Review by Vicki Mayk
That question is what Suzanne Farrell Smith explores brilliantly in her non-traditional memoir The Memory Sessions (Bucknell University Press 2019). Smith’s father was killed by a drunk driver when she was six and a fire nearly destroys her family’s home when she is eight. Those two events remain her only memories from the first 13 years of her life. Her three sisters and mother recall Smith’s father and remember many details of their lives during those years. Smith alone recalls nothing. Her memory has seemingly been erased.
In the 149 pages of this slim volume, Smith chronicles her journey to reclaim a past that eludes her. The result is a lyrical telling of her quest that is rich in detail and description, from the burning sensation of acupuncture needles inserted into her skin to the clinking of nails falling from walls during a house fire. The book opens with the scene of the night her father died – an experience that sparked trauma that may have been sufficient to erase memory. Told in spare, specific details, Smith establishes quickly that even this is an incident recalled with only the briefest snapshots from memory. She recalls the flashing red light on the police car that brought the news of their father’s crash. We see her and her sisters walking next door to a neighbor’s home to watch the old television show Knight Rider to distract them.
Farrell reveals that even this memory does not have a single, agreed-upon version. Her sister, Debbie, remembers “red flannel jammies with white plastic feet that made her toes sweaty.” Farrell herself likes “to think of our feminine foursome in matching nightgowns, soft and pale pink with flowers.” She tells readers “My sisters and I remember the red lights on the “mouth” of the talking car. We differ in how we recall my mother’s phrasing of the terrible news.” By doing this, she skillfully establishes from the outset what is perhaps this memoir’s most important theme: that memory is malleable, with the same event recalled in a dozen different ways by a dozen different people.
With this conundrum established, Farrell embarks on her journey to recall her forgotten past. Her search for memory includes cognitive therapy, hypnotherapy, and acupuncture. She sifts through boxes of memorabilia stored at her mother’s house, searching for clues. She and her partner (later her husband) Justin track down the last known address of the woman whose wrong-way turn on a highway ended her father’s life. They make a trip to San Diego, retracing the locations her family visited on a trip that ended the day before Farrell’s father’s death. Over and over she grasps at phantom memories lingering on the edge of her consciousness – and glimpses the briefest of images that may or may not be real memories of her father: a man in a brown suit, hands busy at a workbench or maneuvering electric trains, the sound of a garage door opening that announces his return home at the end of the workday. Farrell has deftly condensed a journey of years while still conveying the long, often arduous work involved in reconstructing a lost past.
While all memoirs tell stories from the past from the writer’s perspective in the present, few are rooted so completely in the present as The Memory Sessions. Although always longing to fall into the rabbit hole that will take her to yesterday, Farrell writes eloquently of her continued frustration of remaining forever in the now. Only her panicked reactions to the sound of a doorbell ringing or her acute fear of death remind her that her past remains firmly part of her present, manifested in the trauma it has left behind.
By the end of the memoir, Farrell has realized a fact that we all must face: memory is faulty. For Farrell, this emerges with a number of realizations. By questioning her sisters, she learns that the sound of the doorbell she remembers ringing on the night of her father’s death is not an eight-note Westminster melody, but a simple two-tone “ding dong.” In another illuminating moment, she finds a notebook of stories she wrote in middle school. They include versions of the night her father died and what seems to be a story similar to the memory of getting her first menstrual period. Yet both have been edited – leading Farrell to wonder if her memories, too, are edited versions of real events. Despite all of her memory detective work, the list of what she knows about her past shrinks rather than expands.
Readers who stay with Farrell through the book, waiting in suspense for her to find lost memories, will share her disappointment that she can neither reclaim what is lost or be sure of what constitutes a “true” memory. But they will be richly rewarded with a book that is beautifully written and richly realized.