Sunday, October 9, 2011

Total Recall

"I twist the truth to sound like a lie,"  William S. Heckscher
My father's life mask
We are what we remember--agreed?

          But when you suffer trauma-induced amnesia--the kind where personal details are irretrievable, where you blink at your own children and say, "Do I know you?"--then who are you? The Person Formerly Known as Me?  Or have you actually become somebody else?

          If my middle-aged female brain, containing all my particular memories and unique associations, is transplanted into the 20-something body of a smokin-hot male, am I him or am I me?

          Let's agree that memory trumps everything.  Let's imagine that our identity is fixed in our personal set of memories and strung together along the clothesline of a perpetual present. We'll call this construction Perpetual Me.

          The problem with that (go ahead, pour yourself a drink) is that memory is notoriously unreliable.  Eye witnesses can be wrong; repressed memories can turn out to be inaccurate or suggested; and sometimes we innocently recall only what best serves us or is most pleasing, which we call 'selective memory.'  You say tomato and I say tomato.

          What's a fact, anyway?  One plus one always equals two--except when it equals one (picture the beast with two backs), or three (the two beasts come together to produce Baby Beast), or zero (two beasts kill each other).  The Israelis use a very different history book from the Palestinians, and Al Jazeera and Fox News often tell contradictory stories about the same event.  Sometimes Fox doesn't even report an event so, for most of us here in the U.S., some stories don't even exist.  You know the drill.

          In order to function as a society we collectively agree on some very bizarre, unspoken rules and call them reality.  For example:  men who run for public office can't wear stilettos; we view our map of the world missionary-style and the United States is always on top, never down under; green scraps of paper are equal in value to a hat or a car or a house; skin color affects how we feel about ourselves and each other; and each of us is a Perpetual Me.

          Gurdjieff talks about those thousands of "I"s all vying for dominance at any given moment within a single human being--taking turns or being jostled and overthrown in each new circumstance, chaotic and without conscious will, reacting but never acting--poking holes in our notion of the continuity of a fixed self.  Buddhists dress this vacuous horror up as Nirvana, but they share the same core belief that the ego is a misleading concept.  Behind the mask of Perpetual Me is Contiguous We which, in turn, masks...what?

          The dark fairy tales I prefer are played out in existential sci-fi movies like "The Matrix" with Keanu Reeves, or in "Total Recall," featuring our hero, the King of Kitsch, Arnold Schwartzenegger.  In both stories, reality and memory are rapaciously challenged.  Keanu ends up as an invincible messiah whose message is Question reality and make your own choices.  By the time the closing credits start rolling, we all want to be on Team Keanu.

          Arnie's character is ultimately (wait for it) more complex.  He's haunted by a recurrent dream about a journey to Mars and feeds his obsession by purchasing a holiday at Rekall, Inc., which sells implanted memories.  (Who needs to go to Mars when you can just remember it instead?)  Something goes awry and he catches glimpses of his real life, which takes him on a dangerous odyssey to save the world, while he's never quite sure if he's the good guy or the bad guy or a figment of his own imagination.  Is he who he was or who he thinks he is now?

          I just did an online search for a synopsis of "Total Recall" (which began as a short story by someone named Philip K. Dick), just to check my facts, but each synopsis differs radically from my memory of the plot--which might be the best way to illustrate my point.

          What really matters is how we attribute meaning and our interpretation of memories rather than the memories themselves. This can be very liberating because it means we can reinvent ourselves without being shackled to the past.

          For instance, Malcolm X is most often remembered for being a violently anti-Caucasian proponent of civil rights, but that was only the first book of his life.

In Book Two, he makes his life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, where everyone--all races and nationalities--dress in the same humble cloth, their socioeconomic and racial differences dissolving as they are united as brothers and sisters under God.  It's this new, peaceful Malcolm, who dares to diverge from his own past, who is murdered.  Sometimes love appears to be more subversive than hate because it really pisses people off.

          More difficulties arise, however, when our determination to believe only what suits us is at odds with someone else's truth. Take the millions of Armenians who were slaughtered in the early 20th century by the Turks in a surprisingly well-documented genocide.

          I have relatives who fled and others who died on the death march, during which hundreds of thousands of Armenians--men, women, children, the elderly, the infirm--were made to walk the desert.  Some were shot, beaten, stabbed, hanged, raped, or set fire to, along the way. Those who were too frail died walking.  My grandmother had nightmares about a pregnant woman who died with a bayonet in her belly.  Mothers buried their dead babies when they could, others abandoned ailing relatives and kept walking. Intellectuals were rounded up and exterminated.  The lucky ones made it out.

          Although 20 nations have formally acknowledged the genocide, the United States is diplomatically silent on the matter.  The Turks, as a nation, officially deny the genocide and the Turkish government harshly punishes any citizen who begs to differ on the grounds that they are "insulting Turkishness." Don't laugh!

          The Nobel laureate and Turkish author Orhan Pamuk denounced the government for suppressing its writers and mentioned the murder of a million Armenians, although I believe he was careful not to say outright that the Turks were responsible or that the murders were government-mandated.  The government had its hands tied, so to speak, because prosecuting and punishing such a high-profile figure would be as damning as admitting the truth, so the charges against him fizzled out.

Takouhi Tutunjian, my great grandmother,
fled to Greece before joining my grandmother in the Bronx
          What is most chilling to me is when people believe and promote propaganda without checking the so-called facts. It's one thing to be ashamed and flinch from a painful truth. That the kindly mother of my daughter's Turkish friend had no wish to discuss politics with me was a relief. That the 70-year-old Turkish grandma felt it was her privilege to tell me, "Some Armenians are alright--the nice, quiet ones, I don't have a problem with them--just not the crazy, radical ones who throw bombs," that was unforgivable.

          I'm magnanimous enough to forgive her for something she had no part in, but as soon as Granny divided us into good Armenians and bad Armenians, she made me choose sides. She radicalized me.

          I looked at her daughter, who was gazing out the window as blankly as if she'd stuffed cotton in her ears, and then back again to Granny.

          Then I said something impossible, that both was and wasn't true.

          "You remind me of my grandmother."

           In my memory, she was left speechless, her blue eyes as expressionless as marbles, although I realize it's possible my sequencing is off and her provocative remark was made after mine.  The two Turkish women likely have no recollection whatsoever of our exchange. I read somewhere that our minds record everything that ever happens to us, it's all there, but we're only able to access a fraction of it. The retrievable fraction is supposed to be what's necessary.  (Which doesn't explain why I can't find my car keys.)  I wonder if we make the whole thing up?

Moltkestrasse 29, 1945
          My father told such exaggerated stories that it was difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.  He often told my mother, "Bitte keine Details" (easy on the details) and was unnerved by what he delicately referred to as her "complete recall."  Conversely, my mother was sometimes exasperated by his tall stories and failure to be logical or stick to the facts.  But how we remember says as much about us as what we remember.

          When my father was dying, the middle of the night was his time for soliloquy and swan song. From his hospital bed, cast adrift in the darkness of my parents' bedroom, he would speak in German, or in Latin, but rarely in English.  He'd start by reciting his full name and where he was born:

"Ich bin Wilhelm Sebastian Martin Hugo Heckscher, Moltkestrasse Neun und Zwanzig, Hamburg..."

          He was invoking himself for as long as he could, which is all any of us can do.

My father in 1911 (dangling his legs),
posing in front of Moltkestrasse 29


  1. This is incredible ... you are one hell of a babe sis!
    Intellectually and emotionally stimulating AND riveting.
    Keep writing!

  2. May I keep you?

    My friend Melinda passed along another writing assignment from her class:

    write an essay titled "On ____" and fill in the blank with the first juicy noun that pops into your head. (What's a noun?) "Separation" was suggested, if one gets stumped.

    The first word that came into my head was Memory.

    It's a bit bullshitty--I didn't stick with the essay idea but I did have fun pretending I could craft a fancy, logical argument and then tear it down or wander off in another direction.


  3. Totally agree with Dida. You keep me thinking, and stretching my brain. My favorite line, " our identity is fixed in our personal set of memories and strung together along the clothesline of a perpetual present".

  4. Julie! Thank you! So glad it's fun to read. (And that it doesn't seem too hokey or pretentious.)