Memory is Treachery

By Tim Winterstein

Memory is a strange thing. Last week I wrote that I had seen The Machinist during my second summer at college, the first that I did not return home between classes. In one of my periods of sleeplessness last night, I realized that couldn’t be true. As clearly as I seemed to remember picking up that movie at a video place and watching it then, it couldn’t have happened then because I was in college from 1998-2002. The Machinist came out in 2004, which means that if I saw it soon after it came out, I couldn’t have seen it before my third year at the seminary (my vicarage, or internship).

Huh. Who knows when I actually watched it? Who knows where I got it from? Maybe the little video rental place in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas during my vicarage. Maybe the Blockbuster in Grand Forks, North Dakota after I had already become a pastor in Northern Minnesota. Once I realized that my original thought was clearly wrong, I couldn’t place the memory in a particular place or time.

And I’ve had this experience more than once, where I think I remember something and there is irrefutable evidence that I’m remembering incorrectly. Memory is a slippery thing. One of my favorite films ever, Memento—not to mention one of the most original films I’ve ever seen—completely messes with the idea of what memory is and what it does.

Not only does the main character, Leonard (Guy Pearce), have short-term memory loss (an inability to make new memories, from being hit in the head by the person who murdered his wife, he thinks) so that he can’t remember more than a few minutes into the past (leading to things like him introducing himself multiple times to the same person), but the movie itself unfolds, in part, in reverse chronological order. (In the opening scene, the Polaroid gets less developed the more that Leonard shakes it.) The effect of this over the course of 110 minutes—at least for me—is the unsettling experience of doubting one’s own memory.

Leonard is so set on revenge that two people use him to solve their own problems, and he has no idea. But the real problem is that he thinks he can have an idea. He tells Teddy that memory is faulty, memories can’t be trusted; the police, he says, don’t rely on memories, but the facts uncovered during an investigation. So even though he can’t make any new memories, he believes that he can uncover and make sense of facts that he records on Polaroids, as well as in tattoos by which he records necessary information for the long term.

He underestimates both the treachery of other people as well as his own treachery. Teddy and Natalie aren’t the only ones taking advantage of his inability to remember.

But beyond the direct themes of the narrative, what strikes me most is the inability of bare facts to tell true stories. Depending on what facts are missing—or omitted intentionally—the conclusion varies. And it’s not difficult to make it do so. This seems like a particularly post-modern problem. As Teddy tells Leonard, “You don’t want the truth. You make up your own truth.”

But the problem isn’t limited to the generation that recognizes this to be the case. The fact is (pun intended), everyone at every time takes what is available to them and interprets it through the lenses made up of experiences, knowledge, input, expertise, etc. Whether or not we recognize that this is what we are doing, we are doing it. And not only are we interpreting the facts we have; our interpretive lenses determine what we take as a fact in the first place. (It was Stanley Fish’s writings that alerted me to this.)

Leonard is deceived and self-deceiving, and he thinks he can escape it by conditioning, routine, and habit. He says that Sammy Jankis wasn’t able to do this, but that he is able. And that’s how he can get through life, though Sammy could not. But even here Leonard has deceived himself, told himself a story that contains facts, but they make up a completely different story than the one he has told himself is true. And the truth of the story increasingly begins to matter little. What began (or ended) as self-justified revenge becomes revenge for deception. And perhaps the circle goes on and on.

“Memory is treachery,” one of Leonard’s tattoos says. And Teddy says that Leonard just lies to himself to be happy. “We all do it.” At the very least, we are all tempted to do it. And how easily we convince ourselves that, as time passes, something is different from what it was? How easily do we convince ourselves that we acted correctly, justly, righteously, in a given moment? How difficult it is to convince us that we are actually the problem that we think we’re trying to solve. And when Leonard sees the truth, he intentionally deceives himself in order to do what he wants to do. We may be able to make new memories, but Leonard and we are not as different from each other as we’d like to think.

Christopher Nolan (his brother Jonathan’s short story, which formed the idea for the film, is also worth reading) is always exploring the nature of reality and the line between the good guys and the bad guys, from Inception to The Dark Knight. But it was Memento that first messed with my mind and made me a fan.