To be free of the lifelong effects of a childhood failure, Albie had to do more than remember what happened.
“It was Sunday morning in the middle of winter. I was walking past my parents’ bedroom when my father called me to come in. He was sitting on the side of the bed in his boxer shorts and t-shirt. His hair was matted in some parts and sticking out wildly in others. The veins in his eyes were such a bright red I thought they were bleeding. A cigarette drooped from the corner of his mouth and when he exhaled before talking two long plumes of smoke came out of his nose. It was sunny out and he was sitting between the window and me and the light hitting my eyes made it hard to see him fully; he was part man, part shadow. He asked me what I thought about the idea of he and my mother divorcing. I burst out into tears and begged him not to. I remember him being disgusted by my reaction. I didn’t know what to do so I ran back to my bedroom. I was seven years old.”
Albie (not his real name) was in his late forties when he remembered. It came back to him one night while running. It was something about the way the sun hit his eyes that transported him back to his parent’s bedroom and that day. Repressed memories, “memories we unconsciously exclude from our consciousness,” are ways of dealing with things we’re not equipped to deal with at the time. It’s a way the mind protects itself from trauma. The problem is, at times, that while the conscious may not remember the event the imprint of the event remains—sometimes, as in the case of Albie, the imprint is so strong it becomes the defining moment of the person’s life.
Some background on Albie: All his life he’d been walking around with the idea that he was a failure because of something he did when he was young. That in some way he did something so horrible he’d never be able to make up for it. The rub was he didn’t know what that sin was while everyone around him seemed all too aware of it. When he asked his family no one would tell him what it was; instead they ridiculed him for his ignorance. This only added to his feelings of guilt and Albie lived all his life he as if he didn’t deserve to be happy, that he didn’t deserve good things because he wasn’t good, that in the end he would fail at whatever he tried because that was just who he was. Whenever he tried to do what he thought was right instead of pleasing others it had the opposite effect—it made them angry. The only time things seemed normal for Albie was when he continued to act the part of the guilty child.
The moment of recall was only the beginning of Albie’s journey. Because, he realized, it was that moment—the moment when he failed to live up to expectations when he was seven—that had defined him for the next forty years. But knowing when he was condemned would not be enough. To be free, he also had to know why.
It was a few months later when he figured it out. It came to him while out on his Sunday long run: Being born. His original sin was being born. His sin was being born to parents who were too young and too wild and too ill-equipped to be parents but they had to be, because for them that’s what family and society demanded. They resented this demand and though they loved Albie and did everything they could do for him, they also unconsciously resented their son for what he represented, for what he made their lives have to be. Albie continued:
“Later that week I had a dream. I was back in the neighborhood where I grew up, down the park where I used to party with my friends all the time. Only this time for some reason I wandered off and got lost and found myself in a part of the park that was both familiar and unfamiliar to me at the same time. There was a waterfall and at the bottom of the waterfall was a whirlpool and playing on the rocks in the whirlpool was a creature with the body of a man but the head and tail of a bull. I recognized instantly that the Minotaur was my father by the bleeding eyes and the smoke coming out of his nose. I went out on the rocks and we began to struggle. Out of thin air I found I held a sharp knife in my hand and I used the long curved blade to kill him. When I looked down on the corpse of my father I saw the features of the creature begin to soften. The eyes were now clear and blue as water and his flesh was no longer spotted with age. I saw he had returned to the suppleness of youth. I realized he had a good heart and so I cut it out of his chest and buried it beneath the whirlpool so the spinning water would keep it beating.”
For Albie, the slaying of his Minotaur was an act of absolution that released him from the role of the penitent child. Many of us are like Albie, trapped in an unsatisfying role because of something in our past we haven’t dealt with. This notion could be based on a real life event or be a fabrication of the mind. Oftentimes it is some of both but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is real. It is the realest thing there is because it defines everything else about us.
Read more by Jeff Swain: The Meaning of Life
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