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Essay: The (Quest)ion of Memory

Uly Siregar

The Jakarta Post

 /  Mon, September 17, 2018  /  09:27 am
Essay: The (Quest)ion of Memory

Writing a memoir is therapeutic. (Shutterstock/File)

Writing a memoir is therapeutic — not that this was my intention in the first place, but somehow when I write, I’m serene. But it is also dangerous, knowing that you are offering your readers a deeply intimate view of who you are. As I peeled off the masks and dug deep into my memory bank, I dredged up mixed feelings. Some are heartwarming, and others are repulsive.

Curiously for me though, it was not the most shocking or joyful memories that took the center stage in my mind. If asked to recall the most vivid scene from my childhood, I’d say: When I was around 7 years old, my mom and dad were going out someplace. It was sometime in the afternoon, and I was crying because I wanted to go with them. They were inside the car — a shiny blue Mercedes — already, and trying so hard to convince me to stay at home. “I’ll bring something for you. Just stay at home. Go play with your sister,” my mom said. But I couldn’t stop crying in the driveway. Finally, my mom said, “Go get your shoes and you can come with us.” I stopped crying immediately, ran inside the house to get my shoes and went back to the driveway only to find it empty. They left without me. They tricked me into believing they would take me with them. I cried my heart out, but only for a good few minutes; then I went back inside the house, feeling hurt. I cannot remember if I was still mad at them when they got back home; all I know is I cannot forget what happened that day.

I want to tell my story simply because it’s a good story that will stay with the readers. Above all others, I hope that my daughters are my most avid readers. When it comes to writing, I start with the thought that someday I will pass my story to my daughters — which is sometimes awkward because, hey, what sort of mother wants to tell her daughters that she had more lovers than her fingers and toes can count? But that, too, is part of my story; you have to be brave to be honest. Maybe even cruel. After all, I want my daughters to understand me through my writing, and to hear my voice even though I’m away from them or completely gone from their lives. Someday my daughters will write their own stories. If I could shape the tone of their stories (which I won’t) I’d prefer they say: “My mother was a very lovely woman. She’s the best cook, a published writer and she was always there for me,” rather than: “The only thing I remember about my mom is she’s always on her computer working on something. She hardly played with us, and she kept telling me that I was not a good piano player!”

I dedicate every piece of my writing that’s been published to my three daughters, including a memoir I finished writing a year ago, which somehow ended up nestling safely on my computer. A publisher has asked me to publish it, but I don’t have the guts to let that happen just yet. Why?

A memoirist carefully selects a story to expose. In terms of doing mine, I hope I didn’t cherry-pick the stories just because I wanted to appear good, to create a certain image that fits the ideal picture of an Indonesian woman living in America. I write my stories because I want to be heard; and I believe, in a way, there are some women who feel the same, and I want them to know that they’re neither crazy nor alone. That, and I want my daughters to get an idea of who their mother is from her own voice. Before giving the freedom for others to judge, I think everyone should establish how they want to be perceived.

Unfortunately, no matter how meticulously I curated my stories, it’s still an invitation of pulling back the curtain on my private life. A part of me is exposed to the public, and I willingly give that up to you. My privacy is out in the open. Worse yet, my story also affects other people I love the most: parents and siblings, friends, former lovers and many others. They don’t sign up for this deal. What would my former lover feel if our story about how he cheated on his wife with me takes two chapters in my book? What if my siblings were outraged because I had brutally told the story of how much I hate my late father who held the Batak culture dearly in his heart by always prioritizing sons over daughters? What if my friends stopped talking to me because I pictured them twisted and broken?

These questions shut me down from publishing my manuscript. I have fears of revealing myself and others. I was so brave when I wrote my stories; everything was crystal clear: honesty — brutal honesty — was the only way to go. But when the last sentence was delivered, I suddenly felt uneasy. My memoir is not about sexual abuse, though there’s a small part about my experience of being molested that I had casually mentioned. I cannot imagine how tough it had been for those who published sexual abuse memoirs. These kinds of memoirs, after all, were popular sells in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But then Peter Freyd coined “false memory syndrome” after his adult daughter, Professor Jennifer Freyd, accused him of sexual abuse when she was a child. The case led to a massive challenge against memoirists who ended up having to defend their rights (and memory) inside the court room. Isn’t it even more alarming? Another reason not to publish my manuscript: What if my book was challenged by people who were highlighted in my memoir?

I woke up with a strangled feeling, loss, and long coiled around these thoughts that squeezed the breath out of me, debating myself whether I’m a coward or a reasonable person. And then the snake slowly released its hold. I’m not planning on burying my manuscript permanently. And turning it into fiction is not an option either. It isn’t fiction, it’s my story, raw and real. I just need more time to prepare myself so I’m not afraid and don’t feel intimidated by a sack full of what ifs.

So help me, God.


Uly Siregar is an Indonesian journalist, essayist and writer who currently resides with her family in the United States.

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