- Indeterminacy and Resentment
explanation, forgiveness, indeterminacy, memoir
A central theme in Thompson’s piece is the impossibility of completely capturing the Truth of What Really Happened in writing about the past. To put this is less dramatic terms, we can never exhaust all the aspects of what happened in telling a story about the past, or even in collecting all our stories together. There are the different perspectives of the participants, the emotions that each experienced, their moral responsibility for their actions, the perspectives of people who were not present but who would have been interested, the counterfactuals of what might have happened if events had turned out different or if people had acted differently. With memory, even with sensory recall, there are many ways we can remember events even while remaining true to the “facts” of what happened. Once we bring in the complexities of narrative and genre to our understanding of how we retell our stories of what happened in the past, it is clear that there are unlimited ways to describe the past, even when we are being true to the facts. If we allow the possibility of misremembering the past, too, which is very likely given the notorious fallibility of memory, we increase the ways of telling stories about what happened. With time, our perspectives change, and our understanding of other people and concepts change, so our memories will alter. The ways we recall and tell stories about the past will also change. Although some accounts will be richer and more detailed than others, and some will be more accurate than others, there is no reason to think that any single account of the past is the definitive correct version.
Thompson’s main point in his own reflection is about the constant retelling of the past that he and probably most people engage in, in both intentional and subintentional ways. Very few of us write a whole autobiography, but many people go over the past to establish what happened or to make sense of it all, either in conversations with friends and family members, or in talking about one’s past with a psychotherapist. His preoccupation with finding some final truth about the past is unusual, because, as he describes it, nobody would reasonably think that there must be some absolute version that gets it all right. His concern is easier to understand if we see his quest as it is described in the description of his memoir Stella, as the search for an explanation of why his mother went through a radical personality change when he was young. This is the central mystery, and it falls in with a very well-known kind of narrative, the clinical tale, best exemplified not by modern memoirs but rather by detailed case studies. Freud’s tales are the best examples, with his examinations of the lives of patients such as Anna O., Dora, Little Hans, the Rat Man, and the Wolf Man. Here the search for an explanation of troubling symptoms resembles a whodunit detective story, as the narrator [End Page 263] explains how he searched for clues, interpreted them, dug deeper, and eventually found the answer, which was often a traumatic experience or possibly a traumatic fantasy. In these stories, the central goal is the discovery of the cause of all the problems, and it makes little difference how it is described.
When we see Thompson’s search as one for a particular kind of narrative, namely, the correct explanation of his mother’s mental illness and of his own emotional difficulties, then a different set of issues arises, exemplified by the debates over the status of psychoanalysis as either a scientific theory or a hermeneutic theory. Psychoanalysis has received limited empirical confirmation, and some of its defenders have argued that it is not the kind of theory that is subject to scientific verification, because it is primarily a mode of telling a life. Now psychiatry prefers other sorts of explanations, which are more paradigmatically scientific in nature, involving neuroscience, genetics, and cognitive science. Yet Thompson’s reflection on his own experience of memoir writing highlights some of the difficulties of combining scientific...