A remarkable passage from the opening to the late David Carr’s unbelievably good memoir of addiction, The Night of the Gun, in which he lays out the difficulty of investigating and recapitulating one’s past. Reminded me of Tavris and Aaronson’s description of memory as editor, i.e. one of the chief instruments of self-justification. Turns out the stories we tell about ourselves, especially the harrowing ones, reveal the narratives we have constructed around our identities–AKA the laws to which we are beholden and which drive our editing/dishonesty, such as Thou Shalt Be Transformed (and Stay That Way). Also one of the reasons why New Testament portraits of recidivism are so refreshing/convincing:

img_1416541527Shakespeare describes memory as the warden of the brain, but it is also its courtesan. We all remember the parts of the past that allow us to meet the future. The prototypes of the lie–white, grievous, practical–make themselves known when memory is called to answer. Memory usually answers back with bullshit. Everyone likes a good story, especially the one who is telling it, and the historical facts are generally sullied in the process. All men mean well, and clearly most people who set out to tell the truth do not lie on purpose. How is it, then, that every warm bar stool contains a hero, a star of his own epic, who is the sum of his amazing stories?

Most of my stories are not nice ones, their heroic aspects dimmed by the fact that the hand which struck me was my own. Truly ennobling personal narratives describe a person overcoming the bad hand that fate has dealt him, not someone like me, who takes good cards and sets them on fire. I can easily admit that I did bad things for no good reason but stop at copping to being overtly evil. I was a screwup who took aim on himself and may have created collateral damage along the way. What I found twenty years later was darker, more meretricious, but in the memory, those stories tended to be bathed in pathos, coating the pieces of the past in rich goo that make them go down smooth…

There is also an almost irresistible consistency bias. Memory is an expression of hindsight as much as recollection, so my rear view must incorporate the fact that I was eventually redeemed from a life of drugs, alcohol, and mania. In this construct, the moments when I stumbled across a life-changing epiphany are vividly preserved, while the more corrosive aspects are lost to a kind of self-preserving amnesia. To be fully cognizant of the wreckage of one’s past can be paralyzing, so we, or at least I, minimize as we go. Nowhere is that imperative more manifest than in memoir. Popular literature requires framing a sympathetic character, someone we can root for or who is, as they say on the studio lot, relatable.


If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote I was a recovered addict who obtained custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare, and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true, but as a member of a self-interpreting species, one that fights to keep disharmony at a remove, I’m inclined to mention my tenderhearted attentions to my children as a single parent before I get around to the fact that I hit their mother when we were together. (pgs. 23-24)