The Peril of Memory

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The Peril of Memory
by Michael Ventura

My memories are dangerous. Dangerous to myself, dangerous to others. If you have a look that jibes with one of my memories, I may like or dislike you without reason, and our lives may change because of that. One memory can stop me from an act that seems beneficial, while another goads me into trouble. My memories are both indelible and unstable. They appear unsummoned and disappear without warning. A fragrance, a color, a melody, can gladden or depress me. I can't escape my memories, but when one has departed I can rarely make it return. I can't, but a stranger's laugh can.

How much of my life is at the mercy of memories that seem forgotten, then are called up by an accident beyond my control? I get word a childhood friend has died. Haven't thought of him in 30 years, and might never have thought of him again. Yet by chance I hear he's dead, and my memory of him overwhelms me, and I am sad for a week. Where did he go, within me, all that time? What gives this memory the power to change my days so unexpectedly--I break appointments, drink too much, sit and stare out the window? But then the memory of him ignites an idea that makes an essay I'd been unable to finish (hence a paycheck I'd been unable to collect) suddenly clear, the words tumble out of me (and the rent will be paid), and all because a memory that had been hiding suddenly came out into the open.

At a party, I see a middle-aged woman patting the hair and kissing the cheek of a sleeping boy. She's drunk, her caresses are somehow inappropriate--not sexual, not really, yet they carry some sexual aura. I lean against the wall. I cannot speak. I cannot hear. A scream is deep inside me. It won't come out, but it echoes within, the echoes ricochet, strengthen, the scream inside is screaming, and I am helpless to stop it, helpless to act, and horribly silent. Someone else diverts the woman from the boy. I am shaken to my core. I suddenly hate myself more than I have ever hated. This loathing overwhelms me and won't go away. I'm a middle-aged man, I know myself, or think I do, what the devil is going on? These sensations don't abate. Days go by. Finally, I am almost taken by the hand, like a child, to a therapist. Two, three, sessions a week, for two years. Money I don't have, but spend anyway. Because that scream inside me is a memory, and my life has come to a standstill while that scream screams itself and will not stop. I learn to live with a memory that puts together the words "incest" and "mother." My God. That memory was hidden within for so long? My sexuality, my relationships, were haunted by that awful, silent, inner scream, and I didn't know?

Memory can kill, I learn during those years. Memory can kill love, kill hope, memories you don't even know you have. And one memory can change another. Both the sweet and horrid memories of my childhood mix (and must always have secretly mixed) with these hidden memories that have come forth, and now my past is different. The way I thought and spoke of it for years--I can't speak of it that way anymore, can't even say the word "mother" with the same voice anymore, I must find a new way of containing it all, even a new voice.

I'm not talking about "recovered" memory, i.e., memories suspected and searched for in some psychological probe. I wasn't searching, I didn't know there was anything to search for. I was at a party, for chrissake. But something rose within me, drawn out by an accident, a drunk old woman, a seamy but harmless vignette at a party. And a relatively stable person (stable as far as artists go, at any rate) becomes a walking nervous breakdown for nearly four years, years that wound and shatter several bonds with lovers and friends that I once thought would last my lifetime. Because, suddenly, something was remembered.

My memories change. They contradict each other. The memory you have at 10 is not the same as the memory of the same person that you'll have at 20, at 50, at 80. At the age of 10, I had a father, but not really. Papa worked, but there wasn't any money, and then he was gone, and there really wasn't any money. There was welfare, illness, evictions, and terrible fear, and then children's homes, foster homes, Dickensian memories--some pathetic, some gruesome, some farcical, but no Papa anywhere. Well, tough luck; many could tell the same tale.

But then, years later, I am 27: A good and gentle man becomes my friend, he is my blood, he is the man I was named after, he is my father, and over the years we laugh and take drives and talk and argue, not a boy and a man, but a man and a man. As he gets older, he becomes somehow younger, and I am like his older brother, he asks me for advice, he confides in me. And the memory of that coward of my youth, a father in name only, shape-shifts with the memory of this friend of my manhood, who is the same man--but not really. Or I am not the same. Or something. But the memories eat at each other, while the man of the present sometimes changes places with the man of my past, and for moments I sometimes see the man I saw when I was 10, but then that passes and my friend returns, the same face but older. My memories collide in that face. And I can't decide which is right or wrong, which is "real," because in such situations reality is a matter of what you focus upon.

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