We are in the middle of preparing for Passover which will soon be upon us. I was listening to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discuss his interpretation of an element of the Exodus story when something he said struck me. He said that identity requires memory. This is why we Jews retell the Exodus story annually. Yes, we were slaves, but we were also freed. It is in the remembering that the memory is made new and freshly relevant to our present identities.
I immediately began looking up reliable sources regarding memory and identity. Are our identities founded upon our memories? Apparently, yes. I found numerous essays and books discussing this very topic. What fascinates me about this premise is the implication that we can influence the development of our identity through what we remember, and this becomes particularly important in the case of trauma (EMDR for example).
Ulric Neisser, referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology”, spent years researching memory and divided our memory and, thusly, the self into five unique parts or ‘selves’:
This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with daily life? Quite a lot as I learned last weekend.
My mom and stepfather visited with the intention to help me get my house in better order to sell. I often feel like I’m making a deal with the devil when I accept their help. While my mother’s borderline personality disorder symptoms have vastly improved with age and repeated illnesses, she still struggles at times.
We were folding laundry together at my dining room table, and my mother mentioned quite out of the blue that she never understood why my grandmother had acted so meanly to her in Norway.
“I told you about that, didn’t I?” she casually asked.
“No, I don’t recall your taking a trip to Norway,” I said feeling curious.
My mother went on to relate to me a somewhat fantastical tale in which my grandmother was the center of the Norwegian press’s attention in the summer of 1969. It seems that my grandmother’s father, my great-grandfather, was a much celebrated and famous artist in Norway. I knew he was a painter of landscapes from Norway, but I had no idea that he was a celebrity in his home country.
“Oh yes,” my mother explained. “There were bronze busts of him and paintings in museums. The press was very excited to interview your grandmother. We traveled to Fagernes and stayed in his ancestral home. Your grandmother ate it up. She preened for the cameras, and she dragged your grandfather around. He didn’t like it. Not once did she ever tell the press that he had a granddaughter. She never mentioned me. So, when the press wrote about his children–you know, his descendants–they never included me in that family line. She completely edited me out, and I couldn’t understand it. I always thought that it was because I was adopted. I wasn’t blood or something.”
I was stunned at this revelation, and, at the same time, her story was believable. My grandmother could be extremely petty. She used to put onions and lemons in the Christmas stockings of children who annoyed her. She could be childish and self-centered when she felt socially injured. The idea, however, that she blacklisted my mother from the family line because she was adopted did not resonate with me at all. My grandparents never treated my mother differently because of her adoption. They loved her. She was their daughter, but, for my mother, her memory of the event was related to her adoption. Her identity from that moment onward in 1969 had become one of deficiency. She was “less than”. Never good enough. Rejected. Never acceptable. One can’t change their DNA after all.
I couldn’t accept this narrative. I had to know more. So, I began to ask questions. My grandmother’s behavior seemed so distinctly relationally aggressive that it seemed to be tied to an action rather than an identity such as being adopted. I asked my mother if something had happened before the trip to Norway. As it turns out, something had.
“Well, I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I was supposed to be in college, but I didn’t like it. Your grandparents strongly suggested I go to this Christian college that trains missionaries, but I never wanted to be a missionary. I didn’t like the school. So, I quit and got a job instead. I paid my own way in Norway. I bought my own ticket, paid for my food, paid for everything. I asked them if I could join them and struck a deal with them,” she explained.
Suddenly, it became clear to me. My grandmother had a life-long infatuation with the idea of missionary life. She supported many missionaries. She and my grandfather owned rental properties and often rented to missionaries on furlough. To her, the missionary was the embodiment of the Great Commission–an icon of the Gospel. The darker side of this romantic idealism is that my grandmother enjoyed social status within her religious community, and a missionary daughter would have given her a leg up in her social climb. When my mother quit that missionary college, she forever deprived my grandmother of having a missionary daughter from whom she could derive social capital. Put simply, my mother socially shamed my grandmother by quitting college, and, to my grandmother, it was always tit-for-tat. My mother socially injured my grandmother? Fine. My grandmother socially injured my mother in Norway in return.
To me, the narrative was so clear, but, as I explained it to my mother, she could scarcely accept it. She was shocked. I felt quite angry on my mother’s behalf. In that moment, I so wished my grandmother were alive so that I could confront her. I asked my mother if she confronted her mother, and my mother lowered her head.
“Why? Why did you not ask her about this?” I almost pleaded.
“Because she was my mother. You know how she was…” my mother said quietly. She looked ashamed.
It was then that I observed it. My mother was afraid of her mother, and I know that my grandmother was afraid of her own mother, too. If I were in a movie, this would have been the moment that the camera pulled back. I descend from a line of women all terrorized by their mothers except that I no longer fear my mother. For the first time I finally saw her as her own person, fully human and hurting. For the last 50 years of her life she has believed that she has been unacceptable because her birth mother didn’t want her. She has believed that her own family didn’t want her because they were ashamed of her. She has believed that she wasn’t worthy to be included in the family line of her ancestors because she wasn’t “blood”. And, because of this belief, she has made almost all of her life choices accordingly–as if nothing better was worth fighting for because she wasn’t worth fighting for.
All because of how she remembered a singular event playing out. Her identity was forged according to her memory. And, her memory was inaccurate.
When we hold onto one interpretation of an event for years, it is excruciatingly difficult to let that interpretation go and accept another in its place because, as we are learning, identity and memory are dependent on each other. For my mother, she has truly believed that she is a “second-class citizen”, and she has made life choices according to that belief. Can you imagine for a moment what it would be like to find out that the events in your memory from which you derived such an identity were actually misunderstood? You never were unacceptable? What would you feel?
We believe our caregivers when we are developing. Our interpretations of events, how we remember them, the meanings that we apply to them, how we talk to ourselves about them, and how we relate to them become a part of our internal landscape and shape us. Even if we find out later that there is a better interpretation, there is still loss associated with identity transformation and healing. I watched my mother try to understand the shift in her narrative. All she could say was, “This is a lot of information for me to take in.” I don’t know if she’ll internalize a new narrative, but at least an alternative is there now.
All this is to say that part of how we heal ourselves is to assess our memories and, thusly, our identities for they are inextricably linked, and seek out better interpretations and narratives.