Since perception becomes reality and reality becomes memory, it follows that memory makes us witness to our own lives. However, as we recall our experiences do we also fall prey to being an unreliable eye witness to half perceived truth?
I have been to several seminars lately where they have shown a video clip to test eye witness recall. As the video begins, the speaker directs the audience to watch for something unusual happening. The video plays through and appears to be an uneventful street scene or a ball game at half time. The clip ends, and the speaker asks how many people saw the unusual event – you know the one where the gorilla runs through the middle of the scene. Virtually no one in the audience noticed anything except, of course, that handful of hyper-observant people. The speaker discloses what we should be looking for and replays the tape. The audience breaks out in laughter because right there, on the screen, bigger than life, there is a gorilla in the middle of every scene pulling outrageous antics that no one can believe they missed seeing the first time through the video.
I remember my life to have been a very lonely, unhappy existence; one that was darkened by fear, shame and humiliation and muted by secrets. But was that reality? Was there more to my life than I have remembered?
I found a picture in my mother’s things after she died. I wish I could have found it while she was living. She may have been able to speak truth to my confusion. The picture was a picture of me as a little girl all dressed up and surrounded by adults. The adults are all fancy too. My mom was right behind me, and there was a group of ladies I cannot remember squeezed into a small space behind her. I could not have been more than three or four years old at the time. The picture appears to have been taken in a parlor of some kind, but I have no memory of that room. My dad is kneeling beside me, leaning towards me with his mouth open. I am standing with my mouth wide open as well.
When I looked at the picture, I saw a scared little girl crying while being scolded by her dad. The picture made me very sad. It felt like a cruel mirror of my life. At the same time, it let me remember that I did belong to someone. My dad died when I was in college and my mom died five years ago. When she died, I felt like an orphan. Despite the chaos that was my life, I loved my parents and losing them both was hard. The incongruity of my feelings made the picture all the more uncomfortable to look at.
I shared the picture with my aunt and cousin one day because we were talking about my dad. My cousin responded almost immediately, “I had forgotten how much you and your dad liked to sing together.” I requested an instant replay. She pointed to the picture and said, “See you and your dad are singing. Your mouths are open and he is next to the piano” – the gorilla in my picture. I had not seen the piano. I just saw me being in trouble again. But when I took a closer look, there it was, just like the gorilla, right next to my dad. Through her eyes, I could see that this was a picture of what was most likely a very happy event. I have adopted her understanding of the picture.
How many more gorillas have I missed in my memory of my life? How much of my life have I colored with the blinding memory of unhappiness?
In order for me to move forward and overcome my social awkwardness, my fear of people and my persistent self-doubt, there is one other very important thing that I must do. I must find the strength and courage to reframe the witness I have been for my life. I have to begin to see the glow of happiness behind the shroud of misery that overwhelms my images of those years. It is not about denying the hurt and emotional injury of my past, but I must balance the pain that grips my memories with the joy that I have allowed myself to forget.