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The untruths of memory

The truth—that thing I thought I was telling.
—John Ashbery

To start with the facts: the chapter in my book White Sands called “Pilgrimage” is about a visit to the house where the philosopher Theodor Adorno lived in Los Angeles during the Second World War. It takes its title from the story of that name by Susan Sontag (recently republished in Debriefing: Collected Stories) about a visit she and her friend Merrill made to the house of Adorno’s fellow German exile Thomas Mann in the Pacific Palisades, in 1947, when she was fourteen. It seemed strange that the story was originally published as fiction, in 1987, in The New Yorker, when it reads like memoir. Was this because, so long after the event, it could not be reliably fact-checked?

Photographs from the series Whether It Happened or Not, by Augusta Wood. In this series, Wood overlaps archival and contemporary photographs of her family and their New England home. Top: “Garden (1976, 2012, 2013)” Bottom: “Plant Room Dining Room, Susan and Rosy (1976, 1983, 2008)” © The artist

Some time after my book came out—such conversations always happen too late—Tom Luddy, co-director of the Telluride Film Festival, told me that, shortly after Sontag’s story was published, he arranged for her to be reunited with her old friend Merrill. The meeting went well, but Merrill wondered why Sontag had cut out their other friend, Gene, from the story. Sontag was adamant that she hadn’t cut anyone out, but Merrill insisted: three young friends had turned up at the great Mann’s house, not two. Not for the first time in her life, Sontag became cross, but in the course of the conversation, she reluctantly accepted that there had indeed been three guests, not two.

In her memoir, Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nunez recalls how, in the mid-Eighties, while “struggling to write a memoir” of that visit, Sontag had a revelation about what was missing from her writing:

She didn’t really notice details the way a writer like Nabokov did; or if she did notice them, she did not remember them later. For example, she could remember almost nothing specific about Thomas Mann’s house that day.

But somehow Sontag succeeded in taking us in—to the house, I mean—and convincing us of the truth of her account. By airbrushing Gene out of the picture, she made life slightly easier for herself as a writer: there was one fewer body to move around the room. He is not missed dramatically because there are sufficient tensions in the assembled cast (between Susan and Merrill, between the young visitors and their venerable hosts), and between the infatuated teenage Susan and the venerable author telling the story. Still, the completeness of the erasure—of both the erasure and its erasure—is a startling manifestation of the vagaries of memory and a vindication of what can sometimes seem like the fussiness of editorial fact-checking. It’s also a reminder that we must be doubly cautious about treating as a deposition a piece of fiction that seems reliable.

Terry Castle’s account of her friendship with Sontag, “Desperately Seeking Susan,” in her book The Professor, features a hilariously excruciating description of a dinner at Marina Abramovic’s loft in New York. Castle is there as Sontag’s plus-one but is made to feel like a minus-one. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson barely acknowledge her existence.

As a non-artist and non-celebrity, I was so “not there,” it seemed—so cognitively unassimilable—I wasn’t even registered enough to be ignored. I sat at one end of the table like a piece of antimatter.

On the internet, I read a rebuttal from another guest at the dinner, perhaps “the freakish-looking lead singer from the cult art-pop duo Fischer­spooner,” who said that he had been even more ignored and that one of the people doing the ignoring was Terry. I’d like to give a fuller account of this alternative testimony but can no longer find it. Can things actually go missing on the internet? Isn’t it out there in some unignorable corner of Cyberia of which I remain technologically ignorant?

However cross Sontag became with Merrill, it’s unlikely that the exchange could have reached the boiling point in quite the way the conversation did when George Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick lunched with the author’s widow, Sonia, at Bertorelli’s in London. They were talking about “Shooting an Elephant,” or, more accurately, about whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant in Burma. “‘Of course he shot a fucking elephant,’ Sonia shouted. ‘He said he did. Why do you always doubt his fucking word?’” Because, Crick replied, “he was a writer, not a bloody cub reporter.” A third bottle of wine—at lunch!—set all to rights, but Crick remained unreconciled with Michael Shelden, another biographer, on the grounds that “he treats Orwell’s essay, story, or polemic ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ as true beyond doubt because it rings true.”

If my wife is tired, moping about, dragging her feet while we’re out hiking, or on her way to the gym, I encourage her by asking, as assertively as possible, “Are you going to show me some heart, son?” This, as many of you will remember, is the question—an exhortation in the form of a question—put by the football coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) to one of his young players when the team is getting battered in the film Friday Night Lights. I don’t quote this only to my wife; I say it aloud to myself whenever I’m showing a lack of heart, which is pretty much all the time. We watched the film again recently, greatly looking forward to this moment—and the line never came. The only time we got close was in a brief cameo, when the coach of one of the opposing teams bellows, “Show me some heart.” My first impulse was to assume that I’d missed it, that I’d somehow drifted off as Thornton uttered the film’s defining line, but the truth is that it doesn’t exist. It’s not even in the H. G. Bissinger book on which the film is based. So, in a case of reverse plagiarism, I had invented this line. But where had it come from?

“Rosy and Posy, Inked Feet, Misères Humaines (1974, 2012, 2013)”

A related disappointment occurred while I was reading Timothy B. Tyson’s meticulously researched book The Blood of Emmett Till. From the TV series Eyes on the Prize, I remembered the moment at the trial of Till’s killers, in September 1955, when Moses Wright identifies J. W. Milam as one of the men who abducted his grand-nephew with the words “Dar he.” Tyson renders Wright’s words as “There he is.” The “documentary” version is more moving. Lacking the command of “correct” En­glish—let alone the elevated diction of the court or the subsequent oratorical majesty of Martin Luther King Jr.—Wright somehow finds the courage to confront the unassailable institution of white power. Explaining his rewrite of this epochal testimony, Tyson notes that the “transcript and all the other contemporary accounts of the trial instead report, ‘There he is.’”

More modestly, I was the star witness at a trial in London several years ago. Star? Yes, I was the only witness, so, strictly speaking, that is true. I’d like to give the exact details, but my old diaries are boxed up, thousands of miles away, and the various emails relating to the case are frozen in the vault of an old computer. The incident occurred when I was cycling back toward Camden after playing tennis in Regent’s Park. It was a gorgeous day, a Sunday—I remember because we’d been lucky to get a court on such a nice afternoon—that might actually have been a bank holiday Monday. (Since writing the preceding sentences I have managed to exhume a couple of emails confirming that the incident did indeed take place on Monday: Monday, May 25, 2009, to be exact—so not “several” but a full nine years ago. I would bet that underestimating the amount of time that has passed since any given event is the most frequent distortion of memory.) In any case, I would swear, however ineffectually, to the following account. Nine years ago on that bright Monday, everyone was in a good mood except people in cars, who were, of course, stuck in traffic. At the lights at Prince Albert Road, two cyclists, a man and a woman, squeezed up on the left of a car on the inside lane. I was on the right of the car, waiting to go straight ahead. If there had been any prior car-bike antagonism, I had not witnessed it. As the lights changed and both car and cyclists began to move, the driver deliberately turned in to the first cyclist, knocking him onto the pavement. His girlfriend screamed. I shouted, “What the fuck are you doing?!” Pedestrians shouted as well. The cyclist was unhurt but his bike was mangled. He picked himself up, knocked his bike back into shape, and took off after the car. Outraged, I followed, too. We never caught up with the car, but the cyclist managed to memorize the license plate—rather impressive under the circumstances—and when we got back to his girlfriend, she wrote it down. I said I’d be a witness if the driver was caught.

The case came to trial about six months later. The occupants of the car were a father in his forties and his son (late teens or early twenties), both dressed smartly for court in jackets and ties. It was the father who had been driving and the car was a Range Rover. I remember this even though I suffer from a Sontagian blindness to vehicular detail because at one point during the trial it came up that he owned several Range Rovers. The defense attorney asked in a friendly way whether he was a bit of a Range Rover nut, and I wanted to call out, “He’s just a fucking nut nut.” Both father and son felt threatened by the cyclist, both in the lead-up to the incident and in its aftermath, and in any case, they hadn’t deliberately done anything to harm him. In legal jargon, if I understand things correctly, this is called pleading in the alternative. The prosecution faltered as the defense exploited a discrepancy between my version of events and that of the cyclist. He remembered my being on the passenger side of the car whereas I’d said—correctly—that I was on the driver’s side. The stories of the yob father and son, on the other hand, matched perfectly. One would have thought that part of the training and experience of magistrates would teach them—as happens with students of literature—that a slight discrepancy is often a sign of truth, whereas exact uniformity often indicates collusion. Apparently not. Aided by the corroborating testimony of his son, the father was acquitted. Rightly, as it turned out. He was being charged with careless driving—or driving without due care and attention, I forget the exact terms—and there was nothing careless about what had happened. It was—and there can be no doubt on this score—deliberate, careful. I’m not under oath, but I’m glad, all these years later, to set the record straight.

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April 2016

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