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The nature of memory

  • Author: Michael Carey
    | Opinion
  • Updated: October 4, 2018
  • Published October 4, 2018


I watched seven-and-a-half hours of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and like many viewers came away struck by how certain Judge Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, were of their memories.

In recent years, friends have reminded me of things I did in high school or college that I don't remember.

A high-school classmate I had not seen since the Sixties told me about the afternoon I jumped into a lake fully clothed. He watched me. We had gone to the lake together — nobody else around. Apparently I was showing off to a bro; "Watch this!" I remember being at the lake with my friend — and am confident, contrary to your suspicions, that alcohol was not present. But I don't remember jumping, the cold water surrounding me, staggering to the shore or sitting around in wet clothes.

I am willing to believe my friend's account. On occasion, I did things on impulse.

I would not believe my friend if he said "Remember the money you embezzled from your summer job?" No, that is totally outside my character.

Someone says to you of a friend "He has a good memory." What does " good memory" mean? It may mean that he can remember how to drive to a business or home that he visited once three years ago. Or it may mean he can remember information that has little immediate utility: For instance, the name of the Republican presidential candidate of 1884 (James Blaine). Or it may be, like the friend with the jump-in-the-lake story, he can remember incidents of yesteryear with specificity and clarity.

I can remember poems, songs I knew as a teen. "Daffodils," for instance, by William Wordsworth. I remember it probably because a teacher required me to recite it before an English class. A teenage boy desperately mumbling, "I wandered lonely as a cloud …" with the enthusiasm of a prisoner in front of a firing squad is a pathetic sight. As for songs, I remember endless pop tunes, including "He's Sure the Boy I Love" by The Crystals, which contains the lyric, "He doesn't put diamonds round my neck/Cause all he's got is unemployment checks." But I can't remember jumping into a lake fully clothed. Curious.

Songwriter and singer Carole King says she can remember where she was and who she was with when she first heard a radio station playing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" a 1960 hit by The Shirelles. She should — she co-wrote it.

Judge Kavanaugh kept a day planner in high school recording his activities. He was following his father's example. He recorded things he did, places he went, people he did things with. But Kavanaugh, like anyone who keeps a calendar, was an editor. He left things out. He had to. No planner could contain everything he did.

Teenage boys who keep day books and diaries are probably careful editors. They leave out things parental eyes should not see.

Day books and diaries have value because they are contemporary documents — contemporary to what the writer saw and experienced. But diaries in particular can veer toward storytelling — literature. The impulse toward literature, organizing and improving the story, seems to be almost universal among people who are literate. Telling the story can change the story. Writer Steven Spender said there probably are no accurate descriptions of trench warfare in World War I beyond "It were bloody horrible, mate" — but, Spender added, Robert Graves and the war memoirists, professional storytellers, weren't going to settle for that.

After my freshman year at college, I rode a Greyhound bus from New York City to Seattle. The trip took about three days. My choice of the bus was that of a budding romantic: I was going to see the "real America," the America described by Jack Kerouac and other writers who went on the road.

I have a diary of that trip (pieces of one, anyway). I trust the diary when it says I arrived in Chicago on a gray, foggy morning. I don't trust the diary completely when it describes what happened on the bus, people I met, scenes along the road that were more complex than a weather report. I was under the influence of literature — Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Arthur Rimbaud or whichever luminary inhabited my head at the time. I was trying to write in a tradition: That of the enthralled observer who encounters one marvel after another. The diary is a far better record or my state of mind than a report on what lay between New York and Seattle in 1964.

After I graduated from college in 1967, I lived in Boston where I worked in a bookstore. The bookstore, part of a chain, provided me with a hundred bucks a week, new friends, the latest fiction and nonfiction. Pretty girls came and went all day.

I moved on to New York in 1968, working in a Manhattan branch of the same chain. But for four or five years. I often took the train to Boston to see several of my former co-workers who were becoming lifetime friends and a couple of Alaska friends who had moved to Boston and worked for the chain.

During one visit, say 1972, I went into a branch of the store in downtown Boston, Boylston Street. I'm not sure why I went there. Maybe to look up one of my buddies — if so, he wasn't around. Maybe to cash a check; the bookstore doubled as my bank.

This occurred during bright daylight, probably at the beginning of the day shift, when the store had few customers. I believe there were four men present — myself, two guys who worked there and an old man, a customer. I remember one of the employees; I knew him. I don't remember the other employee.

The cash register/reception desk was at the front of the story and, as I had done many times before in bookstores, I joined the two employees at the desk for gossip, banter, an exchange of tales about the business. The employee I knew and can remember suddenly had an inspiration. "Check this out," he said with a laugh, nodding at the old man a few feet away. The old man, apparently very nearsighted, was peering intently into a book he had picked from a shelf. He had a large book bag hanging from his right shoulder, and while he was distracted by his intent peering, the employee slipped a paperback into the bag.

I think my immediate response was confusion, but cannot be sure.

Maybe a half-minute passed as the old man put the book he was reading back into the bookcase and began shuffling toward the door. The employee I knew said "Leaving eh? Sir, what about the book you have in your bag?" The old guy looked at three of us in helpless confusion before the man who put the book in the bag grabbed the bag, pulled the book out and said "This one."

You don't need much from me to imagine the end of the story. The employee hectored the old man into humiliation, the old man started to weep, the employee continued the lecture, ending with "and let this be a lesson to you," as the sobbing old man found the door and left.

The employee laughed. He had put on a cruel show and was charmed by his cleverness. I think he enjoyed something else: Getting away with it.

Why didn't I intervene in this sadism? I have tried to piece together an explanation or excuse. Here's the best I can do: The incident came out of nowhere. I had never experienced anything remotely like this. And perhaps – and maybe this is a reach – it's easier to muster outrage with strangers than with people you know and will run into again.

Why do I remember this? Because it was awful and I did nothing. I remember my shame.

During a break in the Kavanaugh hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina answered reporters questions in the hallway outside the committee room. Sen. Graham had just heard Dr. Ford's testimony, and while he said he didn't challenge her integrity, she had not provided any specific year, any specific, month, any specific day, any specific location, any account of how she reached the house where the alleged assault occurred, any account of how she got home.

I am not trying to put in an oar for Dr. Ford. I am putting in an oar for the incompleteness of memory. I can't meet the standard Sen. Graham set: The year, month, day, time, the names of all the people present, the specific physical location all are lost to me.

Yet I know what happened in the store. I remember the incident with reasonable accuracy, and in writing this account, I have made no effort to transform the incident into a more dramatic story.

Sen. Graham might ask me, "Do you remember what happened after the old man went out the door?" Well, senator, I must have left the store, but I don't recall anything else that happened that day. I was in the store 20 minutes, and those 20 minutes are memorable.

Michael Carey is an Anchorage Daily News columnist. He can be reached at

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