Guest Blog Post, Denise Emanuel Clemen: At the Heart of Memory

A woman's shadow on sand.

Photo courtesy of the author.

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.

Authors Talk: William Auten

Today we are pleased to feature author William Auten as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, William discusses the role of memory and detail in his short story, “Something in the Way.”

William states that he wrote “Something in the Way” as “a way to connect unsettling personal and cultural events.” The story, he says, “combines fact and fiction,” and “blurs imagined scenarios with real-life experiences.” He declares that these memories can be “broad and abstract enough to point to their universal application,” while, in the confines of the story, be susceptible to “amplifying, editing, or renovating.”

William emphasizes that people share “similar traits, feelings, and reactions,” and that “mundane details” in a story can heighten the reader’s empathetic response. However, he says, these “mundane details have to play off of what the piece aims for; its overall effect.” He concludes by stating that “‘Something in the Way’ is an act of fiction, even the parts that I didn’t have to make up.”

You can read William’s story, “Something in the Way,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.

 

Authors Talk: Timothy Reilly

Today we are pleased to feature author Timothy Reilly as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, Timothy discusses the inspiration behind his short story, “The Task at Hand,” calling it a “nod to the old Grail romances.”

Timothy states that “‘The Task at Hand’ is not a ‘Baby Boomer’ story,” even though it concerns a protagonist from that generation. Instead, he says,  it is “an internal quest… framed within a common 21st-century excursion.” During that quest the protagonist “deals with the challenges of age and memory,” as well as “the fickleness of pop culture.”

Timothy, hearkening back to his lifelong interest in Grail legends, declares that “myths are about truth, not facts.” He ends by referencing a quote from C.S Lewis, saying that when he realized this fact and “was old enough to read fairy tales again,” he began to write short stories of his own.

You can read Timothy’s story, “The Task at Hand,” in Issue 16 of Superstition Review.

 

 

 

Authors Talk: John Clayton

 Today we are pleased to feature author John Clayton as our Authors Talk series contributor. In the podcast, John discusses the subjectivity of memory and the dynamic nature of family as seen in his short story, “Memory Loss.” “Memory Loss” describes the journey of a son to understand the truth of his own experience in the midst of family members attempting to “rewrite the narrative” of their own history. Thus the question is, as John states: “Who is truly distorting the past? Whose memory has gotten ‘lost?'”

John notes that we “don’t remember our lives by means of a clear, objective lens,” and that everything in our lives is seen through the prism of our own subjectivity. He states that “observation is filtered by memory, and memory is always distorted.” However, he concludes by saying that, when authors make the choice to share these distorted and sometimes-painful memories, the memories are “given shape, sweetened, and made tender. The author stands apart from them, and the pain is temporarily assuaged.”

You can read John’s story, “Memory Loss,” in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.

Authors Talk: JR Tappenden

JR Tappenden- Photo

Today we are pleased to feature author JR Tappenden as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her Authors Talk, JR discusses the inspiration behind two of her poems, “Regarding Your Wish For Do-Overs,” and “Regarding the Adirondack Trip.” JR says that these pieces are part of a series of poems about grieving, written after the death of her father in April of 2015.

While JR states that she “never set out to do such a cliched thing as being a poet who writes about death,” she notes that her father’s passing left her with many conflicted emotions that she needed to process. She states that the poems began as notes to her sister, with the exception of “Regarding Your Wish For Do-Overs,” which she addresses to herself. By doing so, JR states her desire to “talk herself through” any old exasperation that she had with her father, as well as to reflect her gratitude for not being able to revisit the past, knowing what it would come to mean. Doing so, she says, “would overload me.”

JR Tappenden’s poem, “Regarding Your Wish for Do-Overs,” appears in Issue 21 of Superstition Review.

#ArtLitPhx: Rosemarie Dombrowski presents “The Art of Memory in 750 Words or Less”

Rosemarie DombrowskiRosemarie Dombrowski will be hosting a two-part writing workshop on flash memoir, titled “The Art of Memory in 750 Words or Less.” The workshop will take place at Changing Hands in Tempe from 6pm to 8pm on September 11 and September 25. Admission is $35 for both sessions.

During the first class, attendees will read and discuss examples of flash fiction and participate in a writing exercise. They will then receive a take-home writing prompt. In the second class, attendees will workshop their new, original piece of flash memoir and receive individualized feedback.

Rosemarie Dombrowski is a writer with a long list of accomplishments. She is the co-founder of the Phoenix Poetry Series, a poetry editor for Four Chambers Press, the founder of Rinky Dink Press, a three-time Pushcart nominee, and the inaugural Phoenix Poet Laureate. She is also a Senior Lecturer at Arizona State University’s Downtown campus. You can read more about her accomplishments on her website.

For more information about the workshop and to register, click here.

#ArtLitPhx: Changing Hands presents Paul Brinkley-Rogers

Paul Brinkley-Rogers bio pictureOn Wednesday June 14th at 7PM, Changing Hands Phoenix will be hosting Paul Brinkley-Rogers as he discusses his new memoir, Please Enjoy Your Happiness. The memoir focuses on his time in 1959 when he had a love affair with an older Japanese woman while serving aboard a US Navy vessel outside of Yokusaka. Paul is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and veteran war correspondent that worked for many years in Asia, covering the war in Vietnam and Camboadia for Newsweek. 

Find out more about the event at Changing Hands’ Phoenix location (300 W Camelback Phoenix, AZ 85013) here.