The Millennium: Begin
The Big Heat

Early Memories

I'm reading Mary Karr's memoir The Liars' Club. It's very good, but I realized fairly quickly that some part of me wants to dislike it. At first I didn't want to admit that to myself, keeping a keen eye out for faults while not quite consciously wanting to find them. Then, when it got difficult to suppress my actual bias and desire, I started asking myself why I wanted to dislike it. And then I spent a little while trying to suppress the answer to that question. I finally faced that one, too: it's envy. 

I'm no stranger to that ignoble emotion, especially where writers are concerned. I suppose anyone who wants to be good at anything is bound to feel a little envy of those who are very, very good at it. Likely to, anyway, if not bound. But it's not usually very strong with me--just sort of a sigh, I wish I could write like that. And it definitely doesn't get in the way of my enjoyment of the work, much less cause me to try to find fault with it. My problem with Mary Karr's book is that I've written a book that's at least 50% memoir, and it's not nearly as good as hers. I'd like to think it has strengths of its own, but in the way of vividly bringing to life scenes from the past it's not in the same league as The Liars' Club. I envy the latter's richness and color, the precision and detail of its observations, the novelistic or even cinematic rendering of character, the wit--especially the wit. I even came pretty close to envying Mary Karr the presence of those crazy people in her life, the fact that they were available to her to write about. My family was not nearly as wild and colorful--which I am sensible enough to realize is a good thing even as I feel that hint of envy. (And I do not, very much do not, envy certain of her experiences.)

And I certainly don't recall nearly as much of my childhood as Karr does. Really, is it possible that anyone remembers so much of childhood so precisely? Doing my best to take into account my bias, I still have some skepticism on that score. Surely Karr embellished and combined and reconstructed in some instances, such as a scene in which she recounts a long story which her father told to a group of friends, including not only the essence of the story but its exact words, and some digressions, as well as precise details of the listeners' identities and appearances and responses. She's still a small child, not yet in school. Would a child that young even notice all that, much less be able to recall it in middle age? 

Well, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. And even if there is some embellishment, I'll assume it's justifiable in that it's in keeping with the real characters and events. And in any case it's a really engaging read.

I had been mulling that over yesterday when I saw this post at Neo-neocon's blog: What's your first memory? Many of the answers, starting with her own, are fascinating. It's a topic that has intrigued me for a long time. Some people seem to remember a great deal from quite early, meaning two years or younger, some nothing until considerably later. I think the matter first really caught my attention years ago when I began to notice how much more my wife remembers about her childhood than I do about mine. Or maybe it's not so much the amount as the precision and the detail. In particular she has a detailed memory of an event that happened when she was twenty-six months old. Her mother doubted this, but my wife was able to describe the scene so precisely that her mother had to concede that it was a genuine memory. 

For my part I can't say for certain that I remember anything at all before the age of four or five. I have one image which may come from much earlier, but I can't be sure because it's not specific enough. The indubitably genuine memories are not nearly as precise as many of my wife's--surroundings are usually pretty indistinct, for instance. That aspect of the difference between us may be due only to the fact that she is very observant and has a very good visual memory, whereas I'm not and I don't. 

Still, I've noticed often enough that I think it may be a pattern that women tend to remember more, and more precisely, from childhood than men do. I don't know if that would hold up under statistical inspection, but as I say I've noticed it. And it would fit with a more supportable generalization: that women tend to be more interested in children and childhood than men.

And there's a related pattern that I am pretty sure of: women are far more likely to remember what clothes they had on. Mary Karr remembers as part of a fairly ordinary moment in her childhood that she was wearing "white underpants, which had little red apples printed on them." There's an autobiographical book, by a woman, called Love, Loss, and What I Wore, but I don't know how many childhood memories are involved in it.



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I don't even know what I'm wearing today unless I look down.


Someone told me a few years ago (or maybe it was yesterday, who knows?) that eventually you are not remembering real memories, but simply the memory you have made of those memories. Does that make sense? Something could have been repeated to you by a parent, and eventually that's just a memory you have. That said, my earliest memory is age 4 and my father is taking me to the hospital to see my sister who had just been born. Then, because in 1970 they didn't let kids into hospital rooms, I remember someone (a grandparent?) holding my sister up so I could see. This was a first floor hospital room. Perhaps all this was just told to me, but it feels like a real memory.

There's some discussion of those phenomena among the commenters on Neo's post. Yours certainly sounds believable as an actual memory.

I have a very similar memory, Stu, except in my case it was my dad holding me up so I could see through the window to see my little, newborn sister in the hospital. I would have been just a few months short of 4 years old.

I think that's my earliest distinct memory.

I had my tonsils out two months before my third birthday, and I can remember a lot about it. They wheeled me into a room that had a LOT of toys on shelves, and told me to pick one for after the operation. There was a wooden puzzle of a magician's head that I really wanted to pick, but I was thinking, "But that's a baby's puzzle," so I didn't. Then they told me they were going to put this mask over my nose and mouth, and to just breathe. I was really scared and started crying when they put the mask on, and they said, "That's right, that's right," and I was thinking something like, "What is the matter with these grown-ups? Why do they want me to cry"

Then I remember the room, and the tray with red jello and vanilla ice cream and a Coke, and somebody brought me a nurse's kit and a coloring book with a picture of an Indian Chief with a big headdress.

After that, I remember quite a bit from when I was in kindergarten, but then not much until the third grade.

Karr does seem to remember a lot.


One difference between your book and hers is that she is writing exclusively about her own experience, whereas, while there is a lot of autobiographical material in your book, it is also about what was going on around you.

One big difference is that she really exposes her family and friends, which you don't choose to do, and that makes it more sensational, but then, she just had a more horrible life--the second book is pretty horrible--and therefore more sensational. There just weren't any grown-ups in her life that were looking out for her, and you were surrounded by people who were, thank goodness.

They are just two different kinds of memoirs. Yours is more like that of the Jewish man whose parents were Communists--the one who wrote you. David something?


That is pretty wild, Craig! And who knows, maybe my father held me up too? The memory is there, but the details are fuzzy. I remember driving down tenth avenue to the stoplight on 125th St, then I remember the window and my sister.

David Horowitz. Right, that's pretty much what I meant by saying mine is 50% memoir. Of course even if I had chosen to write a pure intimate expose-myself-and-everybody-else kind of book it would still be very different. Nowhere near as colorful.

I didn't know there was a second book?!? I mean, I know this isn't her only book but didn't realize there were further memoirs.

"That's a baby's puzzle" is pretty funny. Your early memories are of the sort that I'm pretty certain are genuine (re Stu's comment above), because you remember what you were thinking. It occurs to me to wonder if part of the disparity between male and female in this is the "girls mature earlier" pattern being evident even at that age. I don't think any definite memories of what I was thinking can have been earlier than age 4. Which seems to be pretty typical, at least for men.

Did you ever hear Bill Cosby's routine about having his tonsils out? He's bitter because he was told he could have ice cream afterward, but then not being able to eat it because his throat hurt too much.

Cross-posted with Stu--I was replying to Janet.

"driving down tenth avenue"--I have a very distinct and quite early memory of sitting in the passenger seat of a car driving down a street with big trees lining and hanging over it, and liking the way it looked (it was not my normal landscape). Circumstantially I think I was probably around 4, but there's nothing definite enough to pin it down.

Karr has written three memoirs; her website says she's a poet and memoirist.

As of now I'd say I'm not in the market for another memoir from her, as vivid as this one is.

That's a great set of memories, Janet. Big events seem to embed deeper memories. It kind of makes me wish I'd had my tonsils out at that age.

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