Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Unlike most of us believe, memories are never the same twice as they are recreated each time we go back in time. Someone called this process “memories of memories”. Remembering biting into a delicious apple for instance will cause the brain to bring together the color, the shape, the smell and the taste. Over the years details change as the brain stores its information in different parts. For this reason eyewitness accounts are often extremely unreliable, and everyone experiences an event differently to start with. When a victim of a crime is presented with a line-up, they tend to pick a familiar-looking person who might be someone working at the supermarket or a neighbor down the street.

Since I installed Joost, an online television network, I have been watching old reruns of the original Star Trek series. Having not seen the episodes in a few years, my mind has altered the details slightly. At times I’m amazed how something seems unexpected, as if my mind is playing tricks. It is possible that a nasty concussion scrambled my brain slightly but a more likely explanation is time passing. Well, the fringe benefit is that the episodes seem surprisingly fresh to me, although of course I remember the basic plots. I should brush up on my Klingon, though.

As people live to be older than ever before, problems and illnesses with memory are increasing sharply. Close friends and family members are victims of various forms of dementia. Those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s carry a scarlet letter “A” on them as we tend to label people with such illnesses. My mother died as result of this terrible disease ten years ago and her younger brother suffers from the same. Naturally I wonder if this is something I’ll have to face one day. Although I much resemble my father, physically I am closer to my maternal side and have had similar health problems. But as I have no trouble reading through a Scientific American issue and comprehending it, or memorizing an enormous amount of music, I don’t see any warning signs yet. My dad has age-related dementia which mainly affects his short-term memory. Yet when my brother and his wife visited him just two days ago, he immediately said “There comes my son!” and was actively interested in what was happening in their lives. The fact that they celebrated their 45-year wedding anniversary took him by surprise. Of course some days are worse for someone at 97 and recently he insisted that he has seven children, instead of us three. Perhaps there are others we don’t know about? I should take time off this summer and pay him a visit, although crowded airports, high ticket prices with their fuel surcharges and now the latest, paid luggage, don’t make such a trip an attractive option. We complain about gas prices but over there the cost is at least double. With the weak dollar, we are like paupers over in the Euro zone. Hotel rooms start at $300 even in the smaller cities and the tab for dining out is like in Tokyo’s business restaurants.

People have a remarkable ability to block unpleasant memories, probably part of our survival system. Death camp survivors would have never been able to continue life without this skill. I myself have managed to repress a great deal, such as unhappy moments in a first marriage. It is as if they never existed. I was talking to a former student and I assumed she had stayed put as concertmaster of the same orchestra for the thirty years. I had completely forgotten about her years in Belgium, but once the topic came up, that buried information quickly resurfaced. Likewise I have nothing but loving memories of my mother, yet our relationship was often turbulent. It is also possible to filter out all the good times and remember a person who has hurt us or our family with intense hatred, even if there has been a time when the relationship was not so bad. If a daughter or a son has been murdered, or the family’s well-being seriously hurt, I don’t think it is possible to forgive or forget. We find closure when we read about the death of the evil person, either in a news item or an obituary. I know it is not the way religions and holy men teach us, but need for revenge is a very powerful feeling. Perhaps someone who has been violated gets some pleasure of seeing their torturer and his wife or girlfriend become old and sickly. A once pretty Eva Braun or a SS officer's trophy wife may all of a sudden look like Meryl Streep in the final scenes of “Death Becomes Her”. A once powerful Gestapo man might resemble the living dead when slowly crossing a street. Still, the final closure will have to wait. Horrible as it was, I understand why Saddam Hussein was lynched by the same people he used to torture, or that same fate met the dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his wife on Christmas Day in 1989.

Simon Wiesenthal wrote a powerful book, “The Sunflower”, subtitled “On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness”. In the first part he tells about a dying SS man at a Nazi concentration camp bringing the prisoner, the author, to his bedside. The soldier wanted to confess his terrible acts to a Jew and ask him for forgiveness. Wiesenthal remained silent. In the second part of the book 53 outstanding men and women give their replies to the author’s question: Had he done the right thing and what would these individuals have done in his place? Interestingly among these people is the only Nazi leader who took full responsibility for his actions, Albert Speer. His admission of guilt was in stark contrast to other Nazis who all washed their hands, claiming they had only followed orders. This action probably saved Speer from the death penalty and put him in prison for twenty years instead.

Admitting guilt and asking for forgiveness might indeed be enough for a Robert Mugabe or another cruel dictator to start a long healing process. Without it they are doomed and their victims and families will be waiting for the inevitable, no matter how long it will take. Just as in The Sunflower, regretting life's terrible mistakes on one's death bed will be too late.