Throughout our lives, we create memories, then we reconstruct those memories, and they appear again and again within our mind. For me, one memory that always pops up concerns a time when I was a kid, riding a four-wheeler at my grandfather’s camp. I sat down on the seat, my dad sitting behind me, and I pulled the throttle back with my right hand. The vehicle took off, and at such a speed that it popped a wheelie, throwing my dad off the back.
In my mind, I see this scene in third person, from afar, almost like a wide angled shot in a film. I see the trees in the background and the four-wheeler just below them, on a flat spot of land. I can’t make out faces, but I know that it’s me on the machine. Or is it? The bike starts forward, the front end pops up, and the silhouette of my dad falls off the back. That’s it. That’s the memory. Is it reality? Is it me? Is it my dad falling off the back?
I think about this memory a lot, not necessarily because of what occurs but because of the way I remember it. Why do I view it in third person? Why do the figures on the four-wheeler only appear in silhouette? Why is the landscape/setting so generic? I don’t have answers to these questions, but this is something I think about often, and it is something that I will talk about with my students this semester when we look at graphic memoirs such as George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy.
In 1942, the U.S. government sent Takei and his family to a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas. Takei talks about how he viewed this move, through the eyes of a young child, at the time. When the family boarded the train, they received identification tags. For Takei’s parents, “it was yet another de-humanizing act.” For Takei, he “assumed it was [his] ticket for the train.” Harmony Becker’s panels show the true experience of the train with guards standing over the passengers, people coughing, and worried expressions on the parents’ faces.
During the ride, Takei pulls on his fathers arm and asks, “Where are we going?” His father looks out of the window then back at his sons and tells them they are going on a vacation. At this, a panel shows the young Takei smiling, stars appearing around his face, as he innocently asks, “What’s it like there?” Takei’s innocence continues throughout the train ride, even when the guards lower the windows as the train pulls into the towns along the journey. Takei notes that he thought all vacations took place on a train and that him and his brother “were innocent children, not fully comprehending [their] situation.”
Amidst all of the sorrow of that train ride, and the larger xenophobia that led to it, Takei’s memories remain joyful. Panels depict his father in contemplative thought, and these are followed by panels showing the children running up and down the aisles. Here, Takei narrates, “My bright sharp memories are of a joyful time of games, play, and discoveries. Memory is a wily keeper of the past, usually dependable, but at times, deceptive.” This is the key. Memories are deceptive. Takei’s parents made sure the journey was bearable for their children by playing games, packing food, and other things. As such, Takei remembers the train ride as a joyful experience, yet his knowledge tells him it was far from joyful.
The context of the moment is important. As he crawls underneath the seats, his narration continues: “Childhood memories are especially slippery. Sweet and so full of joy, they can often be a misrendering of the truth.” In this panel, a hand reaches down and grabs Takei from underneath the seat. The hand, we learn in the next panel, belongs to one of the guards. The next panel shows the guard standing over Takei’s parents as Takei narrates, “For a child, the sweetness, out of context and intensely subjective, remains forever real.”
The final panel of the sequence shows the solider walking away as the Takei family sits on the bench, George sitting between his parents. His mother looks at him, smiling, as he looks up at her. Takei narrates, “I know that I will always be haunted by the larger, vaguely remembered reality of the circumstances surrounding my childhood.” While Takei has his own personal, joyful memories of the train ride, he knows that his memories do not tell the whole “historical” story. They tell his story, and the ways that others worked to create those memories.
In The Journey, Lillian Smith approaches memory as well. Writing about her childhood and Carl, she states, “My town that follows me wherever I go is not the town a tourist would see of the Chamber of Commerce would claim; nor is the Carl I remember the real Carl.” For Smith, “the real Carl” does not exist in her memory because “memory has so little talent for photography.” A photograph depicts the facts, but memory alters those facts.
She continues by comparing memory to painting: “It likes to paint pictures. Experience is not laid away like a snapshot to be withdrawn at will but is returned to us as a portrait painted in our own psychic colors, its form and pattern structured on that of our life.” We construct memories, painting them on the canvas of our mind, with our own experiences. Our lives influence the way we remember. What we see. How we construct those things that have occurred in our lives.
Paul Ricoeur asked in Time and Narrative, “The question about historical knowledge ‘standing for’ the ‘real’ past is born from the simple question: what does the term ‘real’ mean when it is applied to the historical past? What are we saying when we say something ‘really’ happened?” My memory of the ill-fated four-wheeler ride does not have large historical significance, but it has personal significance to me. Did it really happen? Yes, it most certainly did. Is my memory of the event accurate? Absolutely not, and I know that. However, it’s the memory I have. It’s the memory that has been grafted onto my brain and resides there until some future moment when it will either alter, based on the recollections of others adding to my own memory, thus making it a collective construction, or it will fade into oblivion, lost in the recesses of my mind and captured here on this page.
Does it really matter if I remember that event accurately? Probably not. However, I would argue that when we remember certain events inaccurately, we construe the past, even our own experiences, and make them fit our beliefs. They become “the giants and pygmies of memory” that follow us through the corners of our mind. They become the paintings that appear so life like that we can hardly discern reality from fabricated image. When this occurs, we become lost within our own minds, refusing to recognize the facts and logic of the world around us. We damage ourselves and those we love. We must adhere to the photographs, not to the painted representations on canvas.