Historian Oliver Lee Bateman unpacks his own complicated memories.
There is not a man living whom it would so little become to speak from memory as myself, for I have scarcely any at all, and do not think that the world has another so marvelously treacherous as mine. My other faculties are all sufficiently ordinary and mean; but in this I think myself very rare and singular, and deserving to be thought famous.
Between Bob Dylan and Michel de Montaigne, what else needs to be said on the subject of memory? Nearly nothing, I suppose, and yet I’m stuck with memory–the sorting and processing of it, at least–as my stock-in-trade. The pastness of the past, memorialized everywhere around us, once seemed to me like a treasure trove of Jeopardy! answers. The heights and weights of American presidents, their religious affiliations, their alma maters…now this, my lonely little boy self thought, was the stuff of serious history. I memorized laundry lists of facts, assuming that their value would manifest itself at some point along the way, and this in turn led me to a double-major in journalism and history. Just the facts, amiright?
Yet facts, as Second Circuit judge Jerome Frank often remarked, are fights. My uneasy journey into adulthood entailed a great deal of violent, selective forgetting. I can’t remember much about past relationships, past friendships, past schools, past jobs. I had at least a dozen employers between 1998 and 2012 and moved a dozen times. I turned down various positions: the Border Patrol, the TSA, a management position at Express (!!!). I quit others: produce clerk, Golden Corral jack-of-all-trades, debt collector, therapeutic staff support, law clerk. None of this matters, because none of it is part of the two-minute Story of Me that I’ll deliver if a student or colleague inquires about my past. Your past and my past and everyone’s past comprises all of the events that ever happened to you/me/everybody else, yet each narrative is invariably reduced to a few empty sound bites.
“I’m from Pittsburgh,” I might tell someone. Or “I’m from the South” or “I’m from North Carolina” or “I’m from the beach,” all of which are partially true and none of which are the least bit revealing. Some others: “My father owned a car dealership.” “My parents got divorced.” “I graduated from the University of North Carolina” to which I’ll occasionally append “…when I was 19.” That last detail’s a rough one, though, because it demands further explanation. Was I a good student? No, of course not. Wait, then how is such a thing possible? Given the context…jeez broham, I don’t know. I don’t know because I can’t remember. I just know that it happened. My diploma, which is virtually identical to Michael Jordan’s diploma, tells me so. What was I like back then? Probably the same as I am now, except different. I’m sure I was nice to some people and awful to others.
I have tried, in a handful of writing exercises, to reconstruct aspects of my past. It amounts to little more than grasping at straws. There are so many details to sort out, tiny and telling details: I had liplicker’s dermatitis. I watched a lot of pro wrestling. For a two-year period, I wouldn’t leave the house without slicking back my hair with copious amounts of gel. I wrote this apology letter, as well as a bunch of related letters that my mother saved, when I was ten years old. My parents argued a lot. Like a lot a lot, like for several hours a day and seven days a week for over a decade. Unforgivable, unforgettable things were constantly being said.
Eventually I forgot these no-holds-barred brawls. Eventually I could forget them within minutes. I reached a point at which I would hear the most horrifying utterance imaginable, then depart for work or school with nary a second thought. This was my burden, so heavy and so light. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I began to relish it, in a perverse sort of a way. I had developed 20/20 tunnel vision. I entertained no second thoughts, and very few firsts.
Now, alas, I’m older and more established–whatever that means, and for what that’s worth (the mid-five figures, according to the great state of Texas). I’m paid to teach the entirety of U.S. history to undergraduates, the whole shebang/warp and woof/enchilada, and I’m not afraid to admit I don’t have the foggiest idea of where to begin. I operate under the assumption that you start with the person, the smallest unit imaginable, and then work your way out to broader claims about the base and superstructure. But what good is Marxist analysis, or discourse analysis, or even more fraught and helpless frameworks (evolutionary psychology, schizoanalysis, classical economics, etc.) when one person–just one freaking person!–is so riddled with multitudes as to be essentially unknowable? And I don’t mean just myself, because I’m assuredly no prince/prize worthy of Great Man levels of contemplation, but every individual on the planet.
In sum: we survive by means of heuristics. Without them, work would cease. All of these flows and branchings-out, the rhizomatic qualities of each life, exceed the capacity of our current level of mental processing power to comprehend. As a result, I compact swaths of unruly data into just-so stories that I pass off as serious scholarly interpretations. It’s an ugly and unpleasant job, cataloguing–in Walter Benjamin’s words–a “single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.” Yet it’s all that anyone in my position can do, because we must.