How reliable are our memories, and how dangerous are they when they're not? Depends who you are and, to some degree, on what demons tug at your sleeve. By their very definition, memories are supposed to involve accounts of the past: recollections of past events, the recalling of previous experiences, the retention of old information. Retrospective and archival in nature, all of it. But sometimes, mostly when the winds of self-sabotage begin to blow the hardest, memories don't seem satisfied with the role of reliable archivist, instead angling for the director's chair, revised script in hand. Cases in point? Brian Williams, David Carr. In fact, in the weeks since Williams was given the boot, and Carr died while wearing his, it's become increasingly clear to me that the most relevant aspect of memories -- and indeed their greatest power -- isn't their ability to preserve or conjure the past at all, but rather their sly tendency to shift beneath us and unexpectedly shape the future.
Shortly after Carr's passing, my closest friend was eager for me to hear a remembrance that "Fresh Air" put together in his honor, a combination of excerpts from previous interviews he had done on the show. The tribute to Carr -- the legendary media columnist for the New York Times -- began with a mention that one of his last columns dealt with the controversy surrounding Williams -- one of the most prominent faces in news that seems to have lost his way. What my friend wanted me to hear was Carr's introspective discussion of his own addiction and recovery, and the raw honesty surrounding his insights. What struck me the most though, was the unintended thread I saw between something Carr said about his recovery, and the otherwise unrelated mention of Brian Williams in the introduction.
In explaining how he decided it was a good idea to start drinking after 14 years of being clean and sober, Carr pointed to his memory, or more accurately its failure. "For me to do what I did, I've done a lot of forgetting" he said of his choice to pick up a drink, of his relapse into unhealthy behaviors. The simplicity of that explanation -- and the sharp, cold, un-elaborate reality it conveys -- could easily leave a non-recovering person confused, or even aghast. Really? You forgot? Yes, the truth is, sometimes we recovering people 'forget.' Or, in the term now forever associated with Mr. Williams, sometimes we misremember. And while there is room for debate about whether Williams was lying or suffering from 'false memories,' one thing is clear: it's something that can happen to anyone, and does happen to all of us. But for a recovering person, the stakes are much higher than whether they jeopardize the trust in a national news brand.
While you may be thinking 'No, actually, misremembering whether you were in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG isn't something that could happen to anyone,' ask yourself if your incredulity would survive adjusting for scale. In other words, if it seems outlandish and incomprehensible that the integrity of one's grip on such memorable facts could ever loosen to the point of failure, it's probably because the underlying facts themselves seem outlandish and incomprehensible. To you. To most people, simply being in a helicopter would be hard to forget, let alone a helicopter in a war zone. How could you ever forget such a huge deal?! Well, arguably the same way David Carr could forget that he was a recovering addict after escaping the grim depths of hell that his disease unapologetically dragged him through for years.
Just like most people would remember what helicopter they were in, most people would also remember that their addiction nearly cost them everything, including their life. Most people, except those for whom such experiences had just become a part of life -- normal events normalized further through the lens of time and the subtle sway of our mind's own cunning and uninvited agendas. Identifying what such an agenda for Brian Williams' mind might have been -- if there was one at all -- would be pure and meaningless speculation on my part. But for someone in David Carr's shoes -- someone like me -- the mind's cunning and uninvited agenda is clear: to unravel me, to destroy me. Forgetting what alcohol did to me is one surefire way to advance that cause, and that forgetfulness is something that I and millions of other Americans must guard against with a discipline and vigilance that transcends professional obligations like maintaining veracity as a news anchor. If we misremember, a six-month suspension from work might be nothing more than the amuse bouche before a final meal.
So how does someone avoid such a derailing estrangement from the events of their past, as they actually happened? As a universal matter, I don't have an answer. But for many people who are maintaining a recovery, it involves never becoming too unfamiliar with your own story, facilitated by an ongoing willingness to share it with others in some capacity. For some, it may also involve writing about it: Carr described the writing of his addiction memoir, The Night of The Gun, partly as an attempt to undo the forgetting he had done. For others still, we're left with stubborn physical reminders of the dark alleys of the soul we once wandered.
The same week that Carr died, "Fresh Air" paid tribute and I started pondering the wily pliability of memory as it seeks to mold or undermine the future, I was unexpectedly reacquainted with one of my own such reminders: an old injury tucked away under a half-moon zipper running from the front of my right shoulder to the back. The direct result of my own drinking, it had been years since I last aggravated this surgically restored artifact of a bygone era of self-destruction. But as I did -- and as I stood there reliving a fraction of its original pain -- I couldn't help experience a wave of gratitude while the threat of mis-remembrance fell lifeless, for now, under the weight of a scar.
The opinions expressed are solely those of Patrick R. Krill
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