Memoirs and Memory

With person after person I met on my book tour, I came to see that our memories aren't really patchy; they're patchworks, randomly retrieved bits and scraps that we weave together into something different.
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Zipping through San Francisco recently on a book tour, I met an old friend for dinner. We hadn't seen each other in decades, so this was the first time in a long time to take a trip together down memory lane.

The destination surprised me.

"Remember," he said, "that night when you had me over for dinner -- me and that food-writer friend of yours from the newspaper?" He was speaking of the early 1990s, the city of Detroit and the Detroit Free Press, the newspaper for which I worked from 1990 to 1995, before moving on to the New York Times.

"I had you over for dinner?" I asked. I seldom had anyone over for dinner. I was a timid host and an impatient, heedless, grudging cook.

"Yes," he said, "it was the first time I had hummus. And you made pasta, too. And you told me about the traveling you did right after college, when you retraced the route of some adventurer through Europe."

His point was that my account -- of a half-hearted effort at a modern-day pantomime of Aeneas's voyages -- had motivated him to take more frequent, grander trips of his own. But as he explained this, I was focused on something else: the curious and unsettling fact that I had no memory -- zero -- of ever having him and the other friend over for dinner. In fact I had no memory of him ever even being in my apartment.

And as our conversation progressed, it became clear that few of my and his memories of the old days overlapped. They were distinct, independent sets, not so much clashing as diverging. From whatever past we'd shared, he'd carried away one reel of scenes and me another.

The boon in memoirs over recent decades has prompted extensive discussion of the nature and veracity of memories. Which of these memories are imagined, even though the person remembering them deems them (or perhaps just markets them as) real? Which are exaggerated? And which have been so corrupted by the passage of time or the author's emotional investment in them that they have minimal merit, if any at all?

But what struck me when I circled back to friends and relatives to mine their recollections for help with my own memoir, Born Round, published last month, wasn't that the memories most vivid in my mind contradicted theirs. We didn't have warring details of the same events, nor did we have warring assessments of their import. If I and a friend or family member had held onto the same incident, we agreed for the most part on how it went down and what it meant.

What struck me, instead, was how selective our different memories were in terms of which incidents we'd held on to in the first place. And that strikes me still, as my Born Round-related interviews prompt old acquaintances to get in touch. They bring with them stories of our past interactions that are utterly unfamiliar to me: wholly new, wholly lost.

Sometimes, I can't remember the people themselves.

At a reading and question-and-answer session in Seattle last week, a woman approached me with an especially broad smile and particularly eager expression. She said her name, then added: "Remember me?"

I didn't.

She recounted the games of tag that she, I and other neighborhood kids had played in Madison, Conn., a waterfront town where, between the ages of 4 and 10, I spent many summer days visiting Grandma and Grandpa Bruni, who had a modest house there. It was in Madison, in fact, that the other kids my age first realized that my initials, F.B., could be turned into a gibe, a taunt -- that they could be said to stand not only for Frank Bruni but also for Fat Boy.

Was she one of those kids?

Her name and her description of which house in the tiny neighborhood, which I'd visited as recently as six weeks ago, triggered nothing. Absolutely nothing. But she was definitely for real: she talked about the way all of us neighborhood kids would pluck mussels from the crevasses of rocks in the Long Island Sound and bring them to Grandma Bruni, who could and would cook and eat as many of them as possible.

That was more than 35 years ago. (I'm 44 now.) But college: college was more recent, and until I wrote Born Round, I thought I remembered it comprehensively enough.

But then my friend Jeff and I got to talking. I referred a writer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumni magazine to him; the writer was profiling me and wanted some comments from a classmate. I had Jeff's contact information nearby.

After he answered her questions, he emailed me, mentioning that he'd told her about the time, when he was editing the campus newspaper and I was one of his top lieutenants, that I'd crucially bailed him out of a jam by helping him write a difficult editorial in which he overruled the newspaper's editorial board and endorsed Walter Mondale, not Ronald Reagan, in the 1984 presidential election.

I have no memory whatsoever of that, even though the incident in question sounds -- I'm trusting him on this -- much, much more significant than what I do recall, including many of the pizzas we shared and much of the bad behavior in which we indulged. It's always the feasting and boozing that linger in my thoughts (and thus a lucky thing my memoir focuses on my relationship with food).

Time and again over this last year and a half, as I finished the book and then fielded relatives' and friends' reactions to it, I confronted the spottiness of memory, but not the spottiness I had expected to confront. What was missing and forgotten was less often crucial or even trivial details of events than the events themselves, gone in their entirety.

I remember, as if it were a movie clip I played just yesterday, the hospital room in which my mother died and the entire hour leading up to her death. But I couldn't remember a single theme or sentence from the eulogy I delivered until my older brother, Mark, sent me an electronic copy of it. I couldn't believe he'd kept one. I didn't, and have no memory why.

At one point I had to tell my younger brother, Harry, that I'd included, in Born Round, an incident when he said something hurtful to me, and that the scene, a turning point in my struggle to control my eating and weight, really couldn't be deleted. Gracious and generous, Harry didn't push back; instead, he apologized for having caused me any sadness. He also noted that he would have to take my word for the fact that he had indeed done so. An incident vividly emblazoned in my memory was utterly absent from his.

And so it went, with person after person and memory after memory, as I came to see that our memories aren't really patchy; they're patchworks, oddly and randomly retrieved bits and scraps that we weave together into something we believe to be a more integrated, seamless fabric than it really is.

After rummaging through my recollections, augmenting them with those belonging to others and condensing them into a life story, I don't worry that the scenes are significantly inaccurate or even remotely embellished.

I worry about what's not there and might have made for an even better story.

Or, for that matter, a different one. Do I -- do we -- remember only those scenes that fit neatly into the central narrative in which we're most invested, the one that dovetails most cleanly and neatly with the sense of self that we've chosen or that's been imposed on us by the people around us?

Do we in fact have other, equally interesting life stories that we're unaware of and unable to tell, simply because their building blocks are the memories that fell by the wayside?

Possibly. And while those memoirs might undermine the ones we've written, they also might just improve on them.

Frank Bruni, a longtime New York Times writer, was the newspaper's chief restaurant critic from mid-2004 until late August. His memoir, "Born Round: the Secret History of a Full-Time Eater," has just been published by Penguin Press.

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