The threadbare patches where the webbing shows through.
Mum still has nightmares that she is back living there, with him; now, almost 25 years on, and Dad ten years dead. We are always children in her dreams, and though the plot changes slightly, most often it centres on a black, bottomless pool which appears in our back yard. We three girls skirt around its rim, fascinated, edging closer and peering in.
I dream of that house too. Of my life’s five homes it’s the one I keep returning to, though in ever-changing shapes and forms. It is always our old house, yet it’s not. Still, there’s something that tells me where I am, even when the markers are skewed and awry.
One night I woke in tears, my heart thumping. The details flooded in. Amelia Street, late at night. I was awake, Dad asleep. Outside, loud banging and breaking glass. There were no curtains, so I crept and crawled, the carpet rough under my elbows and knees as I tried to remain out of view. Peering out, I watched a man swagger along the street, crowbar in hand, caving in bonnets and sides of parked cars.
Behind the etched glass of our front door, a shadow was looming. Coming up our driveway, then the front steps. Suddenly Dad was behind me, threw open the door and confronted him, despite my protests. There was muscling up, some angry words. The stranger shifted tack and Dad was suddenly calm, reasoning, talking it through. Dropping the crowbar, the man turned and wandered away. Dad quietly shut the door. Said, ‘Bed.’
That nightmare was over a year ago. Come to think of it, I haven’t dreamed of Amelia Street since.
‘… our dreams are a hearing trumpet.’9
When new memories are meshed into pre-existing memory networks, ‘meaning’ is made. It seems sleep plays a vital role in this, that we identify and retain associations, relationships, regularities, and the world’s rules, all with our eyes closed (Stickgold 2011: 76). Surrounding details fall away, but the emotional core of our day’s events is selectively, actively maintained—even strengthened—while we snooze. So much more to our nocturnal narratives than simple entertainment or intrigue, beautifully bizarre as they often may be.
The first time he visits as I sleep, the book plays an oddly starring role. It is the sort of dream that suddenly blurs the edges, will repeatedly draw a blush every time I glimpse that sky-blue cloth, the red accents, so often on the edge of his desk, being shoved into a bag, placed on a shelf. It is the sort of dream that triggers, even now, a warmth which has nothing to do with the words nestled within beautiful blue binding, words he would occasionally share with me as favourite phrases or passages were revealed. Him, the blue book, those dreams, a blush: a swirl of associations on which those many months drift, a tangle of messages and meanings linking and lighting up synapse and cell.
He floats through my mind often, still, even as our more tangible connections fade, the feel of his touch on my skin, long gone. The memories which surface vary—some are flecked and shining, others dark and sharp—but the dreams, now, always hinge on the threat of impending disaster. I know how the story ends, see, and my mind must retell the narrative in a way that fits.
One night’s tale centres on a plan to meet on some headland, sheer cliffs falling to steely blue sea. Black clouds gather as we begin to speak, to shout above warnings from the car radio’s increasingly frantic predictions of the worst storm ever seen. Another, I see myself, legs dangling, on a pier over deep, deep water. Suddenly I’m neck deep, my clothes swirldragging around me, no ladder or foothold in sight.
The worst, I am drifting near the shore break, and notice lifeguards in the water, arms out, shielding swimmers from something, I don’t know what. Now closer, I see small chunks of body—a bit of severed hand here, a foot there—floating in clouds of blood. A shark attack, perhaps, but no one is raising the alarm. So much blood in the water, and I am being dragged by the current, further and further from shore, unable to get myself out and away.
I remember Rebecca Solnit speaking of the varying weight and texture of dreams, some ‘made of fog, some of lace, some of lead’ (2005: 182). Consult a dream dictionary. Then feel like slapping myself for being such a fucking cliché.
‘I believe in the fragment. It’s the most honest representation of anything. It acknowledges gaps, its lack of comprehensiveness, its ability to surround and control a subject, an idea.’10
In H is for Hawk, the author’s father explains how he got through ‘white knuckle jobs’ as a photojournalist: ‘Look through the viewfinder, he says. Stops you being involved. Stops you being scared’ (Macdonald 2014: 70). It reminds me of something Brenda Miller observed, that segmented essays might offer a way into material too fraught for straightforward approach, a kind of ‘peripheral vision’ that allows you to ‘sidle up sideways’ to difficult subjects (Aldrich 2009: 138). Lyric forms, Miller says, with their embrace of white space and silence, allow a writer to work through ‘what you don’t know yet’ about an experience, to move towards a possible answer with a kind of ‘shifting attention’ that feels truer to life than traditional narrative (138). Fragments placed side by side, bookended by blank space, somehow narrow the focus and widen it, the physical gaps on the page, the gaps in the story, giving both reader and writer the opportunity to make sometimes-surprising connections.
I’m not claiming a focus on detail can halt or short circuit the paths of those difficult memories being laid down or replayed by our brain: I know our mind is much more complex and confounding than that. But I am suggesting that splinters of prose born from image and rhythm, lyric close-ups of the mind and body—as well as possibly being less confronting for writer and reader—may engage and invite an intimacy more fulsome prose cannot: as Lia Purpura observes, ‘time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter’ (2012: 1). When read together, I propose these instants might mimic the processes of firing, wiring, fluidity and fragmentation which neuroscientific research has revealed; capture both the essence of these memories that haunt, and the neural processes which keep them circling; evoke a sense of our layered and shifting self. ‘In the form of the work, the fragmentist announces at every stage that he or she is a varied and various character, that the self, exquisitely expressed in each instant, must also cease to be and start again, endlessly’ (Dillon 2017: 69). Thus, the fragment is a kind of always-threshold, and laying these pieces next to one another, layering them, is a literal example of the ways in which the body, and a lyric essay, can work as liminal, spectral space, hauntings recurring and blurring.
When the story you need to tell is one based in trauma, the fragmented form itself can embody the ways we are shattered by loss, how we might work from and through it. Mary Capello has said she writes creative nonfiction ‘because while many may ask how I’m feeling, no one asks how I’m thinking’ (2013: 65). I would argue that a form such as lyric essay enables me to express the ways in which thinking and feeling are entwined. ‘What is complexity’ asks Steve Fellner, ‘but a lot of simple things strung together?’ (2013: 177).
I’ve offered, here, a few of the flashes and fragments which haunt my mind. I’ve aimed to produce a miniature version of the swirling connections my synapses make. See-sawing through my mind’s associations, you—the reader—have had to fill the gaps and imagine the ‘connective tissue’ between each scene; to peer closely at these images and the words behind them; to reflect on their multiple, and mutable, meanings. This is what lyric essay demands, and memory asks of us something much the same.
Contemporary neuroscience highlights memory’s fracture, but also acknowledges its ‘fragile power’ (Schacter 1999: 182), its ability to make things possible while also having the potential to falter, distort, or even intrude into our mind with things we might rather forget. My creative process is fired by what I’ve learned of the ways memory might work, both because it makes a fragmented text feel more natural, and because it frees me to plunge into disparate moments and memories, allowing them to entangle. Just as the reader makes connections, so too the writer can sense more clearly the kinds of things which haunt. These fragments help me to understand a little of what I don’t know about myself because of the patterns that form when they are strung together.
Ander Monson says essays can offer readers ‘the curlicues of this particular brain and its contours’ (2013: 84), ‘a kind of frozen thinking … a cheapo virtual reality’ (2010:1). They offer writers the same opportunity. The real brain, Monson warns ‘is flux, motion, synapses connecting and reconnecting and exploding everywhere. You wouldn’t want to see that’ (2010: 1). I like this idea of essay as simulated brain, but I don't quite agree that the ‘mess’—which is an essential part of this person and their processes—is better left unseen and unsaid. Remembering or writing what’s past can be messy. And, I believe, it is never easy. The texts we produce should reflect this, by allowing and embracing uncertainty and instability—that is, the chaos and questions that make us who we are. I am determined to find my body’s voice, and to express a little of what cannot be simply said of the shapes, the shadows, and the stories haunting me still. Together, they create a kind of spectral landscape, one which always fires and remains wired—somehow—in my memory. Understanding some of the triggers and ‘tricks’ of memory, writing in a way which mimics them, I feel I can better articulate the ways in which both body and mind are haunted.
- Adapted from Palahniuk, C 2003 Lullaby, London: Vintage Books, 6
- Sacks, O 2017 ‘The river of consciousness’, in The river of consciousness, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 183
- Dickinson, E 2015 ‘XXIX’, in The Poetry of Emily Dickinson, San Diego: Word Cloud Classics, 166
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- Ibid, 571
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