Lost for Words

I first realised that I don’t remember most of my childhood a few months ago. It feels strange, discovering such an absence, especially when I spend so much of my time writing about my life. I asked several friends what they remembered about being children and each spoke of their early lives with clarity. Family trips, in-jokes, school life. I don’t have siblings to confer with, to ask for their interpretation of events that have long since left my mind. When I ask my parents they are concerned, disappointed that their early years with me have vanished in my mind.

My partner has also commented on my ailing memory. He once told me, ‘You tell me the same jokes, the same ideas, every six months. You even use the same words. It’s like you think you’re saying it for the first time.’

‘But you’ve never said anything before?’

‘I didn’t know what to say.’

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I have three memories from my childhood, before I turned 15 and reached the first stages of adulthood. These are the few that I’m sure I haven’t made up or embellished.

 

  1. I sneak away from my father while he is distracted, maybe watching TV or maybe cooking, to knock on my mother’s bedroom door. My fists are small, too small to make a loud noise as they bang against the wood. I might be 3 or 4 years old. In my mind, my mother is a blurry figure lying in bed. She’s sick and I can’t see her.
  1. I beg my parents to take me to a school production: Ali Baba. It’s a school night, but my best friend will be there and her older sister is in the play. My parents give in easily, although they are tired from work. I feel like I have manipulated my family through sheer force of will. I feel strong. Even though the camel costumes are poorly constructed and the play doesn’t run smoothly, I am happy all night.
  1. We are in Paris, watching The Simpsons on the hotel television. My Dad is sprawled out on the bed, foot hanging off while I translate the French dialogue into English for him. I don’t know French, I just really know The Simpsons. He is impressed. The months of my unusual hobby: watching my Simpsons DVDs, transcribing the dialogue, placing it on my pin board and reading it multiple times a day seem worth it. (Close to ten years later I still remember the lyrics to Hail to Thee Camp Krusty but can’t differentiate between any of my years at school.)

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Marieke Hardy in the essay YTT in You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead, says, ’There are gaping holes where there should be anecdotes and pain and remorse. The lines between truth and fiction are so smeared I sometimes can’t remember if I was actually friends with the Goonies or whether they were just characters in a movie’. Hardy’s memory is going. She says it might be from ‘all the liquor and the music festivals’ alongside a cricket ball in the face. I’ve drunken my fair share but not so excessively as to explain being 22 and missing big chunks of my life. Like Marieke, I’ve had a cricket ball to the face. I’ve also fallen face first into a coffee table and been bitten on the face by a dog – but face-related injuries don’t feel like a satisfying answer either.

My memory isn’t bad. If I read something through twice, it will stay. I know where my partner’s winter boots are stored and I remember the intricate details of Poirot slicing a mango in a Christmas episode. But I can’t remember things I’ve seen, the faces of people I’ve met or large pieces of my life. I hold on to things, to memories and knowledge I don’t need. Book quotes and Bob Dylan lyrics swarm my brain, but when it comes to myself – my life – there is only an absence.

Recently, I spent a half hour-long bus trip trying to remember the name of a person I’d dated for over a year. It wasn’t coming back to me. We had dated in my late teens and it had been serious; I lost my virginity to him. Now, I couldn’t remember his first name. Finally it came to me: Damian. Damian. But it came slow. After the initial rush of remembrance, I was left feeling hollow. As if pieces of myself were leaving me without me knowing it.

A memoir writer with a terrible memory seems like the goofy premise of an Adam Sandler movie. When I finally remember a name, time or place I can’t be sure if I can trust it. Having to strain for it means that it subsequently feels fake, and often I realise my memories are simply recollections of photos depicting moments in my life, rather than the moments themselves. Images of a time that I can’t quite place.

I’m still trying to uncover my life, all the while trying to remain truthful in my writing. The memories are loose and often out of reach. And, I don’t have a solution yet. But for the mean time, I’m just writing the absence. Hoping something will come back to me.

 

Katerina Bryant is a writer and editor based in Adelaide. Her work has appeared in journals such as Voiceworks, Tincture, Overland Online and the Meanjin Blog. She edits nonfiction for Voiceworks and Antic Magazine, and tweets at @katerina_bry.

1 Comment

  • Noni Doll says:

    I have epilepsy, and after a major seizure a few years ago I lost a lot of memories, which I found really distressing.

    Seizures are not uncommon, and not all are related to epilepsy. Perhaps it’s worth talking about your memory issues with your doctor?

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