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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Memory, Memoirs and Annie's Ghosts

This recent news story from The Washington Post offers a delightful example of the difficulty of reconstructing past events, the topic of my previous posting.

A brief summary for those who don't want to click on the "news story" link above: In 1861, Jonathan Dillon was a watchmaker at a shop near the White House. He was repairing President Lincoln's pocket watch on the day of the attack on Fort Sumter. Four decades later, he told a New York Times reporter that he had etched the following on the watch's inside surface: "The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try."

His story remained unconfirmed until March 10, 2009, when experts at the Smithsonian opened the watch and discovered a significantly different commentary: "Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date thank God we have a government."

The essence of Dillon's story was true. He had etched a pro-Union message into the watch. But he hadn't mentioned slavery and he hadn't praised Lincoln. Did he intentionally inflate the content of his message?

I don't know, of course, but I would argue: No, not intentionally. Based on my recent experience in researching Annie's Ghosts, I'm betting that Dillon was certain that he had written those loftier words. Over the course of 40 years, as Lincoln's reputation grew and the Civil War had become identified as the war that ended slavery, Dillon's memory of his words incorporated those ideas. Essentially, I'm suggesting, he remembered his message in light of everything that had happened in his lifetime.

There's a comparable moment in Annie's Ghosts. I'm interviewing a cousin about her argument with my mother over the secret that stands at the center of the book. Just as my cousin is recounting a climatic moment in this 50-year-old argument, we're interrupted by the waitress's offer of coffee. After the waitress leaves, my cousin resumes her account—and offers a different (and more dramatic) version of the key moment she had described only seconds before.

As in the case of the watchmaker, the crux of her story was true. I knew, after all, that my mom had kept the secret and that something had caused the two of them to have a falling out. But was either version an "accurate" account of their conversation? Not likely. Rather, my cousin was giving me the version that reflected years of thinking about that moment, a version that reflected her feelings as much as her memory.

"The nuances lie beyond my reach," I wrote in Annie's Ghosts. "Fifty years later, this is the best my cousin can do."

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