Forgetting is normal, but exactly how we forget — the molecular, cellular and brain circuit mechanisms underlying the process — remains mysterious.
“Wait, who’s coming over?” my husband asked on a clear June evening.
“Remember that friend of mine named John? From junior high, when I lived with my dad in Spring Lake Park?” I said. “The smart one who ended up at Carleton?”
“The coffee shop guy?”
“He sold that place — lives in Japan now. Anyway, remember how I told you he was so sweet to me during those years? Even after I moved back to my mom’s — to the student housing place in St. Paul — John’s dad would drive all the way over to pick me up and then haul us around. He never complained.”
“You guys were dating?”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I always thought John had a crush on me. But later, I heard he always thought I was the one with the crush. Anyway, he’s here.”
John sat at our dining table eating leftover spanakopita, drinking wine and telling stories about Japan. He shared pictures of his many unique pets — mostly rescue cats — and challenged us to pose with our teenagers for a purposefully awkward family photo.
Then, late in the evening, John wondered out loud if I remembered which band had played at our prom.
“Prom?” I said.
“Junior year. Remember?”
This is not an accident
In the brain, the stress hormone cortisol binds to receptors in the hippocampus and amygdala, important regions for learning and memory. Chronically elevated cortisol levels impair recall. This is not an accident. How important to well-being is forgetting?
When I met John at Westwood Junior High, I was the new girl, just moved in with my dad. At the end of the next year, I moved back to Mom’s. Moving was a theme. I’d attended six schools before Westwood, and would attend five more before graduation, the same year my younger sister and I entered foster care. The escalating family crises that swallowed those years are partly why John and I finally lost touch.
Partly, too, why I have no memory of going to prom with him.
Neither of us drank a drop that night. We didn’t smoke, either.
I was simply high on cortisol.
She closed the scuffed door
Memory is our way of preserving our sense of self, our narrative identity. This is called autobiographical memory. When it is faulty, our sense of self will be unstable.
The thing I remember is the dress.
My mother — she had once, when I was very small, sewn all of my clothes herself — brought me to Joann Fabrics. We chose a pattern and yards of white satin and lace. It was 1985. We were conjuring something between Little House on the Prairie, Madonna and a wedding gown.
This extravagance was out of reach. Still, Mom wrote the check. But she did not sew the dress.
The tailor shop was a dusty backroom on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul, between the corner grocery and the tax preparer’s office. I went alone, wadded bills from my job at Arby’s stuffed into my pocket. The seamstress was brisk and careful. She closed the scuffed door behind me and instructed me to take off my jeans and my T-shirt and stand in front of the three-way mirror. I shivered in my bra and underwear as she measured my narrow hips, my waist, my breasts. Her fingertips grazed my skin, pinching the tape measure, recording the numbers on a yellow pad.
I held myself still and stared at the naked girl.
I watched as she was measured and fitted.
The theme was “Inspiration”
As soon as a new memory forms, a dopamine-based forgetting mechanism begins to erase it, unless some importance is attached. Important memories are protected from erasure by a process called consolidation. But all memories are susceptible to forgetting. Are all of our selves, then, slightly unstable?
“Not sure how much I’ll remember, but I’ll try!” John told me. I’d reached out to let him know I was writing this essay. Maybe with his lower cortisol levels, he’d hold a treasure trove of lost detail.
“Actually, I’m a little confused,” he said. “Was it your school’s prom, or mine?”
“Jeez, I’m going to have to sweep the cobwebs out.”
John messaged his sister and some friends. The dance was at the downtown Minneapolis Holiday Inn with Spiff Cool and the Jets. The theme was "Inspiration." John’s sister drummed up a photo in which I grimace at the camera, my ankles tightly crossed in my Madonna tights, my faux wedding garb hanging on me like a costume.
“Sorry I couldn’t come up with more,” John messaged again. “I’m usually better at remembering special events.”
Then, after a pause: “Are you a good dancer?”
“Terrible,” I said.
“I remember that! I wasn’t sure if I should bring it up.”
“I hated dancing so much then,” I said. “I was very sad.”
“No, you were loving it!”
“Oh, John,” I said. “I was just good at pretending.”
More than one thing
Forgetting is active, not passive. Throughout biology, there are active pathways for constructing and active pathways for degrading. Why should forgetting be any different?
John didn’t know the weight of my life, how shame can wear lace tights, how foster care would soon drown out Spiff Cool and the Jets. I was a girl pretending to be a girl.
I don’t remember dancing badly at prom. Or dancing at prom. Or prom.
What I do remember, it turns out, is more than one thing. More than a dress. I remember a check written on the shoals of a dry account. I remember the hands of an unknown seamstress carefully outlining a body in which I did not quite live. And I remember the kindness of a few good friends like John, who somehow took me as I was, even though it would be decades before I would begin to do the same.
This essay draws memory science from “Dopamine Is Required for Learning and Forgetting in Drosophila,” by Jacob A. Berry, Isaac Cervantes-Sandoval, Eric P. Nicholas, and Ronald L. Davis, Neuron, 2012.
Jeannine Ouellette is the author of several nonfiction books and the children’s picture book "Mama Moon." Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, december magazine, Nowhere, The Rake, Utne and in several anthologies including "Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives." Jeannine is founder of Elephant Rock, a creative-writing program in Minneapolis.
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