Where does memory live?

Heart's Escape by Diana Maus

Yesterday, at the bookstore, I found these words:

… explicit memories thrive on places

The quote was in a new book titled “The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves,” by Siri Hustvedt. I copied everything down on a too-slick business card with a too-wet pen so I could remember it. The ink smeared and obliterated the word “Woman” in the book’s title. How ironic.

… explicit memories thrive on places

This statement, which is central to the author’s story of trauma and the body, is also the story of my life. I’ve been trying to sort out how living all of my life in the same small town has affected my personality and survival. I wish I knew what was possible had I left. It never felt like I could leave, or rather, it often felt like I could, but I was mistaken.

Now, at my age, I am someone I couldn’t have predicted. Without ever having the chance to move around and try different jobs and towns, I am shocked to find myself already semi-retired. Using the term “semi” is a way of muting the fact that I will never again earn what I used to earn, even though I wish I could. But I am convinced that I will work again, if only for smaller wages, so I refuse to use the word retirement alone, which sounds like I am retiring for the night, with a book and a roster of regrets, a metaphor for the end of life itself.

Oh, memory. Back to my point. I’m convinced that by staying in my small town for decades after the singular events that ruined my life took place, I have been persecuted by memory. I also believe that this persecution has a penitent quality of which I am vaguely aware. Without trial, I am convicted, sentenced, and incarcerated. I know it is true, but I can’t remember the exact offense. My young life is blurred, like the word “Woman” in smeared, wet ink on that too-slick card.

What I want to know is, does memory make us who we are? If I had been able to forget, would I be better off now? Are memories stored in the places they are recorded? If so, shouldn’t I have fled as soon as possible and not looked back? Can new memories ever supplant the old, dangerous ones? Or has remaining here digging, digging, the same old ground, given me a deeper, clearer sense of the meaning of life and of the past?

Could I have escaped? I doubt it. Like the author of “The Shaking Woman,” I would have had to face the truth in some other place—by some sudden recognition—and be seriously shaken by the encounter.


We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they’re called memories. Some take us forward, they’re called dreams.
– Jeremy irons

6 thoughts on “Where does memory live?

  1. For me, it is things (particularly photos and stuff that has sensory triggers to it, like my mother’s make up and scents) that bring back memories, and places that anchor them. I’m glad I got out of London – where I lived all my life til just a few years ago – though I can’t say I’ve left everything behind. But it’s nice not to have to touch a wall or walk down a road that triggered emotions that I kept wanting to be without. Here, it’s like a clean slate.

    I hope you find the peace of mind you’re looking for. Maybe it’s time to uproot and go somewhere else?

  2. Hi Val,
    I’ve been trying for 36 years. This time it’s my husband’s job that is keeping us here. Something has to break sometime, or I will!

    I’m glad you have been able to do it. It’s hard to have every street, every THING here have a memory. It’s haunting because all those people are gone and I’m still here.

  3. I’ve moved around a great deal and have found that some memories stay with me, are deeply ingrained, but are less likely to be triggered in a new environment. The flip side is that positive experiences I might have had in another city are more difficult to recall because the sensory reminders are no longer present. The brain is actually quite flexible and it is possible, with focused attention, to create new pathways rather than wearing out the old ruts we find ourselves in. I don’t think memory makes us who we are unless we allow it to; we can also interpret past events in new ways so we can move forward. Each day we can decide who we want to be – turning that into reality is difficult but not impossible.

  4. @ilona
    Hi and thanks for commenting. I agree that the brain can (at times) create new pathways. I just think it’d be easier once I got out of the actual rut I’m in (my physical area). I’ve not had the opportunity to move away from the area, and after 55 years here I’ve worn a groove in practically every street in town.

    I have given some thought today to your belief that we can interpret past events differently than we have been. Of course it’s an interesting idea. I’ve been in analysis twice, the second for almost 20 years so I’m no stranger to reframing. Even though I believe a large part of our personality is fixed at birth (sigh), I hope you are right. I’m sure I have been more successful at reframing than I can see from my vantage point. I have an idea I will pursue (given your optimistic viewpoint) and will post back when I have something to add either way. Thanks

    By the way, I like your fine art mosaics. Must go back and see the rest of your blog.

  5. I love “Heart’s Escape.” It could be a metaphor for my life.

    As for memories . . . yes, I believe that memory in large part makes us who we are. For me, that means that the definition of who I am shifts constantly as I play with my memories. Sometimes a scene from my past is lovely, and the revisit is a good one. Other times, I look beyond the surface of the seemingly innocuous memory only to find the part of it that I had secreted away.

    As to moving to escape the memories, I’m not certain that works either. A new location allows us to create new memories with new backdrops and characters, but the old memories tag along. Sometimes it is possible to subsume those old ones, sometimes not.

  6. @ poietes
    Hi, thanks for coming. Too bad that so many women can relate to the gilded cage. I’d like to move and have some memories that are of a different place so everything doesn’t seem merged into one small lifetime. I want multiple lifetimes. I hope moving, when I get the chance, will give that to me. Thanks for your insight.

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