On Memory and Brian Williams, with a side-trip to Bruce Jenner

People have been piling on Brian Williams for the last two weeks over his lapse of memory related to events that took place in 2003 in Northern Iraq. NBC suspended him without pay over it. But I think we need to take a beat before assuming bad intent on his part. I ask this as someone with deep experience on how memory of even the most monumental events can be as elusive as that little bit of egg shell that gets into your bowl of scrambled eggs: try to pick it out and it dives down into custardy oblivion, never to be found. Until you bite into it.

When my husband told me he was going to undergo gender reassignment surgery, time stopped and I remember that moment so clearly: I can hear my heart pounding and the rush of air as I drew in the kind of raggedy breath that comes when you’re on the edge of panic and anger and grief and trying hard not to lose it.

As I went through the following year, I thought multiple times about keeping a journal. But I didn’t, partly because I just didn’t have the time or energy to relive my day and my grief and my anger and panic. And I didn’t because I figured I’d remember the important stuff. But the thing is that I don’t remember a lot of it. At the very least, I thought I’d be able to feel around the edges of memory. I remember this plastic topographical map of California we had in my fifth grade classroom. I could close my eyes and still feel the indentation that was the San Francisco Bay, the hills over which lay Santa Cruz. I thought I’d be able to remember key points in this journey the way I could recognize what the Bay Area felt like under my fingers. Not true.

A year or so ago, I was driving at night, north on 405. In my memory, it was raining, and I was heading north to meet with my writing group listening to the local NPR station. That memory is wrong, though, because the one dark night I met with them, I was with another person in the car and we were talking, not listening. Memory is tricky.

It took a lot of brain excavating to remember when I took that trip and narrow down what I was listening to — it was either a program on Big Picture Science or The Takeaway . Both are interesting pieces on the nature of memory that resonated with the struggles I was having recalling that first year after my husband revealed his intentions.

In his book Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough notes something about memory that is surprising, yet true when you think about it: when we recall an event in which we were an actor, or remember something that happened to us, we don’t remember it as if we are ourselves, looking out of our own eyes. We remember it as a third person – from above or outside ourselves, as if we were a camera recording the event. We become a character in our own memories, an unreliable witness to our own history. The general belief among researchers is that there is just one event that happens, and no reliable recreation if there aren’t cameras to record it. Even then, the lack of perception of the people who experience the event render the cameras’ recording an incomplete picture. This is why movies like Rashomon are so interesting, and the set up it uses, telling a story from various participants’ perspective, continues to work in literature and film. There is no true memory: just the way we — and others who are with us during an event — reconstruct events.

Fernyhough noted in an interview on NPR (not the one I was listening to that rainy night; another one): “We don’t record events like a video camera recording, you know, what’s going on. We gather together lots of different kinds of information. We store it sometimes for decades and then we put it all back together. In the moment, we reconstruct those events from the perspective of now.”

So there is no truthful memory of an event. It happens and is gone forever. How I remember it may be some sort of true, but how someone else remembers it may differ in significant ways. So Williams, who has been recalling the events of 2003 in different venues for different purposes over the years, has always had to recall them based on the particular moment of recall. When talking to David Letterman, he has to recall them with an eye to making a joke; when recalling them for his newscast, he has to make it dramatic. It’s easy to see how that now moment would influence his then memory.

We all like to think we have a good memory. I have some memories from when I was a toddler – running down a hill I thought was very steep. It was grass covered and I was running to where my brother was with two older girls. In my memory, they were teenagers, but I was two, so everyone was old to me. I remember what the doctor looked like who stitched up my head when I was two and a half and fell down the steps leading to our trailer home. He had Buddy Holly-style glasses. At least that’s my recollection.

I remember lots of moments from Kindergarten. The first day, I sat with a girl named Maria who became my best Kindergarten friend. I remember holding hands with her when we went out to recess, where I would have a snack – perhaps a Space Food Stick, because I remember taking them out of my bag on occasion.

But how much have I forgotten that I was sure I would remember. Now, here I am, half a decade on from finding out my husband was going to change genders, that unless I found my inner lesbian and found a way to live with my Wasband as woman and wife, I was going to be single in middle age, that the dreams I had of my golden years were never going to be realized. And I can’t remember things I feel I should.

I don’t remember telling my closest friends. I have a vague memory that when I told my friend H, she actually pulled her car off the road. This is significant because H had a habit of calling me without a hands free device while sobbing and driving in rush hour traffic. That my news wigged her out enough to pull over means it was pretty big news. The way I thought I told my best friend M? She says I have it all wrong. And I don’t remember telling my friend and rheumatology nurse S. I called her early on because I needed her to up my dose of antidepressants.

She was in Iowa on a biking vacation at the time. I hate calling her for health reasons on her off time, but sometimes you have to when your provider is also your friend. She doesn’t remember any more than I do, other than that I was very calm.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to my brother, but I called after I wrote the letter I would send out to family and friends in August 2010 to inform them of the change, but before I actually sent it. I have an email response to a request I sent him for 15 minutes of time when I could talk to him unimpeded. It’s dated August 10.

I called him on the 11th and filled him in. It was a selfish move on my part: I needed advice on how to tell mom and dad – whether to tell them on the phone or let them read the letter. And I wanted him to run interference and answer questions from anyone who had them, since I was uninterested in taking a shitload of phone calls from panicked friends and family who wanted to rubberneck. Maybe in their heads it would have been showing concern, but I viewed the prurient interest of others in the story as nothing more than wanting to see the gore at the side of the road and be happy it wasn’t happening to them.

I’ll say this for my concern, too: People hear the story even after all these years – or read it if I write about it – and I can hear their eyes go wide. And even if my friends and family are really concerned about me, I think there is still something in their questions that is akin to my dog salivating when I eat animal products, something lustful in their desire to know about man becoming woman. You see it now in the way people are reacting to the story of Bruce Jenner’s transition. It angers me.

This is not to imply that my nearest and dearest don’t care about me and my son, or even the Wasband. It is simply an acknowledgement that people are very curious about oddities.

Here’s another memory. There was an episode of the Waltons I remember reading about in the TV Guide when I was an adolescent. The episode summary said something like “John Boy has a freak accident at the mill”. I found those two words “freak accident” so alluring that I was adamant about watching that episode. Because a freak accident was something freaky, right? I have no idea what the accident was – I think some gnarly cut with a saw. I remember nothing of the episode. I only have a clear memory of reading those words in the TV Guide.

If what was happening to me now happened to someone else, I’m pretty sure I’d be just as curious. Only I’d couch it in terms of my profession, and my right to be nosy as a way of making a living.

But those moments I remember thinking would be burned in my memory forever, like telling my mom? I remember sitting on the couch where I am right now. I remember holding the phone. And that’s it.

The rest is a blank.


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