In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 174.
Memory fascinates me. I find it both delightful and terrifying. There is magic in the very notion that the mind can conjure elements of the long-ago past. For instance: More than three decades have passed since my older sister and I were the flower girls in our uncle’s wedding. We wore matching dresses, and I can still feel them—soft velvet with lace that itched my collarbone. I tried not to scratch as I walked down the aisle. Something else: the sadness of learning that the flowers in our little white baskets were artificial. We wouldn’t actually toss any petals.
Remembering all this delights me. And the terror? The terror comes when I consider all that I don’t recall. What song played in the processional? Did my grandmother cry? Maybe family members can answer these questions from their own memories. Or maybe no one recalls: These and many other details may be lost. I said that I remember the wedding, but what I really remember is an itchy dress and the disappointment of plastic flowers. That’s it.
My debut novel—The Museum of Human History, out this month from Tin House—explores how time shapes us and what it leaves us with. To write it I drew from memory, and I researched memory. One early lesson was that the English language doesn’t make it easy to discuss this kind of thing. There are many names for the bit of the past we have access to: recollection, remembrance, reminiscence—or, simply, memory. Whichever word you choose, whatever does remain of events in your mind is dwarfed and outweighed by what is gone. What we cannot remember we have no words for. While writing my novel I invented a term for it: “forgottance.” Nearly all of the past is forgottance though. Given such enormity, the word started to slip toward meaninglessness. In the end, I couldn’t come up with a sufficient name for it.
And what we do remember may be further from the truth than we realize. While researching the mechanisms of memory, I uncovered a delightful and, yes, terrifying fact from neuroscience: Each time we recall an event, we change it. Our brains encode elements of the present so that the next time we remember that event, we may actually be remembering remembering it. In this way, our memories are natural writers—always busy revising and rewriting, never content to call their work “done.”
This feels fitting to me, since my obsession with memory is inextricably linked to my obsession with narrative. Every memory I hold onto might just be a story I tell myself. And the more I tell it as a story, the more I forget about the original event.
The Museum of Human History examines the link between narrative and memory. It does this, in part, by pulling from the fairy tale genre. The book centers on Maeve Wilhelm, a girl in a strange coma who stops aging. Maeve serves as a Sleeping Beauty figure in the book, and I read various versions of the eponymous fairy tale and scholarship about it while working on my novel. “Sleeping Beauty” is a story about the stories we tell of the past and the power such memories hold, even—perhaps especially—when those stories are all that remain.
In the classic version of “Sleeping Beauty,” as recorded by the Brothers Grimm, a princess is cursed to sleep for a century, and her kingdom falls asleep with her. A hedge of thorns grows around the kingdom, shrouding it completely. For decades, it is forgotten. One day an old storyteller—the only one who remembers what happened—recounts the tale of their cursed slumber to a prince, who then sets out to awaken the princess.
Scholar Donald Haase argues that this version of “Sleeping Beauty” is emblematic of how the Grimms saw their own project of gathering old folk tales. In the preface to the second edition of the brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales, published in 1819, Wilhelm Grimm provides an extended metaphor to explain the importance of recording old stories: A fire destroys an entire crop except for a few stalks protected by hedges. These stalks, once fully grown and rediscovered, are treasured immensely because they now provide the only seed for the future. He writes, “That is how it seemed to us when we discovered that nothing was left of all those things that had flourished in earlier times; even the memory of them was nearly gone except for...these innocent household tales.” As in “Sleeping Beauty,” the hedges that hide also serve to protect. A small trace of the past remains—preserved and, for a time, forgotten. And in both the fairy tale and Grimm’s preface, what saves the past from disappearing altogether is the act of storytelling—the only “seed for the future.”
After all, it isn’t the prince as much as the storyteller who is capable of reawakening the slumbering kingdom.
In my novel, as Maeve sleeps through the months and years and decades and, ultimately, a quarter century, almost all of her past is forgotten. The people who are drawn to her know nothing of who she was when she was a child. All they know is her many years of sleep. There is—however—one person who does retain a memory of Maeve’s true past. Once I realized Maeve was Sleeping Beauty, I saw this character was the storyteller: Evangeline, Maeve’s identical twin.
There is another way that memory played a role in my novel. The book follows many characters who are drawn to Maeve: a young widower, a performance artist, and a museum owner, among others. All of them struggle with memory. Some are desperate to remember the past but wind up forgetting it. Others try to bury the past but, try as they might, the past is exposed.
In depicting these inner conflicts, I was thinking of my grandfather. Born in Poland in 1925, Wolf Bergman was the sole member of his family to survive the Holocaust. After the atrocities of his youth, he lived a long life: When the camps were liberated, he met my grandmother, the only survivor of her own family, and moved with her to the United States. They had four children, twelve grandchildren, and Wolf even lived to see a great-grandchild.
I cannot recall ever speaking to my grandfather about his time in the Warsaw Ghetto or any of three concentration camps. In my memory, these were not experiences he wished to talk about. But nightmarishly, he was forced to relive them. For two decades he lived with Alzheimer’s Disease. Trapped in his past, he spoke mostly Yiddish and, at times, of the trauma of the camps. Often he wept.
I said earlier that what terrifies me about memory is the enormity of what we forget. That’s true. But it’s only partly true. My fear also lies in the persistence and power of what we do and must sometimes, in spite of ourselves, go on remembering.
Rebekah Bergman’s debut novel, The Museum of Human History, was published this month by Tin House. Her fiction has been published in Joyland, Tin House, the Masters Review Anthology, and elsewhere. She lives in Rhode Island with her family. Read more: rebekahbergman.com.Art: Aron Visuals