Given that the limbic system (responsible for encoding memory) hasn’t fully matured until after the first two years of life, it suggests that any memories we might have from that time period are actually reconstructions based on later experience, or “implants” built upon stories other people have told us. I have two early memories, one of each type, I believe.
My earliest memory is simple: it’s the kitchen in the house where we lived at that time, as seen from my perspective. Based on the vantage point, I would have been in some kind of infant seat set upon the counter and I’m looking upward. I am alone; there’s no one else in the room. The walls are a muted green, somewhere between celery and avocado. Across the room, there’s a bulky refrigerator with a horizontal handle. Near to it, light comes through a window, just above the kitchen sink. That’s all I remember.
Whether or not this is an actual memory, it feels “true” to me. I know that my mother was seriously depressed following my birth. In some important sense, she was absent and I was alone. To me, the kitchen symbolizes food and comfort. Green is a color I’ve always associated with my mother. Of the many houses we lived in during my childhood (my father was a builder and we moved a lot), the one that was more of a family home than any other had a dining room that was green.
In the second memory, I can “see” myself scrambling across the street from that same house to our neighbor’s. That’s all there is to the memory, but it’s based on a story I often heard told about me. Apparently, at that age (under two years) I was “always” slipping away and crawl-walking over to our neighbor’s house in order to find out what they were having for dinner. Whenever my mother told this story, she laughed as if it were hilarious. How did I manage to escape when I wasn’t fully walking and probably couldn’t open a door by myself? Who was minding the store?
These memories speak for themselves, I believe. You don’t need a psychoanalyst to see what they mean.
I have a client who has some early memories of a similar nature. She remembers crawling around in the backyard of the family home, still wearing diapers. She remembers being hungry and alone. She remembers there was dog shit on the lawn. While the factual accuracy of this memory is in question, my client knows this memory is “true” in some important sense because of what happened, years later. The one and only time she asked her parents to babysit for her baby, she felt some misgivings not long after she and her husband had dropped the baby off; they went back and found that her mother had put the baby out in the back yard and left her alone, unsupervised. She was crawling around on the deck; there were sharp and rusty objects nearby.
It won’t surprise you to learn that this client had a truly awful childhood. The neglect she experienced can be summed up in that one dream.
What are your earliest memories, and what do you think they mean?
I’ve just released a new eSingle for the Kindle platform. It’s a 6,000 word essay, about 20 pages long, comparable in length to a New Yorker article. It’s about Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortenson, how they cynically manipulated the details of their public personas in order to appear heroic. Some of this material appeared in my article for The Atlantic but most of it is entirely new.
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