We used to play it all the time. We’d all sit in a circle. One person would begin by whispering in the ear of the person next to her. Just a few phrases, maybe a fact or two. Then that person would whisper it into the next person’s ear, and so on around the circle. Most of the time, when the last person spoke it aloud, the whisper didn’t even closely resemble what had been said at the beginning. I always, even though I was often a participant, was shocked and amazed at how it had been altered. So were most of my companions.
Some time ago, I wrote here that we all have many voices in our heads. Those voices are often defined by the different roles we play on a regular basis. We certainly wouldn’t use the same tone, or words, to our boss as we do to our children. Nor would we speak of the same things to our pastor as we do to a parent. And its not just the tone or verbiage that changes, but often the perspective as well. The nosy neighbor would certainly get a different view than that offered to our best friend who probably hears a great deal more about the nosy neighbor than he wants to.
Imagine that circle of whispers, what we called the ‘telephone game’, going on inside your own head, and realize that is more real than not. How does that effect the function of memory? It can distort it as much as the whispered facts in that childhood game. Our memories are selective, not always complete, and partial to the belief structure we have created. In other words, we remember what we choose to remember. What is important to us, what underlines our particular set of belief systems, is stored in a convenient location, retrievable at will. And the rest? We can say it’s forgotten, but that doesn’t mean it simply disappears. It is stored somewhere, perhaps on a dark shelf at the back of a closet that is seldom used.
In her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes that nothing is ever truly lost from the psyche. That is one of those things that lodged in my brain the first time I read it, and I’ve never forgotten it because I find it terribly comforting. Not that I don’t have things I’d prefer not to remember, but I have even more I don’t wish to forget. And even those things I’d like to lose in the fog of passing years, retain a certain value and might be needed at some time in the future.
That’s where the discipline of journal keeping becomes really important. Written words can’t be changed as easily as selective memory. If one is as honest as possible, one can go back and see how memory has been enhanced, abbreviated, slightly altered, or grossly distorted because one has a written record to compare it with. Has that ever happened to me? Yes, all of it, at one point or another.
Several years ago, I was talking to a friend about an experience we had shared. I was wounded by what she recalled of the incident, and she was hurt by what she felt were my representations of the same incident. I was sure I had written about all of it, so I went back in my journal and found what I had written. To my own amazement, we were both right. We both remembered particular aspects of the experience, each from our own perspectives. When I shared with her, what I had discovered, we were both a bit embarrassed and said as much. Our memories weren’t incorrect, they just weren’t complete. In that instance, my journal saved a good friendship that continues to this day. We are both grateful.
My journal has been another piece of source material for years. It keeps a lot of those pieces of my psyche that, although not lost (as Estes points out), might be hidden on one of those dark shelves way at the back of the closet I call memory. I do occasionally go into that closet and set it to rights, but like all cleaning, it is never truly done, complete. I’m constantly storing more and finding more. At the very least, I do know where the closet is and can get at it without too much trouble.
Since moving back to the city of my birth, and being in much closer contact with my family, I have heard, “But that’s not the way it was,” on several occasions. I immediately think of that circle of children, a room filled with whispers, and the look of surprise on all faces when the whispers are spoken aloud. It saves a great deal of wear and tear on relationships and fills a lot of pages in my journal. Two good reasons to continue.