by Caroline Leavitt

The truth of a memory isn’t as important as the truth of the feelings behind it.

  • We sometimes need to remember things differently from how they happened to protect ourselves from hurt.
  • Sometimes, when a memory keeps cropping up, focusing on the emotions behind it can be helpful.
  • Digging deeper to find if our memories are accurate can free us from the impact they make on our identities.

I admit I can obsess about seemingly terrible things that happened to me twenty years ago so intently that it seems as though I am re-living and re-enforcing my humiliations. But are those memories true? And what if they weren’t?

Your personal feelings can impact a memory’s truth.

I’ve had my share of trauma. In high school, I was bullied mercilessly by a girl I thought was my friend. She was super cool, a seemingly spectacular talent in music and photography and writing, whom everyone thought would do something wildly creative in life. But what I most remember is the disapproval on her face when she looked at me, the snickering way she’d whisper to other girls about me, roping them into my shaming. She mocked how skinny I was, how ugly, how terrible my hair, and she said it all loudly, so I would hear. She made plans with me over and over, almost as if she might like me, and then she broke them at the last moment. When I got into Brandeis and she didn’t, she sniped it was only because I was a Jew, that her rightful place had been given to me.

For years, I felt terrible, and those memories always came to the surface to torment me, mostly when I was feeling insecure about myself. Though I knew I couldn’t rewrite the past, I thought maybe I could at least confront it and it would go away. So I found her on social media and messaged her, chattily giving some news and then asking her why she had done such bullying?

“I never did,” she wrote, and then she blocked me.

Had I gotten that story wrong and somehow insulted her by insinuating that she was a bully? Had she gotten it wrong?

I began to prowl through our old yearbook, for the photos of the two of us. To my shock, the first thing I noticed was that my memory of myself was all wrong. I wasn’t the skinny skeleton she made me out to be, but merely slender. My so-called stringy hair was actually thick and wavy, and I looked hip! How had I believed what she had made me believe about myself? But my memories of her, cool, confident, were belied in the yearbook, too. I saw now how her arms were tightly crossed. Her eyes unhappy. And to my surprise, she was chubby. I remembered her as thin. Had I never noticed her weight in high school because I was so obsessed with my own? I wondered if she mocked my skinniness as a hurtful reminder to her of what she wasn’t. And maybe her antisemitic remark was a band-aid for her shame at not getting into the school of her dreams. Her bravado, I realized, had hid her hurt. And her blocking me now might mean that she was still hurting. It was all how you remembered your life, and that flash of compassion for her made me wish her well, and then let it all go.

The incident pushed me to wonder about what else I might have misremembered, and negatively reinforced into my self-identity.

I had grown up remembering my sister as this gorgeous, talented girl whom I yearned to emulate. I followed her around, wanting to be her, to do what she did, to look the way she did. To my eyes, she was living the most happy, exciting life, right up until she dropped out of college to marry young, and moved to a stomach cramp of a town, had two kids too young, and then, inexplicably, stopped speaking to me. When I came to visit, she was always too busy to dine with me, and if she did, it was for ten minutes, following which she would cuttingly blame me for something. This was not how I remembered our relationship going, but when I told her this, she snapped, “You’re remembering me the way you want to.”

I didn’t know what she meant. Not then.

It got worse through the years, but while my memories vividly showed me as a good sister, lovingly trying to make things better by sending her clothes and funky jewelry and books, to put something sunny into her life, possibilities for going back to school, of leaving her husband, she remembered something very different. For her, every gift I gave her was a deliberate kind of rebuke, a reminder that I could lord it over her by giving away what I had plenty of, while she had nothing. I might have felt hope and pleasure sending her presents, but she remembered only the hurt.

And she remembered a me that never was: a woman who had had everything, a happy marriage, a writing career, travel—and no sorrows. I reminded her of my horrifying first marriage that ended in divorce, the death-in-my-arms of a fiancé two weeks before our wedding, a miscarriage at four and a half months. She didn’t remember my pain or her staunch abandonment of me during it. “You never needed me,” she insisted. But she was wrong.

I can’t fix what happened in the past with my high school bully, though by looking at it differently, I did release that memory. But with my sister, we both have such different memories of each other and of ourselves. Whose reality is it anyway? Did I need to think of myself as a savior so I could be the sister I loved? And did she need to think of me as evil so she wouldn’t have to deal with the unhappiness she was and is living with?

I don’t know if we can ever fix what’s wrong between us. My sister has estranged me and told me I am dead to her. There’s no way of our making new memories. It all makes me think of that lyric, “memories might be beautiful and yet…”

For that to be true, I think it all depends on whose memories we look at, and what meaning we want or even need to give them.

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