Saturday, October 13, 2007

We Are Never Aware of Processing--Until the Processing Goes Awry

As some of you could probably tell from class last week, I am not Floyd Skloot's biggest fan (see my response to Matt's blog of last week for more on this topic). Given the problems he had with both short- and long-term memory I found him to be an unreliable narrator, inconsistencies in his text added to my unease, and, while I understood that these were separate essays put together in one book, the repetition just got on my nerves and I wondered why an editor didn't step in to smooth over some of these problems.

I tried to approach A World of Light with an open mind: I was going to be less stubborn in my definition of memoir and less critical of a man who, despite brain damage, can write beautifully. This good attitude lasted until the second essay. Why must he be so repetitive, I wondered? Why do we need to be told in every essay that his mother, Lillian, asks the sames questions over and over again. Is it Skloot's own brain damage preventing him from moving on to new territory? Is he trying to give his readers a taste of what it feels like to either have Alzheimer's, or to care for someone with the disease? If so, we get the point already. Skloot would have known that, like his previous book, his new essays would be published in one collection, and I still can't figure out why they weren't edited to remove some of the tedium. I was overjoyed with the essay "The Simple Wisdom" about his mentor, Thomas Kinsella, because it was something new and different, and literally cried, "Hallelujah!" when reading "A Stable State," in which he claims to be done writing about his illness.

Moving on isn't just something Skloot needs to do with the content of his writing, it's also what he needs to do in regards to his mother. When in my frustration I asked myself, "How is this book different from In the Shadow of Memory," I kept thinking he was speaking more psychologically in these essays, like his insights were the direct result of psychotherapy, especially in terms of his conflicted relationship with his mother. This seemed most true in his essay "Fittings," in which his struggle to come to terms with his mother's state was as tedious as his repetitiveness, and once again I wondered if his own brain damage prevented him from being more accepting. (And, in the debate over what constitutes nonfiction, I have to point out the Victoria's Secret scene on page 36. Women may surreptitiously try on panties [ew] but a salesperson is certainly not going to participate by bringing anyone a thong to try on! If a nonfiction writer is going to make stuff up it has to at least be true to life. I also couldn't help but think, after reading page 180, lines 4-5, "Really? You simmer kale in the morning? That's some breakfast.")

I am not a completely heartless beast, though, and I did sympathize with Lillian. When we read about the people who suffered from Korsakov's I did not realize people with Alzheimer's experienced the same extreme symptoms. Most poignant, I thought, was her ability to remember songs, even expanding her repoitoire before beginning to lose virtually all of her music. Like Skloot's passion for baseball, Lillian's passion was the theater; if Skloot's memory were to deteriorate significantly, I bet he'd rattle off baseball stats the way his mother sang songs.

I was just as happy to be done with The Missing World as I was to finish Skloot, but for different reasons. I enjoyed this book, yet Livesey succeeded in making me so uncomfortable that I couldn't wait for it to end. I think the portrayal of amnesia was probably pretty accurate, especially the way Hazel describes on p. 144 living in three worlds: the world she remembers; the world of shadowy memories, people or events she couldn't quite grasp; and the missing world, all that had vanished. (Lillian's Alzheimer's, on the other hand, started out similarly, until she was left with the present world only, not even aware of the missing worlds.) I believe Livesey did her homework (notice her nod to doctors like Sacks on p. 145, when Hazel says she can imagine her doctor contemplating the article he would write about her case) and was especially struck by Hazel and Charlotte's conversation on p. 195 about the relationship between memory and space, something we've read about in LeDoux and Luria's account of mnemonic S. She also did a good job making memory an important theme for all the characters: Charlotte comparing herself to Hazel, wondering if she might prefer to forget the bad times (and occasionally, as she describes on p. 214, actually forgetting the events that occured after she ran into her ex with his new girlfriend, although in Charlotte's case you can probably assume alcohol had some affect on her memory); Freddie's suppression of his past; and Jonathan's utter inability to learn from the past, echoing Charlotte's statment on p. 175: "We repeat what we remember. Only forgetfulness sets us free."

Chapter 7 of The Synaptic Self gave me a deeper understanidng of both Hazel and Lillian. Lillian was left with no working memory, an inevitablity of Alzheimer's, I think, because working memory depends on long-term memory. Because Hazel did have working memory, her accident and seizures probably didn't affect her frontal lobes, but I'm guessing different types of amnesia can occur due to damage in different parts of the brain. In LeDoux's explanation of working memory, visual stimuli seem to play such an important role that I wondered how people blind from birth create memories. Do other senses fill-in? And any other animal lovers in class were probably struck, as I was, by the section on consciousness. My cat only has to get in his carrying case once a year, but he remembers it's a place he'd rather not be, and he decides to fight and run away. He also knows that if I kiss his head once, leaving his head bowed will result in more kisses, which he likes. Even cats can be trained, and doesn't that have something to do with memory?

On page 192 of The Synaptic Self, LeDoux attributes to neuroscience pioneer Karl Lashley the idea that "we are never aware of processing, but only of the consequences of processing." Based on the experiences of Floyd Skloot, Lillian, Hazel, and everyone else we've read about in this course, I'd say we are never aware of processing--until the processing goes awry.


EBJ said...


You are correct that there is repetition in the essays, but rather than suffering from a lack of editing, I think that Skloot is engaging in the process described by the great Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky was Luria's colleague, mentor, and lifelong inspiration. The developmental metaphor Vygotsky introduced was the spiral rather than the circle. In development we return repeatedly to the same issues, but each time from a higher plane, spiraling upward rather than looping endlessly in a circle. Skloot spirals around the subject of memory loss, illuminating the experience at many levels.

I urge you to read more carefully when critiquing our class texts. Skloot does not claim on page 180 that he makes kale for breakfast; using a spoon to stir kale rather than a glass of water is one item on an illustrative list of improvements in his everyday functioning over time. The Victoria's Secret thong example doesn't seem far-fetched to me either, after all the salesperson doesn't offer it to Lillian (to Floyd Skloot's relief).

I can understand your own relief at finishing Livesey's The Missing World. You show restraint in your comments on this book: 'uncomfortable' is a mild term, 'excruciating' might be more apt for the rape scenes. Just as the seizures had escaped my explicit memory, I had repressed these scenes too.

More in class ...

Lauren S said...

I appreciate your explanation of Skloot's use of repetition. Perhaps in repeating my grievances with Skloot's memoirs I too will spiral upward to a new understanding.

I am sorry you think that I do not read closely, because I do. In my post I did not say that Skloot claimed to be eating kale for breakfast, I inferred it from his statement that "I can function well for an hour or two every morning. I ... can pick up a spoon rather than a glass of water when I intend to stir the simmering kale." Generally when someone cooks in the morning it is for breakfast. It may not have been a good example to include in my discussion of the honesty of nonfiction, but my conclusion is not the result of careless reading.

Last week we had a similar difference of opinion: I thought that on page 231 of SHADOW, Skloot implied that he was driving his mother from the home to JFK (as Lillian "issues phrases of pure praise about my driving"); you thought this could just as well be the ramblings of a woman with dementia. Yet five lines up from the bottom of the page, Beverly speaks "from the back seat." So, after a close reading, I stand by my opinion that Skloot was, indeed, driving in very stressful conditions.

While I haven't shopped for panties at Victoria's Secret in a number of years, I'm quite sure people are told that trying on underwear is not permitted and no conscientious salesperson interested in keeping her job would bring a customer a thong to try on. Including this scene may not detract from Skloot's ability to paint a meaningful portrait of memory loss, but it doesn't ring true to me, and I think he could have written the dressing room scene with just as much poignancy without including details that smell, just a bit, like baloney.

Matt N said...

Hey Lauren,

Yes, I think we can definitely agree that you are not Skloot’s biggest fan—and I have to say, a lot of that repetition gets on my nerves. It took some serious will power not to leap giant parts of his essays, which is a big issue. I took thought into consideration. I wanted to leap to something new, some different sense of bearing; I realized that must be a lot like that of a memory impaired person, always looking for another anchor in a sea of language. I’m taking Italian now and having all of this new language thrown at me really humbles me. Sometimes I feel alittle bit more like Luria’s patient S than I’d like to admit. Certain words send me blazing down a trail of ideas and concepts that are completely wrong. And I wonder how? It’s like I have to become conscious of thinking and processing again, much like Skloot has to with every small act like walking now. The smallest once of distraction and completely send me spiraling into the abyss of language.

It’s that sense of “lostness” that really ties me to Skloot's narrative. I must say, I read A World of Light in one setting, and I didn’t start until near midnight. There was a cohesion to this book that fascinated me. We all read his other book, which, too, was grabbing, but this book for different reasons. I wanted to keep reading because this time round he wrote with such fluidity and it seemed that we was remembering more and more. I almost felt like I was rooting for him, perhaps that’s how I got over his repetition. I’ll admit, I do feel like the phrase “why don’t you get married already” will haunt me long into my adult life.

I think that you are dead on, that Skloot has put vast effort into breaking down his past psychologically and presenting it to us. Though sometimes, especially after reading his first memoir, would it not be better if he could have left a lot of this in the past? Or is his mother better off not remembering all of the heinous familial crimes she committed? Rather cursed is Skloot that he forgets childhood friends yet he remembers being lock in toy chests. I loved in the preface (xi) when he speaks of his mind in “tatters” and how he as had to learn to “savor the fragments [of memory] themselves, and to live in the moment.” I like that because as humans we cannot live all of our pain at once, we couldn’t function. It all goes back to our working memory, we can only function processing so much at a time. We can’t handle reliving the breakups, the drama, the deaths, and our sadness all at one time; we have to live, to walk to get on. We have to simply take life as it comes in little chunks. Moments. In a lot of ways we’re just like Skloot—he may even be better off, really having to solely focus were we have a bit more grey area.

I love this idea:
On page 192 of The Synaptic Self, LeDoux attributes to neuroscience pioneer Karl Lashley the idea that "we are never aware of processing, but only of the consequences of processing." Based on the experiences of Floyd Skloot, Lillian, Hazel, and everyone else we've read about in this course, I'd say we are never aware of processing--until the processing goes awry.

One amendment—or a clarification rather. We don’t notice it until our processing or that of the ones we love faults. As Skloot puts it on page 16, “Our brains have both undergone vast organic alteration and our minds no longer work as they did. Sp, maybe, out of this weird wreckage, we can find something in the time we have left together that is better.” It is up to interpretation then if remembering is a good thing. I know there are a lot of things in my life that I’d rather lay to rest and hum songs. Bad hair cuts, fights, moments of pettiness, middle school… It’s giving up a lot I know but sometimes you’ve got to wonder: wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just tell me exactly what to and when to do it? And then I could just hum all day, without a nary thought of “the awkward days.”

Ashley Leone said...

I can understand feeling like Skloot is an unreliable source for all the information he is dishing out, he has after all been suffering from memory loss for almost nineteen years now, but in the preface (I think it's in there) he said it took him eight years to write "In the Shadow of Memory". That is a more than sufficient amount of time to research his past and correct all of his mistakes. He gathered his life up from his childhood friend, his brother before he passed, Beverly, and saved-in-the-basement kind of information--any documentation on what he life was like. I don't know how long he spent writing "World of Light" but didn't his daughter help him assemble it as well? I just feel like I don't have a problem being charged with trusting his writing because he was dedicated to putting forth the most honest compilation of memories he could.

I thought it extremely interesting when music was brought up numerous times. Lillian began singing repressed songs from childhood, Yiddish and Hebrew tunes she forced in the back of her mind so she wouldn't seem "marginal". Skloot had never heard them himself, but they must of meant a great deal to her if they survived her degenerative memory. Daniel L. Schacter says "emotionally charged incidents are better remembered than nonemotional events. The emotional boost begins at the moment a memory is born, when attention and elaboration strongly influence whether an experience will be subsequently remembered or forgotten." (pg 70) Why then do you think Lillian remembered these songs? Was it initially difficult for her to erase her past, her being to reinvent herself as the glamour queen actress she would much rather be recognized for? Was who she REALLY was and where she came from a topic consistently boiling in the back of her brain, memories only allowed to come the light of day after she had lost control them? I think the exploration of Lillian's world was in a way a nice distraction for Skloot, because he could then see how he didn't have it so bad in comparison. And seeing his mother in this pathetic, sad way made him feel for her, but does that mean forget everything ever she did to him?

I had a hard time finishing "The Missing World" for the same reasons. I had to stop myself every so often and remind myself why I was reading it, because the rape scenes were just so explicit and really quite atrocious. I felt like I couldn't find any good hearted characters in that book! Not that anyone in this world is genuinely good hearted...