Things recalled, and not
I vividly recall the night I broke up with my first serious boyfriend. His parents were out of town, and we were on their double bed, “making out,” as we called it back in the late 1950s. He became a little too aggressive, and I wasn’t ready for that level of intimacy, so I resisted. He backed off, and that was the night we ended our relationship.
I was a sophomore at an elite private girl’s school in Milwaukee, and he was a junior at the corresponding boys’ prep school—privileged suburban white kids, not unlike Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh at that age. Teenagers from our schools socialized at school dances. Perhaps some took things further. But the two of us didn’t hang out at the country club. I was artsy, practically the only Democrat in a sea of wealthy Republicans, and he was practically the only Jew.
He and I didn’t drink. Back then, Milwaukee was the beer capital of America, and drinking beer was stereotypical behavior we disdained. And he didn’t come close to raping me, so this wasn’t a traumatic experience. Nevertheless it has remained a highlight among my high school memories, along with the night I was fox trotting with a boy at one of those highly supervised dances, wearing a strapless gown with a bouffant skirt and multiple crinolines. When I glanced down, I realized my dress with its tightly boned bodice had turned around so that my padded “boobs” were practically at my back.
I don’t recall which boy was my date that night. I’m pretty sure I was wearing a white gown with tiny red polka dots, but it could have been the burnt orange number. And I don’t remember who drove us there or home again. Nor do I recall the month or even the season when I broke up with my boyfriend. In both instances, the central event comes vividly to mind, while the surrounding circumstances are hazy or forgotten.
That’s entirely in keeping with the characteristics of long-term memory, as I’ve learned by Googling articles and research papers. According to Kendra Cherry, “Memories that are frequently accessed also become much stronger and easier to recall. Accessing these memories over and over again strengthens the neural networks in which the information is encoded . ... On the other hand, memories that are not recalled often can sometimes weaken or even be lost or replaced by other information.”
Scientific knowledge of the way memory works is evolving rapidly, and there are varied theories, but there’s general agreement that memories are fluid, transforming every time they’re accessed. Ironically, during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s shameful grilling of Christine Blasey Ford, the only person who displayed any knowledge of how the brain reacts to trauma and processes memories was Ford herself. The senators, and the female prosecutor the Republicans hid behind, harped on questions of memory with absolutely no understanding of how it works.
Could they have bothered to do a little research on the topic? Evidently not — they were so smug and self-satisfied that they thought they already knew more than enough.
Judging by what I’ve learned about the unreliability of longterm memory, we may never know what actually happened that night in Chevy Chase. I believe Ford, I suspect Kavanaugh’s memories may have been obliterated by his heavy drinking, and, as far as we’ve seen any witnesses’ accounts have done little to clarify the events of the summer of 1982. The nationally wrenching confirmation process we just witnessed may well have been only the beginning of a war between the sexes the likes of which our country has never seen.
On the plus side, I’ve learned some fascinating facts about memory, and they’ve helped illuminate a long-standing disagreement with my husband about the exact date in November 1973, when we first met. It was at Max’s Kansas City, the nightclub in lower Manhattan that was a trendy hangout for artists and rock stars. I was photographing a band upstairs, and when I came down to the bar area, he was sitting at a round table with friends. He noticed the camera slung around my neck and said, “I see you’re using a Pentax. I’m writing a book about Pentax.”
We both remember the details of that encounter the same way, and he even remembers what I was wearing, but 45 years later, we still disagree about what band I was photographing that night. He insists it was our mutual friend Alan Vega, while I’m convinced it was Iggy and the Stooges. Back then I kept detailed calendar/diaries, as I do to this day. Like Kavanaugh, I included appointments and noteworthy events, but for some reason I didn’t jot down the name of the band, much less the fact that I had met my future husband. At the time it was just another typical night at Max’s, and I had no idea how significant it would become in retrospect.