We Are Built to Forget


Arts & Culture

Sarah Stone, Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum, 1785 (State Library of New South Wales)

When Raymond Carver died, he left a folded paper in his pocket, a list of what he did not want to forget:

peanut butter
hot chocolate


My old friend Robin called last week to tell me that our high school classmate was reminiscing about being on the basketball team with me.

“You have to be kidding,” I laughed. “Can you picture me playing basketball?”

“Well,” my friend said. “You did. I can send you photographs from the yearbook. You were on the team all three years until you got kicked out of school. You weren’t any good at it. Graceful but no killer instinct.”

So, apparently, I was on the high school basketball team for three years until I was expelled from school, a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl. How is that something I could forget? The forgetting causes me great unease. I don’t want to see the photographs.


We remember and we forget. Lots of people know that marijuana makes us forget, and researchers in the sixties and seventies wanted to understand how. They discovered that the human brain has special receptors that perfectly fit psychoactive chemicals like THC, the active agent in cannabis. But why, they wondered, would we have neuroreceptors for a foreign substance? We don’t. Those receptors are for substances produced in our own brains. The researchers discovered that we produce cannabinoids, our own version of THC, that fit those receptors exactly. The scientists had stumbled onto the neurochemical function of forgetting, never before understood. We are designed, they realized, not only to remember but also to forget. The first of the neurotransmitters discovered was named anandamide, Sanskrit for bliss.


The morning light through the dusty old screens is fractured into tiny squares across the table. My grandmother, Twila, and my brother and I are the only ones awake. My parents and my sister and my brother and my grandmother’s old mother and her sisters and their husbands sleep on sagging beds and sofa beds and cots in all the rooms in the tilted little camp my grandmother rents each summer. The lake is silver. I have yanked my bathing suit from the line and pulled it, cold and still wet from last night, up over my warm skin. I am very young, maybe five, and I love this place and my grandmother and my parents and the sleeping people and the silver lake and the hatched yellow light on the old table.

Twila comes and stands close to me. She peels the skin from a ripe peach with her small knife, then cradles the fruit in her palm and slices glistening sections into my bowl. Thick golden juice drips between her fingers onto the table. She pours milk over the peach and pushes the bowl gently toward me.

I said “parents.” Was my father there? I think so. But there is no way to know. What I remember is the peach.


People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are often unable to forget the causative trauma. What if we could simply erase that moment, expunge it as if it never happened? Researchers are working to develop drugs that will mimic the cannabinoids produced in the brain, pharmaceuticals that will find their way to those waiting receptors and lock in—click—a perfect fit. Release from memory. Oblivion. Bliss.

Scientists with hard hearts can create mice with unusually high and unusually low levels of cannabinoids. In one experiment, the mice were subjected to a loud sound followed by an electric shock to their feet. The mice with low levels of cannabinoids remembered what was coming. An echo in their tiny brains warned them of harm on its way. They froze at the loud sound, with apparent dread. But the mice with high levels of cannabinoids didn’t freeze. The shock that followed was news each time. Which is the blessing—the memory of pain and with it the dread, the ability to make adjustments to keep ourselves safe? Or the bliss of forgetting, never imagining the harm that is coming?


There are not many stories to tell:

My parents divorced when I was ten.

My father, unsurprisingly, was absent before and after.

Unsurprisingly, I loved him.

I got pregnant when I was sixteen. It was 1965.

I was expelled from school.

My mother kicked me out.

My father and his new wife took me in.

My baby was given away.

Later, I argued with my father’s wife.

She kicked me out, a permanent exile from my silent father.

I was ten, I was sixteen, I was nineteen. Now I am sixty-five. All of this was a long time ago.

There.  I have named everything you need to know.  I have told these stories in other places, for other reasons, and am reluctant to say them again. I was on a basketball team. I am simply looking for that lost fragment.

I still can smell the peach. My grandmother’s voice, silent for thirty years. What was she saying to me? Did she say, Don’t be afraid? Did she say, Hush, everyone who loves you is sleeping? Did she say, Remember these hands cutting this ripe peach for you. This moment is important.


I also remember:

My mother said, “Well. You can’t stay here. Get out.”

My baby cried, a call I hear still like an echo from a distant mountain.

My father’s wife said, “Don’t you ever come to our house again.”

My father said nothing.


We need to forget. Imagine remembering every fractional moment of every morning, as you showered, fed your children or made your coffee, pulled the door closed and turned the key. Like bad narrative writing, every moment would be equally important, the golden juice dripping through fingers as significant as walking out of my high school in shame one cold winter day. What meaning could we make if every second asked for our full attention?

We must forget in order to make room for remembering. We now have a metaphor for this process: delete. Here is oblivion. But here, too, is our hunger to know the full story. Our forgetting is the saboteur of that hope. I was on a basketball team with friends and classmates for three years. If we practiced or played games for one hundred twenty minutes five days of the week, for ten weeks of the season, where are those eighteen thousand minutes?

Maybe we are lucky if we produce a lot of cannabinoids. Wash the brain with forgetting. But what happens if we delete what lies near the center of our story? I remember, one day, running to the girls’ room to throw up again after lunch in the cafeteria. I remember moving past the school nurse, hunching over my five-month belly. Somehow later I was at her desk, and somehow I had in my hand a green expulsion card. I have it still, so I know this is memory, not fiction. I remember taking my mittens and jacket from my locker, walking down the long quiet hall, linoleum and echo, and past the big window in the office. The secretaries stared at me. I don’t remember any of their names. I remember the long walk home, and I remember terror. I remember a giving in, an understanding that this, finally, here, was the beginning of something too big and too sad.

And yet, I played basketball in high school as my secret belly swelled.


The Lakota of our Northern Plains kept “winter counts,” large pieces of buffalo hide or cloth on which the count keeper painted lists of images, each representing one event that marked the year. They recorded unusual weather, tribal interactions, births and deaths. Each winter, the count keeper consulted elders who chose the symbol they would use in that year. The event chosen was not necessarily the most important occasion of the year, but the most memorable. In 1701, a man was wounded in the side by an arrow while he hunted buffalo. In 1833, stars shot across the predawn sky. In 1889, a woman walked to a river many miles away. Each year, the keeper repainted every fading image, a holding out against forgetting.


I had forgotten all of it. No, I had remembered it, but all wrong. My father’s new house. Me, his daughter, ten, maybe twelve years old. The house my father built for his new wife was large, a vision of glass, its roof a great wing. It was a house of passions. My father and his wife disappeared for hushed afternoons into their room upstairs, or heaved chunks of firewood across the room at each other. “Catherine!” my father once called out to the night woods. “Christ, Catherine! For Christ’s sake! Come back inside this minute! There are bears out there!” The land was wild, the glistening lake far away, down a shaded slope. A cardinal flower, the first I had ever seen, bloomed by the stream. I was a child, encountering unrestrained love and untamed beauty for the first time.

Last summer, I found my way on a web of dirt roads back to that New Hampshire lake. My family has been gone from this place for forty years. Whoever spends summers there now was away for the winter. Tarps covered lawn mowers and molding firewood and piles of old bikes. I had remembered it all wrong. The house was small, badly crafted, its roof a rain funnel rotting the walls, and the slope to the lake short and steep. The door was canted, stuck but unlocked. I pushed my way into the dark.

In the corner were the raised bunk and little desk below that my father had once built for me. I had forgotten. The paint he laid on, bright blue, a gift, still holding.

I remembered everything wrong—too big, too wild, too beautiful. But what I did not remember was here, perfectly preserved. Longing. Dread of something terrible coming. Father. Father. Father.


When I was twelve, Mr. and Mrs. Jameson asked me to babysit their daughters, four and two years old, every Saturday night. I came to feel something like love for the girls. The Jamesons lived near the beach in a modern apartment above their garage, the rooms flashy and urban in our ordinary little town. Each time Mr. and Mrs. Jameson walked down the outside stairs to their big car waiting below, I felt that something in this house was not good. They were handsome, eager to be gone, speaking to each other of the night ahead, not seeming to see their children, who watched them silently. I was kind to their daughters. I felt sorry for them, although I could not say why.

One night fire trucks raced past my house toward the beach. In the morning someone at school told me that Mr. and Mrs. Jameson had escaped a fire. The girls got caught in their room, waiting, perhaps, for their beautiful and distracted parents to come through the smoke for them. My mother never spoke to me about these little girls dying, and so no story was ever made. I cannot remember their names, their faces, their legs that must have stretched along mine when we played games on the floor. I only remember the long stairs down to the ground, the car facing away, the swish of dress coats, his hand on her elbow.


In 1806, the Leverian Museum in London, an enormous wunderkammer, or chamber of wonders, sold its entire collection. These chambers of wonder emerged during the Renaissance as precursors to museums. Wealthy men collected curious and wondrous artifacts and exhibited them, displaying their personal sense of taste to the world. Enormous buildings with dozens of crowded exhibition rooms, they were sometimes called memory theaters. The Leverian auction listed:

1052    Curious cast of an ammonite
1056    Pine cone in an iron nobule
1078    Elegant oval agate cup
1080    Large jaspachtes snuff-box, mounted
5401    Large sleeping stool, and a meat dish
5412    An idol carved in fine green stone; a syrinx, and another
5419    A most superb feather hat
5420    Black spotted snake
5425    Curious egg, one shell being formed within the other.


One day I drove five hours to my father and Catherine’s house, a house where my sister and brother often slept, a house I had never seen. No one was home. I saw:

A rusted wheelbarrow leaned against a barn

Half-full bird feeders

Dog’s water bowl on a porch

A chair by the fireplace; a man’s brown sweater on the arm

Binoculars on a windowsill

A note in Catherine’s hand, taped to the door: Albie, please check the sump pump

A large table for eating, with mail and magazines, chair pushed away.


Solomon Shereshevsky, “S,” was a Russian journalist working in the early 1900s who could memorize vast amounts of information and recall it years later. Every number, every word embedded in his memory as an image. Thymesis: Greek for remembering. Hyperthymesis: extreme memory. He scored in the average range for intelligence and was socially shy and awkward. But S could, in a few minutes, memorize vast lists of complex mathematical formulas or poems in a language he did not speak. No one was ever able to present S with a memory test he failed. He became a celebrity, performing his curious feats in public. But S perceived too much and could forget nothing. He had trouble recognizing familiar faces or voices on the phone because he observed every detail of expression; even slight changes in tone or emotion made it difficult for him to recognize the person as someone he had previously known. His life as a performing mnemonist created great distress and confusion in his life, and he finally chose to abandon the stage. Tormented with his inability to forget, he tried writing everything down, everything, and burning it all, a systematic deleting.  It didn’t work.

S said, “The things I see when I read aren’t real, they don’t fit the context. If I’m reading the description of some place, for some reason the main rooms always turn out to be those in the apartment I lived in as a child.” Is it always about home? A peach in the hand of a grandmother. A mother, turning away. A small blue desk a father made for his child. A sweater tossed across his chair.

Another man who remembered too much, VP, memorized, when he was five years old, a map of all the streets in his city of Riga, Latvia, and its rail and bus timetables. As an adult, VP could play up to seven matches of chess simultaneously, blindfolded, and at least sixty correspondence games of chess with no notes. He could recall long lists of nonsense syllables and vast sequences of numbers.

Frederic Bartlett was an early researcher in neuropsychology. He believed that there was more to memory than recording and retrieving details. He wrote a fable with subtle illogics and non sequiturs, and invited subjects to read it. No matter how many times they were invited to read the story, when they were asked to repeat it, they forgot Bartlett’s fable and, inevitably, changed the specifics to fit their own knowledge and experience.

But VP made no such revisions. He was able, after two readings, to recite it perfectly. Asked again several years later, he still could recite the story in perfect detail. 

“The War of the Ghosts,” by Frederic Bartlett:

One night two young men from Egulac went down to the river to hunt seals, and while they were there it became foggy and calm. Then they heard war-cries, and they thought: “Maybe this is a war-party.” They escaped to the shore, and hid behind a log. Now canoes came up, and they heard the noise of paddles, and saw one canoe coming up to them. There were five men in the canoe, and they said: “What do you think? We wish to take you along. We are going up the river to make war on the people.” One of the young men said: “I have no arrows.” “Arrows are in the canoe,” they said. “I will not go along. I might be killed. My relatives do not know where I have gone. But you,” he said, turning to the other, “may go with them.” So one of the young men went, but the other returned home. And the warriors went on up the river to a town on the other side of Kalama. The people came down to the water, and they began to fight, and many were killed. But presently the young man heard one of the warriors say: “Quick, let us go home: that Indian has been hit.” Now he thought: “Oh, they are ghosts.” He did not feel sick, but they said he had been shot. So the canoes went back to Egulac, and the young man went ashore to his house, and made a fire. And he told everybody and said: “Behold I accompanied the ghosts, and we went to fight. Many of our fellows were killed, and many of those who attacked us were killed. They said I was hit, and I did not feel sick.” He told it all, and then became quiet. When the sun rose he fell down. Something black came out of his mouth. His face became contorted. The people jumped up and cried. He was dead.

VP told and retold this illogical story over many years, changing nothing. He was unable to delete even nonsensical details, to carve out a story that reflected a sense of his own life and understandings. Denied the gift of forgetting, the stories he retold were memory lists, useless details without meaning.


I have written and written about a baby I walked away from in a very large building with too many rooms.

Readers ask me, “How do you remember so much?”

I am surprised. What I remember is so acute. I write memory. “It’s all movies in my head,” I say. “I just look at the movies. What do you remember?”

But, apparently, my father made a small desk and painted it blue. The smoke rises, obscuring my mother’s face.


I am in the village of Kyparissi on the Peloponnese in Greece. It is nearly midnight. I have entered the cemetery behind the big church, drawn by one hundred flickering lights. I feel like a trespasser, but I am astonished by what I see, and I want to stay. Every tomb—each a great block of white marble—has a small oil lantern on it, and every one is lit. By whom? Who comes here as the night draws in and lights a match to these lamps? Such an attentive remembrance.

Beside each lamp is a photograph of the deceased person, and usually a vase of fresh flowers. His or her name is cut into a wooden cross rising high above the tomb, and the age at death: eighty-nine, ninety-six, ninety-one. Old people, loved, held here in this graveyard against forgetting.

Ringing the base of each tomb and the outer walls of the cemetery are small marble boxes, the size of chests for traveling. Some have photographs, and lanterns. Some of the lanterns are lit. Bone boxes, I learn. Each family gets to keep their loved one in a tomb for five years. Then, the bones are moved to a bone box to make way for the next villager’s body.

And then what? The problem is clear: there isn’t enough room for everyone. In the end, the bones are moved to the bone house, a small whitewashed shed in the rear corner, tight against the old stuccoed walls. I make my way among the tombs in the flickering lamp light. Behind the door in the unlit shed is a marble bone box, lantern lighted, photograph smiling. I turn on my small flashlight. The floor is dirt. Gardening tools—rakes, shovels, clippers—are tossed in a pile by the door. In the middle, old cardboard boxes collapse in a pile. They are filled with long brown bones, memento mori, that lean into each other—thick thigh bones and arm bones. Inside the top box, two smooth skulls, tawny and dull, sit on a heap of small bones, hands and feet and ribs. Other memories stay, but a time comes when the body can be cast aside.

In the morning I return. I want to see the skulls in the searing Mediterranean light. But there is a woman cleaning a tomb, praying in a soft chant as she works. She shuffles through the gate. I am suddenly ashamed to be here. She approaches me, a tiny woman, and speaks rapidly in Greek. I can’t understand, I say. She takes my hands and holds them against her heart and weeps, looking into my eyes. Are we mothers, together here, our child gone? Daughters of a father, dead to us? Who has been lost?


My childhood home. The pink and yellow honeysuckle outside my bedroom window. My mother reads on her bed. Then evening comes. Then dark, and crickets sing.


The Leverian auction:

3721    Monster pig, with a proboscis
3722    Four monster chickens, with double heads
3728    Feet and hands of an Egyptian mummy
3729    Cat, found starved to death with a rat in its mouth
3731    Injection of a male subject, aged five years
3734    Leg and feet bones of a boy, whose feet and leg were burnt whilst he was in a state of lethargic sleep
3741    A human foetus, aged about six months
3762    Human hand, in the act of grasping.


Another man with an extraordinary brain, HM, died recently—on the same day of the year my mother died, December 5. My mother, who sent me away from her when I was a pregnant girl, my mother who remembered that story however she might, my mother who never spoke of what happened—whether she forgot or carried or rewrote the story, I will never know. HM suffered from perpetual amnesia all his life.  My father must also know some sort of perpetual amnesia. My father who must remember me as a girl. My father who knew me for nineteen years and then sent me away from him, my father who is now old and will soon die.

This other amnesiac, HM, Henry Gustav Molaison, suffered from severe and life-threatening epilepsy. On September 1, 1953, when he was twenty-seven, a surgeon performed experimental brain surgery to relieve the seizures, removing most of the hippocampus and the amygdala. The surgeon did not relieve the seizures. But he did discover the parts of the brain that allow short-term memories—the moments of our days—to be committed to long-term memory, the story. HM spent his life caught in the constant present, unable to remember breakfast or a friend’s visit or the beautiful music that had made him weep a moment before.

HM could recall all that was stored in his long-term memory before the surgery, and so he also lived in a constant past. A past unmitigated by the losses and joys that accrue over a lifetime. New experiences couldn’t call back to his early memories to revise his understanding of them. There could be no working toward wisdom. From twenty-seven until he died an old man, HM forgot everything. But then this: he often said that he was a happy man. Bliss.



My recollection of “The War of the Ghosts”:

A man and his new wife went to the shore. They built a big house with a roof like a wing above the water. But while they were there, the man’s children arrived. They slept in a bedroom below. There were no stairs to the place where the father and his wife talked above them. The man and his wife tangled together every day, fighting and whispering, fighting and kissing. One night the wife slammed the door and wandered among the bears in the black of night. The man yelled into the dark woods. She returned by morning and they kissed again. Later, the wife took the father away, so he said, but really he walked away with her. The daughter never saw him again, although the other children saw him often. The girl remembered everything. Now, she opens her mouth and stories come out, filled with the shadows of the forgotten.


Or maybe this:

A girl had a baby by a river that flowed into the sea. Her mother sent her away. She was frightened and alone. She left her baby there by the river in a big building made of many rooms. The child had to make his way without his mother, a boy warrior alone in a great canoe. Later, they met again, and they told each other all the stories they each had made, moment to moment. But the stories were like ghosts. All that existed was here, now.


I write. I hit delete. It disappears, but maybe it is not gone, and someone with great knowledge of digital encoding can still retrieve it. S, the Russian mnemonist, wanted desperately to be able to forget. When he tried to burn the endless lists, he could see in the flames words that triggered more words that triggered more words. “No,” he cried. “This is too much! Each word calls up images, they collide with one another, and the result is chaos. I can’t make anything out of this.” The past is always here, remembered or not.

Artists Doug Goodwin and Rebecca Baron wanted to see—to really see—what is lost when analog film is translated to digital form. A moment-to-moment translation of an average 35 mm film would require four hundred DVDs. What happens when all that information is reduced to a single DVD? A lot of information is left out.

Goodwin and Baron studied motion in their “Lossless” series, manipulating the compression of information and exposing the residual effects of that process. Lots of frames had to go. Most had to go. How do we see an uninterrupted flow of movement, then, if most of the image is missing? Using John Ford’s classic film The Searchers, starring John Wayne, Goodwin and Baron translated the analog film to digital form and then retrieved what was lost in the process. The result is a strange, beautiful run of smeared and melting images of men and horses tearing across a desert. We can make out the men, the horses, the churning legs and upraised cowboy arms brandishing guns. But the images fracture, hesitate, jolt, and smear again. What are we seeing? Memory. Most of the original images are allowed to be forgotten. That leaves a lot of emptied frames, blanks waiting to be written. Then, Goodwin says, “these frames look backward and forward in time to paint the resolved image … We toss out the keyframes and let the file try to connect the intermediate frames.”

What I see is whole sections of story tossed out, forgotten, and the ghosts of the forgotten, lingering. What was lost becomes visible, and it is beautiful.


My father’s voice was playful, silly, teasing.  I used to be able to hear him if I sat quietly and listened inwardly. That is gone now. When he dies, I will light the lantern, sweep the tomb, move the bones.

We are built to forget. I played on a basketball team. I walk the old route through the great chambers, retrieving all I have saved there. A cry from a baby. Juice from a peach. My mother’s book lying open, waiting for her to come in from her garden. Water flowing from the river through the lakes to the sea. An old man’s sweater on his chair. These vast rooms.


Meredith Hall is the author of the new novel Beneficence (Godine, 2020). Her memoir Without a Map was a New York Times best seller and named Best Book of the Year by Kirkus and BookSense. Her work has appeared in Five Points, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, the New York Times, and many other publications.