One of the books I read as part of my master’s program in creative writing is Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. While the first half of the book is a history of the documentation of horrors like war – particularly through photography – the last half of the book examines how people respond to horrific images and also discusses how such documentation allows us as a culture and as individuals to remember.
As I’ve discussed in this space before, one of the reasons I am doing the master’s – at mid-life – is to complete a memoir I started several years ago. I wanted the accountability of having to write it to finish the degree, but also I wanted the support and knowledge base that would come with faculty mentoring. I have found both. My mentor, Donald Morrill from the University of Tampa, has suggested a number of books as reference and for contemplation over the past few months, and one that has resonated is Sontag’s.
My memoir, in part, recounts the severe and sustained trauma I suffered as a child, first in a car accident and subsequently through numerous surgeries over fifteen years. How best to help readers understand and connect with the narrative in a way that allows for understanding and empathy without desensitization, which would render the recounting impotent? Sontag says, “Harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else; they haunt us.”
This presents a difficult problem for the memoirist who wants to relate how trauma affected her without turning her readers away with narrative that serves to horrify rather than inform. How to impart the lessons of the experience? How to engage the reader without repelling her? I have been working to find the deeper message, the layering of meaning upon experience that will allow a reader to access the material without being overwhelmed by the emotion. Time will tell if I am successful. Sontag’s book, at the least, offers the opportunity to be aware of the pitfalls of trying to write about grievous injury.
She writes: “Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead…. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited.”
What an interesting idea, that to make peace is to forget. Memory serves us in ways we do not suspect. Making peace is connected to remembering and forgiving. I’m not sure it requires forgetting, though once you forgive, there is no longer a need to remember. And perhaps that is what Sontag means.