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On a Grandma’s House and the Unknowability of the Past

They can feel as lifelike as virtual reality, but memories represent unreachable places.

My maternal grandmother moved into her house, her last house, in 1962. My mother and uncle were 12 and 14 at the time. It was six years after her first husband died of lung cancer — my mother has said she never saw him without a cigar or cigarette in his hand. (He’s my grandfather but, never having met him, I don’t think of him that way.) My grandmother lived in this house with her second husband until he died of a fall and subsequent hemorrhage in 1988, then remained there alone until 2001, when she had a stroke. She survived the stroke, mentally intact, but with partial paralysis on her right side; my parents moved her into an assisted living facility and sold the house.

The house changed only superficially from my earliest memories until the last time I saw it, when I was in college. It felt preserved, like a museum. There was a front room, in particular, that seemed frozen in time, because no one ever sat in there — the living room, I suppose, but it felt like a kind of formal sitting room or parlor. The sofa was strictly ornamental, a curvaceous affair covered in an uncomfortable, silvery blue brocade; there was something called a cigarette table, a little tripod end table with a drawer for cigarettes, and a coffee table with a pink marble top. I’ve seen photographs of my mother, square photos with a white border, posing in this room, in her marching-band uniform from high school (she played the marimba), and after her wedding at a nearby church in 1970. The furniture and the art on the walls, the china displayed in the china cabinet, look exactly the same as they did 30 years later.

As kids, my brother and I spent most of our time in the more comfortable room toward the back that my grandmother called the den. This room, too, rarely changed. There was a large wooden console with a built-in television set, which had an old-fashioned glass candy jar on the corner, and, above it, rows of shelves that must have held the same books and knick-knacks she had originally placed there in the early ’60s — sets of abridged classics; music boxes; a little ceramic dog; framed, sepiaed photos of my mother and uncle in their youth. (There was also, on another wall, a set of profiles, done in silhouette, when they were teenagers.) The room had a kind of extension with parquet flooring, a green card table, and a closet full of old games (a cribbage board, dominoes, mahjong, poker chips; an orange tin labeled “peanut brittle” that contained a coiled-up “snake” made of fabric covering a spring). Near the backdoor was a wrought-iron floor lamp that reminded me of a street light. Next to the closet, there was an alcove in the wall that held a melodeon, a small antique pump organ that operated with a foot pedal.

If this world was strange and magical to me then, it seems even more strange and magical now, for being remote. It’s hard for me to believe it no longer exists; it’s not a place I can go to. I can see it in such lush and minute detail; I can feel the texture of the scratchy couch cushions and the roughness of the bricks around the fireplace; I can smell the old appliances in the kitchen, the old make-up and face creams in the bathroom vanity. But as rich as the memory is, reproduced at scale like a diorama in my mind, it’s not enough, the way it’s not enough to know your favorite song by heart and be able to play it note for note in your head — you always need to hear the song again.

Since my grandmother died, a little over a year ago and just before her 98th birthday, I have often wished I could actually visit the house, the physical house just as I remember it — before we removed what we could keep and sold off the rest in an estate sale. I could walk through the rooms at leisure, and look at the old stuff, the valuables and bric-a-brac, once more. I would bring my husband with me, to show him all the things that fascinated me as a child and eventually grew familiar. Now it would be a real museum, and we could examine these objects of my childhood — pristine, on exhibit — like they were new again.

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“The Mandela Effect” is the theory that a collective false memory is evidence of a crossing or merging of parallel universes. It gets its name from a group of people who “remember” that Nelson Mandela — the president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 — died in prison in the ’80s. (Mandela died at home, from a respiratory infection, in 2013.) What these people are remembering, the theory goes, is the actual past in an alternate reality; somehow they’ve slipped through and found themselves in our reality with its different but otherwise reconcilable past.

Two recent examples of the Mandela Effect were popularized on Reddit. In one thread, some people insist that the “Berenstain Bears” of children’s books were originally named the “Berenstein Bears” (a claim supposedly corroborated by an image of a label on an old VHS tape, most likely bearing a typo). In another, a group of people collectively recall seeing a movie in the ’90s called Shazaam, starring the comedian Sinbad as a genie. The movie does not exist. Are these people visitors from another stream in the multiverse? More likely, they misremember the spelling of the fictional name because “-stein” is a more familiar ending for a last name than “-stain,” and they misremember the existence of a movie called Shazaam because there is, in this world, a movie about a genie, played by Shaquille O’Neal, called Kazaam and made in 1996.

Memory itself is an alternate reality — an unreachable place we can somehow see.

If you had seen Kazaam once or twice a number of years ago, it’s plausible that if a friend mentioned a movie named Shazaam to you, starring Sinbad, you could easily picture the cover of the movie: just swap out Shaq for Sinbad. Same pose, same title font. The more you thought about it, the more real it would seem. A false memory seems to accrue detail over time, perhaps by borrowing from other memories. We don’t need to posit an alternate reality to get from point A to point B. But for those who “remembered” the Sinbad version, the memory felt entirely real; it seemed to represent and to refer to something actual, a verifiable outside thing. In this way, memory itself is an alternate reality — an unreachable place we can somehow see.

What happens to collective memory when the referent is real and verifiable, a part of our own lived past, is no less mystifying. We can infer what gives rise to conspiracy theories like the belief that the moon landing was faked — a deep distrust of government and the media. And Holocaust denial is, of course, politically motivated, an apologist impulse that goes so far as to re- or overwrite. It’s hard to believe that the first deniers were sincere, though naturally there would have been an element of true disbelief — how could anyone have committed such horrors? But, however established the facts, simply questioning history seems to alter collective perception of history. So we must constantly re-establish the facts, as when Google recently came under fire for ranking a Holocaust denial site first in the results for the search query “did the Holocaust happen.”

In her book Frames of Remembrance: The Dynamics of Collective Memory, Canadian sociologist Iwona Irwin-Zarecka remembers the case of Ernst Zundel, a German immigrant who went on trial in Toronto for publishing materials denying the occurrence of the Holocaust. According to Irwin-Zarecka, the local paper in her town of Kitchener, Ontario, became “a forum for expressing concerns with the possible damage to the image of Germans as a whole.” It was not Zundel per se who provoked this worry, she says, but “the very exposure accorded to Auschwitz, day after day of the long trial.” The Jewish community, too, voiced objections to all the publicity:

Since the judge decided then that the historical facticity of the Holocaust would be argued in court, the deniers were seen as having won the battle no matter what the verdict. Both sides believed the effect of the extensive media coverage would be significant and, for different reasons, did not trust the journalists.

There was a sense, then, that relitigating history might destabilize history. But there’s debate over how exactly we should carry out what Irwin-Zarecka calls “memory work” — the work of comprehending and coming to terms with an event like the Holocaust. Is remembering enough or is there a correct way to remember?

I remember, and friends of mine remember, watching a short film in school called The Wave, in which a high-school teacher shows his initially skeptical students how the Holocaust could happen by inciting them to participate in their own miniaturized version of a totalitarian regime. (It’s based on a real experiment that took place in a California high school in the 1960s.) I also remember visiting our local Holocaust museum with my humanities class in sixth grade; one particular detail the docent related, about the Nazis using Jewish prisoners’ hair to stuff their pillows, made my best friend cry. (I might cry too, now, but I was more stoic back then.) If there was a didactic paradigm at work here, it intended to make the Holocaust real by making it personal.

Historian Michael Marrus has argued that viewing the Holocaust with a special sense of awe is counterproductive to historical understanding, because empathizing with the victims would “morally block” us from analyzing them critically. And attempts to situate the Holocaust in the context of other, seemingly comparable human atrocities, such as Cambodian genocide, have drawn mixed response.

On the one hand, it’s dangerous to treat the Holocaust as a singular aberration in terms of the failure of cultural morality. (Because it has happened, it cannot happen again.) On the other, isn’t it dangerous to treat genocide as a run-of-the-mill inevitability? (Because it has happened, it certainly will happen again?)

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You’re likely familiar with the concept of the phantom limb: After having an arm or a leg removed, a patient may continue to feel the presence of the limb, even feeling pain in it. Less familiar is the phenomenon of the alien limb, when a patient feels a loss of identification with their still-intact limb. When questioned, the patient might identify the arm in the bed as belonging to the nurse, for example, or they might claim that their leg is a “counterfeit” or a dummy leg.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks once sustained a leg injury while hiking and was left temporarily paralyzed in the leg. During this period he experienced a kind of psychosis or hallucination, a persistent sensation that his leg was not his own or even real:

I knew not my leg. It was utterly strange, not-mine, unfamiliar. I gazed upon it with absolute non-recognition … The more I gazed at that cylinder of chalk, the more alien and incomprehensible it appeared to me. I could no longer feel it was “mine,” as part of me. It seemed to bear no relation whatever to me. It was absolutely not-me — and yet, impossibly, it was attached to me — and even more impossibly, “continuous” with me.

This sense of dissociation made recovery difficult, since, when he tried to walk, he found he could not remember, or “think how,” to flex the appropriate muscles. It was as though his leg had ceased to be a leg and in so doing erased its own history of legness: “The leg had vanished, taking its ‘place’ with it. Thus there seemed no possibility of recovering it…. Could memory help, where looking forward could not? No! The leg had vanished, taking its ‘past’ away with it! I could no longer remember having a leg.”

This bears some resemblance to the case of Jonathan I., a painter who suddenly lost his color vision at age 65. Sacks himself examined Jonathan I., and co-wrote, along with Robert Wasserman, a piece about him in 1987. Following an accident, the artist had become colorblind, but not in the usual sense of colorblindness, where one can’t distinguish between reds and greens; he had lost all ability to distinguish color, such that the world to him appeared in grayscale, like a black-and-white movie.

“My brown dog is dark grey,” he said. “Tomato juice is black.”

Having the color drained from his life deeply disturbed him. His own vivid paintings now looked muddy and gray to him, and had lost their meaning. Sex was unappealing — his wife’s skin now looked “rat-colored” — and food was unappealing; he had to close his eyes to eat, but “this did not help very much, for the mental image of a tomato was as black as its appearance.” That is to say, Mr. I.’s visual memory and visual imagery had lost their color as well; he knew which colors things were supposed to be, but could no longer see those colors. He resorted to eating mostly black and white food, since white rice and black coffee at least looked relatively normal.

There’s also the case of John Hull, who lost his sight at age 24 and wrote a book about his experience, called Touching the Rock. After going blind, he began to lose his body image; unable to see his own body with his eyes, he became unable to imagine it: “The fact that one can’t glance down and see the reassuring continuing of one’s own consciousness in the outlines of one’s own body” creates the sense that one is “dissolving,” “no longer concentrated in a particular location.” Blindness also rewired Hull’s visual memories; after some time he found he could no longer picture his loved ones, or even his own face. Other people became “disembodied voices,” and his own being a disembodied self. Hull, too, lost interest in food and sex, basic drives that must be more visual than we realize.

Then there’s the case of Monsieur A., who was studied by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, and revisited by Israel Rosenfield in his book The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: The Anatomy of Consciousness. Monsieur A. had what is commonly known as photographic memory, more technically eidetic memory, an ability to recall visual memories in unusual detail. “If he read a book two or three times,” Rosenfield writes, “he could visualize any page in it and ‘read’ it aloud from memory.”

Then one day he lost his visual memory — suddenly “everything appeared unfamiliar.” His vision — his eyes — were perfectly intact. He could still see. But what he saw did not have visual meaning. His once highly accurate drawings done from memory became crude scribblings. His dreams became verbal rather than image-based.

And there were more profound effects. He could not imagine his wife and children. At first he failed to recognize them, as he had the streets of his hometown, and then he said they seemed to have changed. Nor could he recognize himself in a mirror: Walking in a public gallery, he suddenly noticed that his passage was blocked, stepped aside, and excused himself. He was looking at his own image in a mirror.

Monsieur A.’s disorder was an apparent breakdown of the ability to construct new visual memories, but in losing this, he also lost the ability to reconstruct old visual memories — just as Sacks forgot how to feel his leg, Jonathan I. how to see color, and Hull how to see his own face.

If through injury or illness we lose the code to our memories, if we can no longer embody the method of encoding, we lose the memories entirely.

My husband, who is losing his hearing for mysterious and untreatable reasons, tells me his auditory memories are losing their coherence as well. He says that part of the reason one eventually gets used to hearing aids is that you forget the way things sounded before — he can’t imagine how traffic or the ocean used to sound with natural hearing, unamplified and uncompressed. (Through hearing aids, he says, the noise of traffic is nearly unbearable.) These stories suggest that, if through injury or illness we lose the code to our memories, if we can no longer embody the method of encoding, we lose the memories entirely. We forget how to remember them. And then finally what was remembered would lose its significance.

If this is true, “memory work” becomes even more crucial. At the time she published Frames of Remembrance, in 1994, Irwin-Zarecka noted that “among the people actively involved in recent debates about the Holocaust, both in Germany and Poland, most belonged to the generation of war children, a generation with personal memories but also no direct responsibility.” This generation would feel keenly the necessity of remembering the Holocaust, without the undue burden of first-hand memory. “The elapse of time does make it easier to confront the morally challenging past,” she writes, “yet it may also work to create a gap of relevance.” Nearly a generation later, the gap has widened. Events that once seemed so indelible must seem remote now, to many. We have not, perhaps, done the right work, passed on the right codes to these memories. Or perhaps it’s simply impossible, to make historical memory feel sufficiently real that we wouldn’t have to repeat history, such that recognizing the warning signs of fascism would be impetus enough to stop its rise.

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I recently visited my parents for Christmas, and one night after dinner we were talking and drinking wine by the fire when my grandmother’s house came up. I told my mother how I felt the house had never changed, was exactly the same as it must have been when she was a child. This was mostly true, she said, except for her bedroom. I had assumed this bedroom, which I often stayed in, contained the same furniture from her youth. But apparently my grandmother reconceived it as a guest room in the early ’70s. Some things were the same, like the green velvet loveseat that I always wanted. (I now own the loveseat, along with the melodeon and the street lamp.) But in place of the double bed, there had been two single beds, arranged in an L shape in the corner; my mother drew a diagram on a yellow legal pad. Which one did you sleep in? I asked her. That one, she said, matter of factly, the other one was scary. (Why is it, when there’s two of something in a house, one of them is always scary?)

Then my mother mentioned “the maid’s room,” where a housekeeper had often stayed the night when she was young. My father and I were both confused — did she mean the laundry room, a small room off the den with an unfinished concrete floor, and a bare bulb with a pull-string, that also served as a pantry? (I remember six-packs of Tab on metal shelving.) No, she said, the maid’s room, it was also off the den, but on the opposite side. We remained confused. She explained that when you walked into the den from the doorway to the kitchen, the maid’s room was immediately on the right, behind swinging wooden doors. It was narrow, like a walk-in closet, but there was room for a cot.

I could not remember the room at all until my mother said it was where the placemats were stored. Then I had a flash of going in there as a child, pulling out the drawer that held the table linens, so I could set the table for some family dinner. I saw myself there in the little room, not from the first person, but as though watching a girl from a kind of bird’s eye view or hidden camera, out somewhere near the ceiling in the den. Yes, finally, I could picture the blond color of the wood and the way the drawer would often stick. But the memory was flimsy, like a memory of a dream. My father still could not picture the room; perhaps he had never been in there. What do you imagine on that wall? my mother asked. Just wall, we both said, a continuation of the wallpaper. I had no fond memories of that room, and in all my years of visiting the museum of my grandmother’s house since it sold, had never seen it there; my mind simply wallpapered over it. And now I doubt the specificity of the rest of my museum — am I sure where the floor lamp was, of the color of the brocade?

Later I recounted all this to my husband. It’s like that short story, he said, “The Little Room.” The story, written by Madeline Yale Wynne and published in Harper’s in 1895, falls somewhere between supernatural horror and science fiction. A woman, who is about to be married, is telling her fiancé about “something queer that happened” during her childhood, and her mother’s childhood. Her mother was raised, in part, by two half-sisters who were nearly 20 years older than her, in Vermont. Later, she was sent to live with cousins in Brooklyn. Her fondest memory of the Vermont house was a “little room” that she remembered in great detail, having spent a couple of days in there once during an illness, being doted on: “the first time she had been of any importance to anybody, even herself.” She told her own fiancé all about it, and when they went to visit her sisters in Vermont after their wedding, she couldn’t wait to show her husband the little room. But in its place in the house, there is only a shallow china closet, holding gilt-edged china, and the sisters insist the house is exactly as it always was; there never was any little room.

They all have a good laugh about this, and assume the child must have imagined or dreamed the room: “When anything was lost they would always say it must be in the little room, and any exaggerated statement was called ‘little-roomy.’” The really queer part, though, occurs years later, when the daughter, after her father has died in battle, goes to visit the house for the first time with her mother. The daughter, of course, is anxious to see the china closet. But when they get to the house, there is no china closet — there’s a little room, exactly as her mother had remembered it as a child: the same wallpaper, the same blue chintz lounge with a peacock pattern. The mother, shocked, questions her sisters about the china closet, and they claim there was never any china closet there, always a little room; in fact they don’t even own any gilt-edged china.

Reading this story, of course I pictured the half-little room, half-china closet, like the optical illusion that is half rabbit, half duck, in my grandmother’s den, just to the right of the doorway from the kitchen, where I can now see either wallpaper or a pair of swinging doors; I can switch back and forth. You could say the story is about unreliable memory, the ultimate unknowability of the past, the impossibility of securing a single version of the truth. But it doesn’t feel that way when you’re reading it; it feels like the house in Vermont belongs to two realities. You don’t know which reality you’re in until you open the door.