There have been times over the course of my life, when someone shares a memory with me. They describe a certain incident or experience and say, without hesitation, that I was there. They will be very certain of my presence. I smile and nod my head. And all the while, I am wracking my brain, desperately trying to get some foothold of recall. Because I don’t remember.
In those moments – in fact, in any situation where I’m accessing memories – I can and do get very impatient with myself. Certainly, it should be simple, like looking up a file on my computer, clicking it, and instantly obtaining the info. When I can’t do it, it feels like a failure of brainpower. And as anyone over age 65 will tell you, every memory lapse, every blank page where some history is supposed to be but isn’t, creates a little ripple of anxiety.
But neuroscientists have shown that each time we remember something, we are reconstructing the event, reassembling it from traces throughout the brain. Psychologists have pointed out that we also suppress memories that are painful or damaging to self-esteem. We could say that, as a result, memory is unreliable. We could also say it is adaptive, reshaping itself to accommodate the new situations we find ourselves facing. And the older we get, the more traces we must choose from.
There are other times when I am so sure of a memory, only to get incontrovertible facts that utterly belie what I always assumed was a true and accurate recollection. I could’ve sworn that I was watching Bobby Kennedy celebrate his big primary win live from the Ambassador Hotel in LA. I was so certain that I had watched him thank the crowd, turn, and walk back to his headquarters through the hotel kitchen. The scene when he was attacked: so chaotic and so horrifying, people screaming as he lay on the floor, shot in the head and yet vaguely conscious. I watched it in real-time.
Or so I thought. But then I began researching for this essay. Kennedy spoke to the crowd at the hotel just after midnight, Pacific Standard Time. It was June 6th, 1968, a Thursday, and a school night. There’s no way I watched it as it happened. It would have been 3am for me.
Yet it is lodged in my memory as a fact. I was there in front of our tv. Which is, I suppose, a reflection of the impact of the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. Two months before, Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis. The wounds were deep, the loss a true national trauma. I felt robbed and betrayed, as did so many other baby boomers. We were bereft. It was the end of innocence, at least it was for this 14-year-old.
I don’t think California Governor Gavin Newsome purposely announced his decision to deny parole to Sirhan Sirhan a couple of days before we observe the birthday of Martin Luther King. But there is a synchronicity to it. Newsome’s statement made it clear that history is significant, and that justice must stand. The nonviolence Dr. King taught did not and does not mean a lack of accountability for our actions. I support Governor Newsome’s decision
Over 50 years later, the family of Bobby Kennedy wrote words regarding Sirhan Sirhan that MLK would endorse, “Our family and our country suffered an unspeakable loss due to the inhumanity of one man,” the family wrote in a statement. “We believe in the gentleness that spared his life, but in taming his act of violence, he should not have the opportunity to terrorize again.”
Time has eroded so many teachings that held the promise of a new day. Is the world more cynical now? In my memory, I seem to recall that once it felt like brighter days were ahead. At least, that’s how I remember it.