Biography 26.3 (2003) 442-444
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Embodied Memory and Memoir
Shirley Geok-Lin Lim
I have been asked what it was like writing a memoir. Now, I ask you, what kind of question is that? I have yet to be asked what it is like to write a poem or a short story, and I have written many more poems and short stories than memoirs.
Still, the question is canny in catching the assumption that something more visceral is or should be happening when someone sits down to write her own memories of events. We expect an embodied relationship between memory and the person remembering; the story is already imprinted indelibly, even before it is voiced or inked, in the synapses of the teller, waiting for the appropriate moment to be made visible to another. Unlike fiction, we expect with the memoir genre not invention and novelty but real life and old events re-narrated, the past under threat of extinction re-membered. Thus, writing a memoir implies re-living a past. But the reason why many things are past is that we escape them. The past is often less pleasant than the present, and even when it appears more pleasant, the contrast between pleasurable past and painful present itself may lead to further pain. The repressive mechanism that encourages forgetting is so common and intense precisely because it possesses strong survival value. What happens then when a memoirist returns to and writes of traumatic memory?
My earliest memories have to do with physical sensations, both pleasurable and traumatic. From a very early age I vividly recalled bathing as a young child under a tap from which a stream of cold refreshing water gushed. This same visual and sensory picture was always shadowed by the memory of my mother penetrating my anus with a sliver of soap because I was constipated. [End Page 442] Over the years, the image/sensation of penetration would flash involuntarily and at odd moments: as I was crossing a street, reading a book, chatting with a friend. I never spoke these memories aloud, and through all the years of my writing poems and fiction, I never put these images into words. Yet each time the image returned, I would silently vow that I would put it into language at some point.
That time came in 1994, when I began writing my memoir for Feminist Press. Recovering at home after a radical hysterectomy, composing on an ancient Apple computer, I remember writing the passage that now appears in chapter one of Among the White Moon Faces. Immediately after the composition, I felt as if a water blister had been pricked, and the fluid of that life event leaked out. This notion arrived in the form of an actual sensation; I saw and felt this memory, so traumatic to a three-year-old girl that it kept recurring in flashbacks, vanish at that moment of narrative composition. The flashback has never recurred since.
A member of the audience that had elicited this writing account from me said that she found this story sad. With the devastating loss of memories brought on by Alzheimer's and other degenerative diseases, the disappearance of a traumatic memory that had appeared permanently imprinted on my body was not a celebratory but a tragic moment. All memories, she claimed, painful or not, were significant and should be preserved. Of course, she missed the irony that memory is more effectively preserved in the condition of writing than as embodied story—as text that will continue to exist long after the person who had narrated it is dead. But her intervention hints at a primary problem about writing a memoir. In the transference of a privately coded story of what a body has lived through to a public document, something is lost. The secrecy of memory, its residence in the skull case of an individual, the profoundly binding identification of story with self—the psychological integrity of memory—is irrevocably changed in composition, in the long industrial processes of printing, publishing, distribution, marketing, and reception. Writing a memoir does preserve memory...