Here’s the full essay that ran last month in the wonderful Crimespree blog.
How reliable is memory?
According to neuroscientists, not very. While we may view any particular memory as a continuous film of a past scene, those who study how the brain processes describe it as something more like a collage. As a 2012 Psychology Today article summarized, every time we conjure a memory, we are not so much reviewing a complete set of stored data as re-configuring a complex scene from disparate parts. In other words, every memory is newly re-assembled, and even if the pieces are accurate they may be prone to reinterpretation. Our current situation may sublimate the pain of a heartbreak – or accentuate the regret over a path not chosen – to shift our focus. In the process of recall, therefore, we may be reacting more to our present lives than to anything that happened way back when.
This unreliability is why eyewitnesses cannot always be trusted, particularly when contradicted by physical evidence. In fact, one-third of cases overturned through the work of the Innocence Project through DNA testing were originally based on eye-witness testimony, according to a 2010 Scientific American article.
Such questions about memory are at the heart of my new mystery, WORLD ENOUGH. The answers won’t necessarily explain the deaths – one twenty years ago and one in the present time of the book – that we hear about at the start of the book. But they are key to how the narrative unfolds, and what will happen to our protagonist, a woman named Tara Winton who finds herself at personal and professional crossroads.
WORLD ENOUGH opens in Boston, 2007, right before the financial crisis, when the city – much like my protagonist – seems poised on the edge of the unknown. Bored at her corporate job, divorced but still seeing her ex, Tara lives for her nights out with the old crew – other forty-somethings who still play and enjoy the music they created twenty years before. When she is solicited to write an article revisiting those days, she leaps at the chance. Who wouldn’t want to relive the best period of one’s life?
As Tara recalls it, the ‘80s was a decade of community and creativity. On her own for the first time, she found herself drawn to the music then being generated by dozens of young bands in Boston. When a chance acquaintance had suggested she help him start a “zine,” a fan magazine, she seized the opportunity to jump-start her life. Not only could she recast herself as a writer – a dream so deeply buried she had barely articulated it to herself – but by doing so she could install herself in the nocturnal world. She was no longer a “tourist,” or fan; she had a role to play. A reason to come out each night to the clubs.
For a while, everything was wonderful. She built a reputation and traded the ‘zine for a paying job. She made fast friends and met the man she would marry. She felt herself an integral part of an artistic movement. And then, suddenly, everything fell apart. While she knew there had been problems – drugs, alcohol, a fickle music industry, and the general unsustainability of the frenzy – she still wonders what happened. Even as she interviews the survivors and revisits old haunts, Tara looks back on the decade as a golden period for herself and all those in the scene.
But was it? Were there clues she missed, in herself and among her friends? Was her little punk paradise really, as her favorite song went, world enough?
To write this book, I drew on my own life, including my past as a rock music critic. But this experience is not exclusive to any one subculture or time, except possibly to time of life – somewhere past forty and no longer up to going out every night. For those of us who have reached this point, it is, perhaps, natural to idealize our youth. We had more energy, and more potential. Everything seemed more exciting, because it was new to us. And the frustrations of those days – the insecurity of fledgling careers and relationships – are easy to dismiss in retrospect years later. These are factors Tara faces as her assignment takes on added meaning. As she must break down all she once accepted to find out what is real and what never existed at all.
Maybe such re-evaluations are also part of life, of looking forward. One early reader of WORLD EHOUGH called it a “coming-of-middle-age” book, and I believe there is some validity to that. The Tara who finds herself once more researching a story – revisiting those long-gone days – is a different person than the young zine writer we have also come to know. The older Tara has more information and, just maybe, more perspective. They say the truth will set you free, but in Tara’s case, it may simply raise more questions as the mystery unfolds.