What are your earliest memories?
How far back do they go? How accurate do you think they are? And what, if anything, do they tell you about the adult you have become?
The accepted view of childhood memories, called the amnesia of childhood by Freud, is that very few adults remember anything much before the age of three. In a recent article in Psychology Today: “The Shifting Boundary of Childhood Amnesia” Charles Fernyhough points out that the issue is less about children remembering, and more about adults forgetting.
In Honor’s Shadow Honor, a psychiatrist, asks her client, Tisi, to recall her three earliest memories and the feelings she had about them at the time. Tisi tells how, aged five, she drew a picture of bees in a sunny garden, that won the admiration of her teacher and parents. As an adult, she sometimes draws a copy of that picture as a way to soothe herself, remembering the warmth of her parents’ love, and how, briefly, it stopped their arguments.
But how accurate are these old memories, that may shape our lives, our characters, and the decisions we make, about ourselves and other people? The Devil’s Music a novel by Jane Rusbridge, opens with a dramatic childhood event, the memory of which shapes the life of the main character. Later, when he shares this memory with his sister, Rusbridge shows how the same event can be recalled very differently, with drastic consequences.
In fiction writing, a powerful way to make a character more real and believable is to relate one of their early memories: as in life, they can provide the key to the emotional experiences that shape a person.
In Honor’s Shadow, Honor’s desire to remember is illustrated by her meticulous photograph albums:
“Here was her past, in chronological order. Here were all the people she had loved, and still loved; here were her family and her friends, having good times; here were her beloved children.
Here were all her memories, so that she would never forget.”
But both Honor and her old rival, Madalena, are both trying to forget deeply painful memories, raising a different question:
What are the things you want to forget?