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.