This week, while plotting dates on the master timeline, I exhausted every ready source for evidence: medical charts, journals, family obits, old apartment leases, and legal documents. I thought I would have to forge ahead on memory alone until I realized my filing cabinet contained a goldmine of corroborating documents: clips of the newspaper column I wrote in my twenties. I know a newspaper column seems like an odd resource for personal history, but most of my columns were short personal essays, closer to creative nonfiction than journalism.
Re-reading them now, at the age of thirty-eight, I feel a little squeamish and even embarrassed by them. They were much more intimate than I remember. Back then, readers used to approach me at the grocery store or on the sidewalk and spill their secrets like I was some kind of oracle. Some asked me to write about them. A few became boyfriends. One man who got a crush on me via my column eventually became my husband. At the time, I didn’t understand why people felt like they knew me from those few inches of newsprint every Friday.
Now I get it, and I am not sure I like it much now that the tables are turned–especially after discovering a column I have no memory of writing.
The mystery column was about my brothers, probably my first foray into the risky territory of secret siblings. I do not remember having the guts to shine a light on these secrets all those years ago, when I was only twenty-two and when my words would be delivered to almost every doorstep in my small town. It must have been excruciating to write, let alone publish. How could I forget?
The timeline gives me a clue: When I wrote it, I was caught up in a stormy affair with a much older man who, amongst other strange behaviors, often confessed his tortured attraction to young girls. Without delving into the gory details, this relationship caused a lot of stuff to surface that I did not know how to handle, and I believe I wrote this column in a kind of fugue.
And now, here I am, confronting this younger me and her younger memories.
Certain details in the column seem to contradict my memories today, a discovery that momentarily spun my world off axis, in part because, as an abuse survivor, I know what it means to be branded a liar–to have my testimony impeached. Never mind how unreliable or slippery the offender was or is; it is the victim who must appear whole and empirical under the microscope.
Case in point:
In the sixteen-year-old column, I catch my mother with an obit and press her for information.
In a recent essay, I tell the story of catching my father clipping the obit.
When I mentioned the discovery of these clashing facts to some friends, they immediately leapt into a discussion of false memories, which I found fascinating. I never characterized either memory as false; I only stated that two written records contradict. In our legal system, contradictory statements would be grounds for witness impeachment; perhaps the culture of our adversarial system has blurred into daily life. Never mind life is not a legal case. Never mind it is not always so simple.
In fact, both happened at different points. I think I focused on my mother in the newspaper column because she represented less risky territory at the time (never mind how I feel today).
But truth be told, I forgot about pestering my mother about the obit until I saw this column again, I suspect because I hesitate to place my mother in any position of responsibility for family secrets.
Fascinating cognitive theory is playing out here, too: I just finished reading some studies about the impact of positive and negative emotions on memory. Negative emotions are associated with “item-specific processing” while positive emotions are associated with “relational” processing. My emotions surrounding many childhood events have only recently begun to surface in an authentic way, sparking a fundamental change to how I process memories; hence, the focus shifts–and so does the narrative I reconstruct.
A few other details puzzle me, too, but I need more time to reconcile them.
This experience has left me with fresh questions about fact-checking, truth, and creative nonfiction. Recently, a friend and I were dishing about experiences with fact-checkers, and she told me about one editor who confirmed every detail down to the color and fabric of a pillow from two decades prior. Because of that experience, she holds back from writing certain things for fear of the fact-checking because, well, some things cannot be corroborated. What happens to truth then?
Documents, after all, are just documents. The fact of their existence ≠ the existence of fact.
And what happens to it in this case, when an old “record”–even one I created–seemingly contradicts a newer one?
What happens when corroboration itself–as a process, as a philosophy of truth–becomes a kind of lie? When corroboration maybe even damages the truth?