Saturday, March 28, 2020

More on memory

From the May 20, 1999 issue of the NYROB is a book review by Hilary Mantel: Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell by Gitta Sereny. 

Mantel is conflicted.  She has had bad experiences with the Medical Profession and doesn’t trust Sereny or her solutions.   Nevertheless she does think something should be done.  At the time, ten year old Mary Bell could be tried as an adult.  While disagreeing with Sereny’s proposal that such children should immediately see a psychologist, not be tried in an adversarial courtroom or subject to decisions by untrained jurors, she does think that trying Mary Bell at age 10 in a court-system designed for examining adults was wrong. 

She interviewed Mary’s mother, Betty, who apparently tried to kill Mary on several occasions if she could make it look like an accident.  Sereny has difficulty believing Betty and has her go over Mary’s childhood several times:  Mantel writes, “The innermost secrets of Mary’s childhood are yielded up with difficulty.  She gave Gitta Sereny at least four versions of events, the last of which I have decided is probably as close to the truth as her memory could manage.”

Mary Bell is now age 57 according to Wikipedia.  Her name has been changed and her identity is hidden by order of the court.  In her criticism of Sereny, Mantel writes, “The problem is also the nature of memory, the passage of time and language itself, the language of the many versions, and the meaning that slides away between them.  ‘I must have done, I must have known, I must have thought. . . .’ says Mary, responding on her state of mind as she killed Martin Brown.  I must have the eleven-year-old child speaks through the mouth of a woman forty.  It is hard not to think that Mary is a giant translation problem.  If we could solve it, would we hear a language that means anything to us . . . ?”

COMMENT:  I mentioned an accident I had on 8-15-19, coming down my stairs, feeling struck from behind by one of my dogs, falling on the kitchen tile floor and breaking my right knee-cap.  Everyone I’ve discussed this accident with wants to know how it happened, but I have to use language like Mary’s in order to describe it.  I don’t know which dog ran into me from behind.  My eight-year-old 125-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback could most easily have done it, but he is very mild-mannered, and it is unlikely that he would have done that of his own volition.  My three-year-old Irish Terrier, Jessica, does like to horse around, and if she chose that moment to horse-around with Ben, she could have driven him into my legs from behind.  She could have done it on her own, but I can’t think why. 

When asked, I always say that my dogs knocked me down from one of the lower steps of my stairs, but as the technician was doing an EKG to see if I was in good enough shape to have my knee operated on, I asked if there was any indication of a stroke or a heart-attack.  She poured over the EKG for a moment and said, “no, you’ve never had a heart attack or a stroke.”  I asked that question because I had begun to doubt my memory of what happened.  I “thought” one of the dogs ran into me, but perhaps I had blacked out from a mini-stroke? 

My son who sees Jessica dashing about mere inches from my bad leg has no doubt.  He thinks Jessica is the sole culprit.  But I couldn’t prove it by means of my memory. 

In case anyone wonders, my affection for Jessica hasn’t lessened.  It seems comparable to what I might have felt for Susan if she were driving while I was in the passenger seat and was injured.  I knew when we were just dating that she was a terrible driver.  She had been in several serious accidents.  In one she ran into a stanchion holding up part of an overpass in her VW.  She wasn’t wearing a seat belt and broke her front window with her head.    I knew what I was getting.  By a similar token, Irish Terriers are very ferocious, willful, fearless little dogs.  I knew it would take several years before she settled down.  Planning ahead I decided an Irish Terrier would be good as my last dog.  Small enough for me to handle, but tough enough to handle coyotes at the river by herself if need be.  She’ll probably still be good in that role.  I’ll just be limping a little when I take her for walks or hikes at the river. . . assuming covid-19 ever lets us go hiking there again. 

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