In fiction, there is the concept of the unreliable narrator—the person telling the story cannot be trusted. Gone Girl is an outstanding example of an unreliable narrator. Completely untrustworthy.
Our own memories are the same.
We think we remember what happened and then we act on those erroneous beliefs. We don’t remember what happened, we remember what we think happened.
EXAMPLE: I participated in a six-week video course led by Dana James. I had read her book and liked her theory: If we want to change our eating we need to change our behaviors and—this is the part that most others overlook—in order to change our behaviors we need to change our motivation for those behaviors: the source of our self-worth.
James identifies four primary ways women derive their self-worth, four archetypes :
- Nurturer: I am worthy because I care for others.
- Wonder Woman: I am worthy because I achieve.
- Femme Fatale: I am worthy because I am captivating.
- Ethereal: I am worthy because I am connected to a higher realm.
One exercise from the course was to trace a core food memory, to go back to the first time we remembered using food as a solution that wasn’t related to nourishment—food as comfort, food as reward, food as whatever.
I didn’t expect to find such a memory but it was there.
MEMORY: I was thirteen, with freckles, curly hair that I hated and braces that I couldn’t wait to be rid of. My grandfather had just died. My grandmother had died three years earlier. I loved my grandmother, loved the way she would ask me to lay in her lap so she could run her fingers through my curls. But I felt little affection for my grandfather. They lived in Nebraska so the funeral would be there. That was the complication: Nebraska terrified me.
When I was ten my parents told me they were getting a divorce and that my brother and I were going with my mother to live in Nebraska. They hadn’t told my brother yet and they told me I couldn’t tell him. I went to bed every night afraid that I would be hauled off in the middle of the night and carried away to Nebraska. By the time I was thirteen, nothing had changed. My dad was still around sometimes. My parents were still married. My brother still didn’t know. And I decided maybe we weren’t being hauled off to Nebraska after all. But then my grandfather died.
As my parents made plans for the funeral, I told them I wasn’t going, that I would stay in New Jersey by myself. They argued that I was too young. I argued that I had a thriving babysitting business, that parents trusted infants with me and that they should trust me with myself. They relented. They let me stay.
Before they left, mom showed me food in the refrigerator. I don’t remember what it was. Then she opened the freezer to reveal a half-gallon box of chocolate ice cream. We didn’t normally have ice cream. This was special and it was for me.
I don’t remember them leaving. I do remember coming home from school and no one being home. I don’t remember if I ate dinner. I do remember eating the ice cream. It made me feel safe. It made me feel taken care of.
During the week that they were gone I became lonely. Dad called once. We talked and I asked if I could talk to mom and he said I couldn’t. I felt abandoned, even though I had asked to be left behind. When they got back, Mom was surprised that all the ice cream was gone. I didn’t tell her that it was gone by the fourth day. I didn’t tell her that I had been lonely and it made me feel better.
BACK TO PRESENT: As part of the video course, we were asked to reframe core food memories. Our memories mean whatever we say they mean.
Because I had let this memory have such an impact on me, I thought it would be interesting to ask my mother and brother—when I saw them last fall—their memories of that time.
ME: Mom, remember when grandpa died and everybody went to Nebraska and I stayed home?
MOM: I didn’t go to Nebraska.
ME: You didn’t? Where did you go?
MOM: I went to the Virgin Islands. (long pause) I couldn’t take it anymore.
ME (looking at my brother, who would have been eleven years old at the time): So just you and Dad went?
ERIC: I didn’t go.
ME: Where did you go?
ERIC: To a friend’s house.
ME: The one on Red Hill?
MOM (looking at my brother): You didn’t go?
MOM (looking at me): He left you there? Alone? He told me he wasn’t going to the funeral. Where did he go?*
ERIC & ME: (shrug shoulders)
MOM: I had no idea.
*Note: It’s interesting to me that my mother reacted more to thirteen-year old me being alone at home than to my eleven-year old brother being at a house full of twenty-year olds living on their own.
So, consider the possibility that what you remember is not what happened. And it doesn’t matter anyway. All that matters is the story you tell yourself.
Here’s my new story: When my grandfather died, my mother went to the Virgin Islands, my brother went to a friend’s house, I don’t know where my father went (probably to his father’s funeral), and I stayed home. I took care of myself. I went to school and did my homework and when everyone came back, the house was still standing and so was I.
Chewing the Cud of Good
I like believing in myself. And it feels good that others believe in me, too.