Memory vs. History: On the Neverending Struggle to See Clearly Into the Past
Sarisha Kurup Tries to Map the Personal Over the Public
In autumn of 1993, as River Phoenix convulsed on a Los Angeles sidewalk, his body riddled with cocaine and morphine, my father sat somewhere in San Francisco, only four years older than the child star who would forever be 23.
Bill Clinton had just become president and a van had exploded outside the World Trade Center, killing six and injuring over 1,000. Rodney King testified against the four LAPD officers that brutally beat him, sending two of them to prison. Rivers flooded the American Midwest all April; the IRS granted the Church of Scientology full tax exemption; and my father tucked himself away in the Silicon Valley, making computer chips for Cirrus Logic.
My mother tells me these details over a broken phone signal. She still lives in the Bay Area, where she moved in August of 1994, and met my father only a month later. Today I am in a hotel room in Amsterdam, and I can barely ask her any of my questions because we rarely talk about him directly. I find myself stuttering, the words dissolving on my tongue. The easiest way to ask these questions is in a steady, emotionless voice, like an automated message.
What he was doing that autumn, how he spent his free time, who he called on an empty evening, what time he fell asleep, if he slept much at all—it’s all a mystery. He never kept any journals. He rarely changed his wardrobe throughout his adult life, so I can imagine, at least, how he dressed. Light wash jeans, black or brown belt, the kind of polo shirts where the shoulders hang down to mid upper arm. The printed photos in our family albums are not dated, and there are few of my father before he met my mother. She was always the photographer.
Photos of River Phoenix in 1993 are plentiful and, now, strange. His hair is long, blonde—the kind of hair one looks at in hindsight and laughs—his smile is mischievous. He doesn’t look like he should be in the last year of life. And yet, the night before Halloween, outside a club in Los Angeles, his younger brother placed a shaky 911 call and by the time the paramedics had arrived, River Phoenix was in cardiac arrest.
When people die young, it is often said that they are frozen in time. That while all their peers age and turn soft and grey, they will forever exist in photos and our minds just as they did in their last days. But I think there are people like River Phoenix, people who are so famous whose names roll off everyone’s tongues, people who, when they die, freeze even the time around them. We don’t all understand time the way historians do, and even they cannot control all of what we remember. Memory is inexplicable and selective, and nostalgia is strong. As the past collapses and scatters into something messier, less linear, we collectively remember only the road markers, the people and the things that cut the deepest.
Nineteen ninety-three will always belong to River Phoenix: frozen the moment he lost consciousness on the filthy sidewalk of the Sunset Strip. My memories do not extend to 1993, and yet when I think of that year I think of Johnny Depp and his band singing inside The Viper Room as River Phoenix slips from life just steps away, without them knowing, out in the evening air.
They found JFK Jr.’s body 120 feet below the surface of the Atlantic in July of 1999, only a few months after I was born. My father lived with me and my mother in a rented house then. On the day that John Jr’s plane went down the house was crowded with relatives who stumbled over each other in the little space, cooing and clapping to get the attention of the new baby. My father had started his own company only two years earlier. I understood very little about technology growing up, and still can’t wrap my head around the way most machines work, so I could never explain much to people who asked what it was that my father did. But I could say he helmed a tech company that was called Vitalect. There are photos from this period in his life, and videos too. My mother was the videographer, and the moving images are shot from her perspective. When you watch them you can see the way she must have seen us—a thirty-three-year-old man and a six-month-old baby, both with the same dimple indented into our left cheeks.
When his plane hit the Atlantic, JFK Jr. died on impact. They didn’t find his body until three days later. At the site of the wreckage he was still buckled in, trapped in the pilot’s seat. His family scattered his ashes in the Atlantic. I always thought this was strange—giving him back to the very thing that took him.
We scattered my father’s ashes at the base of the orange tree in our backyard. He loved that tree. It was heavy with fruit each December without fail, and on early grey mornings you could find him there, reaching up among the branches.
I often think of 1999 as my year. The year I wrote down on every document and form. I asked my mother how my father had spent 1999, and she said—as if it were the most obvious thing in the world—Well, it was the year you were born!There was nothing I could do as I watched my father slip away. He didn’t freeze 2016. Two thousand and sixteen kept going.
But I am a historian now, and I know that 1999 was the year that Bill Clinton was acquitted; the year Bill Gates became the richest man in the world; the year of a total solar eclipse. And yet the last year of the century still belongs to JFK Jr., the boy who saluted his father’s casket on his third birthday. His father, the man who froze 1963.
Did the news of JFK Jr.’s death shake the foundations of the rented house on Teal Street? My mother can’t recall, but it had always been my father who was deeply political, and I can’t imagine it hadn’t crossed his mind once or twice. The Kennedy Curse! Was he being bred for office? Was there some sort of conspiracy? The whole world was asking questions, but my parents weren’t ones to read the tabloids. My mother’s journals don’t cover this; there are no answers to find.
In January of 2008, my mother was preparing to leave California to go overseas for a month to bury her father. My father was preparing for a month of lone-parenting, meanwhile in his apartment in SoHo, Heath Ledger was overdosing on prescription medication. His housekeeper and his masseuse found him unconscious in bed, and their first call was to Mary Kate Olsen (not the paramedics, not 911), who sent them the number of a private security guard. By the time medical professionals arrived on the scene, Heath Ledger was dead. An Associated Press poll reported that news of his death was voted the top entertainment story of 2008. Promotional material for The Dark Knight, which was to be released later that year, had to be scrapped and re-done. A career high suddenly turned into a career end.
My father, like any good Democrat, knew to list Brokeback Mountain as a favorite movie. I’m certain he must have considered Heath Ledger’s death. I was old enough by then to leave my mother’s side while she perused aisles in the grocery store and instead make my way to the shelf of magazines. That month, I’m sure, his face plastered every one. Retrospectives, investigations, timelines. I imagine it was as if everyone’s breath caught at once.
Two thousand and eight was a good year for our family. My father’s company was doing well, and so was my mother’s magazine. We went on our first and only family cruise that summer. This is the first family vacation I can actually remember. I can see my father in his orange swimming trunks, floating on his back in the chlorine-blue water. I imagine he must have been happy, though I can’t really say for sure.
I once asked my mother to tell me how they’d met, something beyond the bare-bones story of a college reunion picnic at a California park. Had he dated anyone else before her? You should have asked him, she said, refusing to budge. I don’t know why she locks away these stories.
In autumn of 2016, my father died halfway across the world while doing press for his new book. I hadn’t seen him in months. He’d been having heart problems and strokes for two years before he finally gave in, but my memory around his death is blurry, perhaps because I never knew the exact circumstances or because I don’t want to remember, some coping mechanism of my brain. I’m not sure, but it’s never felt fair to ask my mother to relive it. He was already sick, and I think he fell out of his bed, which shocked his heart or his brain or something. I was never much of a doctor.
There was nothing I could do as I watched my father slip away. He didn’t freeze 2016. Two thousand and sixteen kept going, and I was still in school, still writing papers, still applying to colleges: helplessly watching as he recessed into time. How beautiful and devastating, to let things become the past.
Eventually, some weeks after his death, I took my journal to a café and wrote down every memory I had of him, cataloguing and archiving all that I could. By the end of it, I finally cried for him, for the first time. It was then that the act of writing became so important that it was essential, the most concrete form of remembering, and even then, sometimes, it wasn’t enough. I can’t remember who I was before my father died, what I cared about, what I knew to be right and wrong. I can’t remember the specificities of our relationship; my own memory collapses into flashes of moments and images with no linear narrative. I write what I can, but memory is not as as simple as a story, or an essay, or the collection of home videos we have on VHS tapes.
Historian Timothy Snyder writes about the difference between memory and history. Finding them distinctly opposed, he writes that “memory exists in first person. If there isn’t a person, there isn’t a memory. Whereas history exists above all in second or third person.”
I can tell you so much about how River Phoenix died, about the investigations and lawsuits that ensued. I can tell you more about JFK Jr’s final morning than my father’s. I’ve read Heath Ledger’s autopsy report, but I don’t know if my father even had one. (Do they do that for people who can’t or don’t freeze time?) I can tell you what each one of these men was wearing when he died. I cannot say the same about my father. With men like River, John Jr, and Heath, history and memory converge. To be so famous and vivid is to be memory and fact at once. Indisputable. Immutable.
Two thousand and sixteen probably belongs to people like that, to David Bowie, or Prince, or someone whose face people will never forget and will never be allowed to forget. When my mother is gone, much of my father will go with her. She knew him for 21 years of his life—nearly half of it. I knew him for 17, but my memories are already faint and fallible, and I recall less of the years before he got sick with every passing day. My children will never know him.
Since he died it has been my mission to turn memory into history. I photograph, I paint, I journal, and most importantly, I write. Everything must be archived; I do it for some undetermined future reader, researcher, historian. I am equally enchanted and repelled by the passage of time. Nothing can render something beautiful like the past, and yet, I know intimately the pain that can come of the march forward. Not everyone can freeze time; some are simply swept away.
Perhaps all the writing, all the archiving, is only delaying the inevitable. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my father is not a historical figure; he is not a 90s heartthrob, or the son of a president, or an adored, tragic actor. No one is languishing over the fact that he never kept a journal, or that he didn’t take many photographs, or that I can no longer recall the exact contours of his face from memory. And yet I can’t stop writing his history.