Do I have a prodigious long-term memory? Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I talk to clients who claim not to remember much before they came of age. Really? That’s hard for me to believe, based on my personal experience, yet I believe them because it’s to their advantage that I not judge them or their memories. Usually, memories surface, over time, with a bit of prompting or when clients trust me more. Perhaps my extreme distress and lack of emotional regulation as an infant was an unrecognized asset, as memories are associated with strong emotions. I even have a sense that my earliest memory is preverbal. See, I was lying on a tan and brown and gray surface, surrounded by darkness—the vision of an infant. My mother’s discolored breast? No. It was a hard surface. So, instead, I imagine that my mother once laid me on rough adobe. I wish for this memory to mean something. The feeling isn’t distress but curiosity. Sometimes when I’m feverish, I awaken with that flash of memory. This is my first memory, I hypothesize, defeating childhood amnesia. I suppose my robust memory is a blessing, a curse, and, thus far, lifelong. It helps me to empathize better with others, but it also keeps alive inside me the slights I’ve endured that sometimes fester. I strive to be grateful for the pain that has led to my growth and perhaps eventually to reach forgiveness; in the meantime, it feels like holding grudges. I want revenge, but I also want to be better than that.
A more reasonable first memory might be set on Easter 1962, at the Officers’ Club. I hunted colored eggs and reached down for a golden egg nestled in the crabgrass and exposed roots of an elm. I was two years old, and apparently, I found the coveted, golden-painted egg. At the time, I felt special, but today I wonder if every child found a golden egg. I traded my egg in for a stuffed monkey. I named it Macky, based on my middle name. Was that my budding narcissism, or did I externalize my inner child? It had a soft body and a very hard plastic head, which I only describe now to serve as a metaphor for myself. Two years old is awfully young. Even I have my doubts. Does the memory of obtaining the golden egg and Macky the monkey illustrate my emerging worldview? Is it why I continued to strive for specialness and expect to gain unconditional acceptance, the kind of acceptance one gets from a smiling, stuffed monkey? Or was it a fabrication orchestrated by the officers’ wives, who ensured that every child would find a golden egg? Did my parents merely tell me about the golden egg, and I fleshed out the story with a halcyon false memory? I still have Macky the monkey. Something inside me just won’t give it up. Now it represents my innocence, before all the environmental factors convinced me that I was inadequate and needed to hid myself and perform better to be accepted.
A for-sure early memory was laid down when I was four years old. Dad kept a bologna knife in his bottom junk drawer. It was a long, thin-bladed jackknife. My biggest concerns were that I’d either get caught in Dad’s personal space—which wasn’t allowed, either physically or emotionally—or the knife would snap shut on my fingers. It could cut my thin skin and result in me “knowing the Truth” alone in my bedroom. With the blade locked out, I held it above my chest and wondered what it would be like to plunge it into my heart. I wasn’t suicidal or masochistic. The poignancy of being on the edge between life and death was exciting to me. It was the opposite of boring. I felt the tension in my gut and liked it. Perhaps it was familiar, considering how life started for me with the near stillbirth. The edge made my life more profound, which was strange at that age, I admit; but it was a situation that I liked a lot.
When that knife hovered over my heart, I became self-conscious: agonizingly, wonderfully alive, but why did it feel profound? Was my brain wired to need more than what was a reasonable human existence? Regardless, knives suggested violence; they suggested that there might be trouble. There would be more knives in my future, more problems to overcome. Problems were also “Error” and not OK in my family, so I kept my relationship with knives to myself and tried harder to be Happy Jack. I learned to compartmentalize, to divide my inner life from my outer life.
I wonder which of my earliest memories is real: being laid on rough adobe, the golden egg and Macky the monkey, or the jackknife. Are they all merely emotions and desires taking form like dreams? Somehow, these memories have become about abandonment, performance, and morbidity. Was I destined to be alone and lonely, no more than merely a nobody? Did other people wonder the same thing? At the time, I thought I was the only one who felt inadequate, small, and alone.
I was wrong.