Our Memories, Ourselves: On Getting an Unexpected Note from a Childhood Bully
Sofia Lundberg Considers How the Past is Always Shaping Our Futures
It was late at night. I had just finished a long day of writing and before leaving my desk, I checked my email. Among the many unread messages, I noticed one with the subject I’m sorry. I didn’t recognize the sender’s name. Who was this stranger, and what were they apologizing to me for? But then I opened it, and I was transported back to grade school. The I’m sorry had come from a classmate who had tormented me when we were girls. Thinking of it made her feel guilty and ashamed.
She’d found me, indirectly, because I was a writer. Reading an interview with me in the local newspaper, she’d decided to contact the journalist to see if she could get in touch with me.
I was struck by the fact that she remembered this awful time as clearly as I did. But reading further, it turned out that it wasn’t my classmate who remembered punching me in the stomach, but her mother, who would remind her year in and year out what had happened, so that she could not forget how she had hurt me. Tears welled in my eyes. Almost 40 years later, the girl was now a teacher whose focus was bullying prevention.
In my memory, the incident hadn’t been such a big deal. I do remember it very clearly. But I don’t remember this classmate as a monster or even a mean person. I remember her as headstrong, charismatic and smart—someone who got into the same kinds of school conflicts we all did.
If she’d really forgotten what happened, was her apology for an invented version of the story that her mother had created with those well-intentioned reminders?
We tend to think of our memories as absolute truth, like video clips of the past that play the same each time, for each viewer. Recent science says something different: Memories often change over time, and two people involved in the same event can have completely different recollections of both the emotional repercussions and the visuals of the scene. It’s possible to forget an incident completely, even one that is integral to someone else. And yes, others can plant memories in you, too.
Our memories don’t only shape how we see the past; they also guide us as we make decisions about our futures. And maybe it’s for this reason that our memories have to be flexible. According to Dr. Daphna Shohamy, who studies the cognitive neuroscience of learning, memory and decision making at Columbia University, “Memories of our experiences shape our decisions in a lot of interesting and complicated ways. Memories guide how we become who we are.”
The shame of one mistake had informed the entire path of this woman’s life. I found her desire to correct for her own missteps to be interesting and beautiful, but also very sad. Of course, this incident had affected me as well, by making me more careful in social situations, and maybe even more suspicious of people’s true intentions. I admit that I sometimes imagine that people want to hurt me. I’ve always thought that it has to do with my imagination, but maybe it’s simply because of a memory.
As a writer, I’ve seen how memories are very similar to storytelling. We constantly reconstruct events in our minds, and how we remember things sometimes has more to do with what actually happened than with who we are and who we want to be and what other people have told us. Autobiography will always be fiction in this way. And, with the mining of our own memories to tell a certain story, fiction will always be autobiography.
With the mining of our own memories to tell a certain story, fiction will always be autobiography.
In many ways, it’s hell to have a writer in the family. People close to me sometimes recognize a story from our lives in my own novels. But this isn’t how it happened, they tell me. My imagination is way too vivid to stick with the truth, I respond, therefore no books of mine will ever be the story of my life. Plus, studying the psychology of memories has taught me to be very careful with assuming I know what’s true and what’s not.
My old school friend’s lack of memory also begs the question of whether we tend to have clearer memories of the harm that’s been done to us, rather than that which we’ve inflicted on others. Do our memories operate with the goal of accuracy, or to save face, shape us into victims, deserving of sympathy from ourselves and others? Would she have forgotten all about it, if she hadn’t been reminded by her mother? And how would her life and career have turned out then?
In my novel, A Question Mark Is Half a Heart, the main character Elin hides a childhood memory from her family for years. Her secret hardens her, and to compensate, she strives for perfection as a mask. This drive helps her become a famous photographer, but it inhibits her ability to give and receive love.
Eventually, the memories come back to her. Elin lives in New York City, and she grew up in the countryside on a Swedish island. While writing, I went back through my own childhood, searching for the little details that sparked my own memories. A glass of milk. A special kind of candy. The stars and the sky and the sound of rippling water. A door. A scent. Things that could easily appear even in a busy city like New York. Things that could draw Elin back to her memories.
And what happened to me and my old friend from school?
I forgave her.
Of course I did.
And she rose to become someone that I admire. Saying I’m sorry is a beautiful thing. It brings people together and can even ease years of unnecessary shame. Now I get to see my old friend’s beautiful new family and her important work with her school. Who knows what really happened when we were in school. Maybe I was a shy and fragile soul, learning to adjust to a busy school life. Maybe my classmate was just trying to get ahead of me in the cafeteria line because she was hungry.
Maybe. You can never be sure when it comes to memories.
A Question Mark Is Half a Heart is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2021 by Sofia Lundberg.