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When Jay Neugeboren published Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness, and Survival, a book about his brother’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, telling the story in an honest and accurate way was at the forefront of his thoughts. In a recent essay in the New York Times, Neugeboren navigates the ethics of writing a memoir about his brother, noting, “As I began to write, I realized that though this story would be about him, it was also about me. What was it like to love someone and to be helpless to help that person?”
To answer that question, Neugeboren took great care to reconstruct his life with his brother when writing about his role as both sibling and caretaker:
Aware that memory, like imagination, can distort and transform the world in infinitely cunning ways, I spent eight months constructing a day-by-day, month-by-month calendar of our lives, beginning with the day Robert was born, April 17, 1943. I’d kept a daily journal through most of my adult life, and I went through it, and also through letters, photo albums, newspapers, magazines, medical records. I visited places where we had lived, and places where Robert had lived; I interviewed family members, doctors, social workers, teachers, friends (mine and Robert’s); and — most important — I talked with Robert.
In talking with his brother, Neugeboren discovered how the passage of time had altered their memories: “[W]e were both surprised to find that many things we felt certain about had been transformed, in our memories and imaginations, by days, months, years and miles.”
Like Neugeboren, the changing nature of memory has always fascinated me. In recent months, as I’ve been working on the research for a book about my own experience with mental illness, the subject matter has become even more confounding. While attempting to reconstruct a seven-year period in my life, from 1988 to 1995, I’ve witnessed firsthand how deceptive memory can be — especially memories that may be elusive for a reason.
At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with severe clinical depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). After spending my teenage years in and out of therapy and dosed on myriad combinations of Prozac, Paxil, and Anafranil, my memories are now scattered and often disorganized. At times it feels like all the files in my brain were upended and then hastily thrown back in place — some in the right spots, others strangely misfiled.
Certain memories still stand out in the distance between today and twenty-five years ago, often exploding with detail — sights, sounds, and smells held in stasis as if they had just happened. For example, the spring night in 1994 when I accidentally sprayed tear gas into my own eyes, then instigated a fight with a Goliath-like metalhead named Haynes who was intent on pulverizing me until my mother — yes, my dear mother — threw herself between us to prevent the slaughter. I remember the boiling summer heat that night, my blurred vision, how the skin around my eyes was chapped from all the itching induced by the tear gas, and the intensity of my anger. And in 1990 and 1991 there were the weekend suicide runs across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where my friends and I would dash, on foot, through high-speed traffic to break up the terminal boredom of our lives in the suburbs. I recall the feel of the asphalt beneath my feet, how fast I had to run to hurdle the metal guardrail that split the eastbound and westbound traffic, and the strong smell of exhaust in the air as we all dove into the weeds on the other side of the road, laughing like idiots — the near-death experience flooding adrenaline through our bodies.
Other moments, however — crucial, even profound moments — have been almost entirely erased from memory. For example, the day in 1994 that I dropped out of high school in the middle of my junior year. For whatever reason, I have no memory of that day. Maybe I was home languishing in a deep, depression-induced sleep, or zoned out for hours in front of the television. I have no idea. In contrast, some memories have been strangely altered by time and distance, like the fight that I got into in the summer of 1992, before sophomore year. In some iterations of the memory, the police arrive and forcibly pull me away from the boy that I was fighting. Another iteration has me on the ground throwing punches one minute, and then cuffed and in the back of a police cruiser the next. No transition or clear timeline, just slices of memory chopped up and dropped in place. I’ve read that since depression decreases a person’s attention span, it can also affect concentration and the ways that memories are formed. It makes me wonder if the nuances of those experiences may be lost forever, like documents tossed down the memory holes in George Orwell’s 1984:
In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.
In many ways, the revisionist history depicted in Orwell’s 1984 reminds me of the way memory often operates. As new events take place, it seems to alter, for better or worse, a person’s view of the past. In the authoritarian society of Orwell’s novel, constant revision of the past is used as a method of aligning history with the policies of the present. In my own mind, the process often feels oddly similar. So much of what I remember is informed (and transformed) but what I now know as an adult. Looking back on my diagnosis, for example, it can seem so tidy and compartmentalized. At the time, however, it was messy and bled into all aspects of my life. I’ve learned that finding the reality in the discord of my own memories requires context and perspective.
To fill in the gaps I’ve turned to photo albums, interviews with friends and family, and medical records. The latter, specifically records from the institute where I received treatment as an adolescent, have been the most revealing. Looking through notes written by clinicians, therapists, and administrators — individuals who were familiar with my symptoms and medication levels, but detached from me as a person — has helped me better understand the depth of my depression and how debilitating my OCD was at that time. It has also helped me start to build an accurate timeline from that period of my life.
Much like Neugeboren talked with his brother to find a common truth from their individual memories, the clinical notes in my medical files have provided a truncated but valuable personal history. Reading the notes is a lot like eavesdropping on my 15-year-old self. Mundane details recorded by therapists about which classes I hated in 10th grade sit alongside more profound admissions, like the hopelessness I felt regarding my obsessions and compulsions and whether I would ever be free of them, or feel normal. Many of the clinician’s observations are often painful or difficult to read. Certain passages even carry more weight than others. For example, in December 1992, one clinician noted: “Matt’s mother said that she has been so preoccupied with Matt’s difficulties that she has had trouble spending time with her daughter.” It’s impossible to read that as an adult without feeling pangs of guilt; that my problems may have somehow diminished my sister’s relationship with my mother. But it also reveals how deeply my struggle with depression and OCD affected my family at the time.
To write honestly about experiences long buried in memory can be daunting. It’s a point Neugeboren addressed in his essay, stating, “while I worked on the book, I censored nothing, no matter how invasive or embarrassing an incident or detail — for [Robert], for me, for others.” He goes on to write that, only after a draft of the book had been written did he then decide what would be kept in and what would be cut. Reading Neugeboren’s essay, and learning how he went about chronicling his brother’s lifelong struggle with mental illness, reminded me of a Studs Terkel quote that I’ve always liked: “I want a language that speaks the truth.” To find that language is of course the hardest part. How deep do you dive into memory? How wide or how narrow is the scope of the story you want to tell? Most importantly, why is it worth telling? In my attempt to better understand my own difficulties with severe clinical depression and OCD, and how it has influenced my life, I’m aware that time and patience are crucial.
(Photograph: Matthew Newton. Caption: An exploded view of the timeline for ‘No Place for Disgrace,’ a memoir-in-progress about mental illness and teenage love.)