Every Battle is a Battle over Memory
(Guy Pearce in Memento, 2000.)
In one sense, the culture wars are always about one thing: memory.
Was what happened on January 6 an insurrection, or harmless high spirits? Who shapes what we recall, a mere five months later?
Was America’s “foundational moment” in 1619, when African slaves were imported to make the New World project possible, or was it in the summer of 1776, when a former colony dared to declare a new thing? Whom do we trust to recount that history for our children?
The Racial Reckoning movement is also about memory. What happened in Tulsa 100 years ago was (deliberately) forgotten, and now it is brought forward to our national consciousness. The president holds the hands, and listens to the stories, of the centenarians who still hold childhood memories of the horror when Americans first bombed other Americans from the air. The usual pledges are made: #NeverForget, #NeverAgain.
The #MeToo movement is also about memory. Women, and some men, come forward to say, “This thing was done to me, and it was not okay, and it still impacts my life. I want the world to remember as well.” Those who have behaved badly are called to admit their wrongdoing, and face consequences.
Some deny the accusations altogether. And some just don’t remember.
This past weekend, the New York Times reported a second sexual misconduct allegation against New York City mayoral candidate Scott Stringer. The first involved what he claims was a consensual affair with a staffer in 2001; the second comes from a decade earlier:
The woman, Teresa Logan, said that she was a waitress and tended bar at Uptown Local, an establishment on the Upper West Side that was co-founded and run in part by Mr. Stringer. In an interview, she accused Mr. Stringer of once groping her as she carried trays, making unwanted sexual advances, including kissing and groping, outside the workplace at least twice and treating her in a manner that often made her uncomfortable.
The first interactions, she said, took place in the spring of 1992, when Mr. Stringer was 32 and she was 18.
In response to Logan’s allegation, Stringer said he had no memory of her. He added:
“If, in fact, I met Ms. Logan, and ever did anything to make her uncomfortable, I am sorry,” he said. In response to Ms. Logan’s description of an unprofessional work environment, he said: “Uptown Local was a long-ago chapter in my life from the early 1990s and it was all a bit of a mess.”
On social media, the attacks were predictable and furious. In 2021, it is no longer correct form to say, “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable.” The expected apology is both abject and sweeping, without that pesky qualifying “if.” A number of tweets mocked the insufficient apology – and ridiculed his inability to remember.
Here is a basic truth: we will hurt other people. We may not sexually harass them, or beat them up, but we will cause pain through what we do or say or what we fail to do or say. That’s part and parcel of what it means to be human. It’s not about our intentions, which tend (in our memories) to have always been more or less justified and well-meaning – it’s about the impact we have. And the people we hurt will sometimes remember what we did long, long after we have completely forgotten it.
Six years ago, I went out to coffee with an old friend. Marla had been my student in 1996 and 1997, and we had slept together twice and remained cordial thereafter. She had pulled away after my 2013 breakdown, and this 2015 Starbucks sitdown was the first in a long time.
Marla told me something I’d done, something tactless and deeply hurtful, something that had happened years earlier.
I looked at her and said, “That sounds like something I would do. I’m so sorry.”
I phrased it that way because I believed she was telling the truth, but I had no recollection of the incident. None. Nothing. It sounded depressingly plausible, but I didn’t remember.
Marla was stunned that I didn’t remember. My saying I’m sure I did it was worlds away from Yes, I did it.
The amends she wanted and needed could only come from a joint recollection of what happened, as if the two of us were to watch a movie together and agree on what we saw. It wasn’t enough to have me plead a hangdog “no contest.” Marla wanted, and needed to see real regret in my eyes. Instead she saw bewilderment, sorrow and eagerness to please.
“I can’t believe you don’t remember,” she repeated again and again, until I thought maybe I should make something up to placate her. I knew that would be foolish, as I’d mess up a detail, and she’d catch me out in my lie, and be even more hurt and furious. I just repeated how sorry I was, over and over again, until she changed the subject.
We haven’t met for coffee since.
When Scott Stringer describes 1992 as a “long-ago chapter in my life… all a bit of a mess” he is almost certainly telling the truth on both counts. I have no doubt he doesn’t remember Teresa Logan, and that those years are hazy in his mind. The 1990s are a bit of a blur for me too, especially those periods when I was abusing pills and alcohol; though I have crystal-clear recollections of some moments, there are a great many people whom I encountered whom I have simply forgotten. I do not know how many students I slept with between 1995 and 1998, and though I am not required to produce a number or a list, I am keenly aware that there must be some in their ranks who remember our time together with mixed feelings at best. The students who had the fondest memories of our affairs tended to be the ones who stayed in my life, and have provided reassurance -- and reinforcement of the notion that I did no real harm. The ones who were hurt, if they were hurt, have (Marla excepted) stayed quiet.
The concept of restorative justice hinges on establishing a common memory. Many of my readers will remember the 90’s-era South African Truth and Reconciliation commission, which proved such a pivotal process in that country’s transition out of apartheid. The victims of the white government told their stories while the perpetrators of atrocities listened. The perpetrators then acknowledged their crimes, asked for forgiveness, and in most instances, were not further prosecuted. The widely-acknowledged success of the commission relied in no small part not just on the confessions of the accused, but on their willingness to remember what they had done.
Given that remembering successfully was the primary way to avoid further criminal penalties, the accused had considerable incentive to insist that they recalled all their wrongdoings; saying “I don’t remember,” even if it were true, would be interpreted as a refusal to move towards reconciliation. You gotta fake it if you wanna make it. The truth would literally set you free, as long as it was the truth others needed to hear.
I am haunted by the things I’ve done, and I am haunted too by the things I assume I must have done but that I cannot recall. I write often and publicly about my mental illness, my emotional fragility, my suicidal ideation. I worry that there are people out there whom I hurt, but who are afraid to tell me for fear that their telling me would drive me further into despair. I’m not someone equipped to handle the truth, and the reality of my mental frailty is that a great many people feel compelled to pull their proverbial punches with me. Because I do not remember, I can’t know how many punches are being pulled, as it were – I can only wonder.
I am also not running for Mayor of New York. To choose to be a public figure in 2021 is to accept relentless scrutiny of your past actions and pronouncements, and to expect figures whom you have forgotten to emerge, ready at last to share their long-held traumas and resentments. The question for us as a people is not just what kinds of pasts we regard as permanently disqualifying from public life, but what kind of recollections are required. How do we deal with the people in our lives who have hurt us but do not remember what they did? Can we accept that the old injuries that haunt us so vividly left no lasting impression on the person who inflicted them? How do we forgive ourselves for the wrongs we’ve done but do not recall?
In both private lives, and in the teaching of American history, this battle over memory will continue.
The song I had on repeat while writing this post is by country singer Jade Jackson, who gives us one of the most moving tracks I’ve heard yet about COVID’s impact.