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Thatwhich

Strolling Down Revisionist Lane

When Sam was really young, he was interested in the solar system. I remember tucking him into bed and asking if he wanted to be an astronaut. I must have asked the question with some fear in my voice, because his answer was reassuring: “Don’t worry, Mom. I’m like a sailor who never leaves the shore. I want to be an astromoner.”

“Wait,” says the 17-year-old as I recount this story. “You said I said ‘astromoner.’ I’m pretty sure I said it right. Astronomer.”

“No, it was definitely ‘astromoner.’ I wrote it down in my journal.”

“Is there any chance you wrote it down wrong? Because I remember that conversation, and I’m sure I said ‘astronomer.’”

And that’s what makes memory so complicated. Tonight on Fresh Air, I listened to an interview with Dana Spiotta, who has written a novel that I now really want to read, called “Stone Arabia.” She was talking about reconsolidation of memory, how we are constantly revising the narrative of our lives based on experiences that happen later. So when you talk about a childhood memory with a sibling or old friend, you discover huge differences in the details you recall and the meanings you infer.

I learned this when I was writing my memoir. I wrote, from memory, about something that happened when Sam was eight months old. He had been crying all day, probably teething, and I finally set him in his crib, pulled up the side rail, and went to brush my teeth. It had been a long day. I just wanted to brush my *&%!ing teeth. I even left the bathroom door open — loving mother that I am — so I could hear his unrelenting screams in the meantime. Then I heard a thud, followed by a brief but frightening silence. I peered down the hall and there was Sam, crawl-marching toward me, a proud smile of triumph on his face.

But just to make sure I was getting the story right, I did a little fact-checking. I read the entry in my journal from that era. Turns out Sam was not beaming with pride, but after a brief silence (I got that right), he was marching on all fours in a screaming rampage. And who could blame him? His teeth still hurt, dammit. What business did I have cleaning mine?

There’s a simple explanation. As the years went by, the image of Enraged Baby Sam didn’t fit with the person I knew him to be. So that part got redacted from the memory file, and replaced with an image that made more sense to me. As a memoirist, I’m hugely grateful that I kept all those journals, so I can check my memory against reality. But now Sam has introduced a new worrisome possibility. What if I wrote it down wrong? No, I’m sure. Soul ripper said “astromoner.”
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