Editor’s note: This piece contains discussion of sexual assault and rape.
I’m interested in lies. I’m interested in truth. And in memory. How accurate are my memories? Do I trust that what I remember is true?
A few days ago I had coffee with a friend I see only every couple of years. Rebooting our conversation from when we last met, he wanted to know if he correctly remembered the story of the end of my marriage. “You were on a weekend get-away with your husband in San Diego,” he said. “He told you as you were unpacking your suitcases that the marriage was over, he was in love with someone from the office, she was pregnant, they were getting married, and he wanted to keep the house so he could raise his new family there.” Except for the weekend in San Diego and the pregnancy my friend’s memory had served him well.
It’s easy to explain the insertion of these two erroneous details. I had probably told my friend that only a month before our end-of-marriage conversation, my husband and I, and our children, and grandchildren had gone to San Diego for a family vacation. As for the pregnancy, in the fractured aftermath of learning that the life I knew was over, I concocted a scenario for my own survival. My husband didn’t want to end our marriage, but he was in a tough spot. Yes, he’d slept with her. Once. Maybe twice. She was on the pill, she’d told him, but that was a lie. Now she was pregnant. Or said she was. She wanted the baby, but her parents would be devastated that she was unmarried. They’d been saving and planning for her wedding since the day she was born. After much angst, my husband promised her that he’d leave me. They announced their engagement to her parents, and then she had a “miscarriage.” My husband had been duped, but he didn’t know it.
This tale helped me get out of bed in the morning. It was the story I told myself in the dark, alone. But as far as I recall, I hadn’t shared it with anyone. Then again, where did my friend come up with the idea of the pregnancy? Had I recounted my byzantine fake pregnancy, fake miscarriage theory to him? Was I so unhinged that I uttered it aloud? Maybe. And maybe, in the course of my ramblings, my friend was paying more attention to how I was negotiating the wreckage of my life than to the parsing of theory and fact. Regardless, the heart of the story as my friend remembered it was true.
Forty-two years ago I was raped by a business associate. I don’t remember his last name. I don’t remember if it happened in Indianapolis or South Bend. A couple of years earlier an acquaintance attacked me and nearly strangled me. I don’t remember his last name either. In fact, I don’t even remember his first name. What I remember is how swiftly he pinned me to the front seat of my car. What I remember is the pressure of his thumbs against my throat.
I write both nonfiction and fiction, and sometimes when there are details I don’t recall while writing an essay or memoir, I ask myself if it might be better to use my idea as a jumping off point for a short story. How can I write the piece as nonfiction when there are so many things I don’t remember? How do I flesh out the missing pieces of a true story? Is it even necessary to do that?
Since watching the Senate testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, I feel stronger than ever that the bones of a personal essay can stand on their own, sans padding. Those exposed bones, like a skeleton hanging from a porch on Halloween night, are more dramatic without additional detail. The bareness delivers commonality. My skeleton, in so many ways, looks just like yours.
There’s power in forgetting. Sometimes forgetting saves us. What we don’t remember is what we want to forget. The details that stay with us, in combination with the details that lay submerged beyond the access of memory, combine to render a story woven with complexity. There’s no need to embellish or invent. There’s a whole story lodged in our bones. Negative space is part of the picture. The erasure wrought by trauma tells its own part of the story. Just as sensory detail can engage the reader, the writer can draw the reader into the emptiness. I cannot recall a single feature of my attacker’s face. I can’t see his eyes, or whether or not he had a mustache, or freckles, or any type of a scar. He was quite pale, I think, or maybe just seemed so there on the dark street where he’d offered to walk me to my car.
The emptiness unites writer and reader. We struggle together to make out that pale face in the dark car. You are with me, clawing back your own memories just as I am with Dr. Basey Ford, running down the stairs and out the door of a house on a street with no name—a street that led us back home without knowing how we got there. Our memories can fail us. That failure is part of the story.