Speak, Memory: An Only Child Remembers

With her parents gone and no siblings to help her remember her childhood, Kathryn Harrison wonders: What was growing up really like?

By Kathryn Harrison

The fight my mother had with my grandmother later that morning, when she accused my mother of being a — what word would she have used? Not slut. Certainly not whore. Well, whatever my grandmother did or didn’t say, their fight was what my mother would end up calling "the last last straw, the absolute, final end." Tart? Maybe, except tart wasn’t a word my grandmother used in anger. She thought tart was funny. Ditto trollop. Cheap, I guess. She might have called my mother cheap for sneaking out to spend the night with a boyfriend. Cheap, like other comparatively mild slurs, was a word my grandmother could pronounce as a dire insult. But just as possibly, she might have used no words, she might have just screamed: That was a standard, and unanswerable, strategy. My grandmother’s inarticulate, animal howls, which seemed to presage madness, or violence, or both, often won her an argument, either because of their inherent power to terrorize or because they testified to her ruthlessness, her stop-at-nothing determination to win.

A month or two later, my mother moved out, for good. Unwittingly, I had been the catalyst for my own abandonment.

Inventing a Past

The painter Rene Magritte remembered the suicide of his mother, Regina, as happening in this way: In 1912, Magritte, the youngest in the family, was 14. He shared a bedroom with his mother, and one night he awoke to find her gone. He roused the rest of the household, and they searched but could find her nowhere inside. But beyond the front door, traces of her steps led to a nearby bridge over the river Sambre, into which the woman had thrown herself. In the middle of the night, Magritte stood on the bank and watched as his mother’s corpse was pulled from the water, her face covered by her nightdress, her body naked and luminously white in the moonlight.

Asked what they remembered of the death of Madame Magritte, the artist’s childhood friends recalled that, although they themselves had all cried in fear and grief, Rene betrayed no emotion in the weeks following his mother’s death and from that point forward never spoke of her. As a famous painter, Magritte gave many interviews; in all of these he mentioned his mother’s suicide no more than two times. Asked (rather idiotically) if the event had "marked" him, he said only that it had been a "shock." His 1954 outline for an autobiography included a single, abbreviated reference, in the third rather than the first person: "In 1912, his mother, Regina, does not want to live anymore. She throws herself in the Sambre."

Veils and curtains recur in Magritte’s paintings, as do faces hidden behind hands or by objects or replaced outright by a death mask or an orb made of light. It’s easy to guess why such images might retain so strong a hold on the artist’s imagination.

The thing is, although Magritte did wake to discover that his mother’s bed was empty, apparently he never actually saw her body recovered from the Sambre. As a number of onlookers testified, the boy wasn’t there on the riverbank.

Psychology, a science Magritte dismissed as false, an attempt to explain what cannot be explained, to render irreducible mystery to pedestrian cause and effect, calls such memories as the artist’s "screen memories," which typically date back to childhood and which a child creates to protect himself from a truth he finds even more traumatic than what he invents to hide it. But what could be worse than the scene Magritte believed he witnessed? The face of his dead mother unveiled? Her body, for which he must have harbored — as all children do — a desire to possess, covered by a winding sheet and taken from him forever? A desire inflamed at the time of her death, when, caught up in the turmoil of adolescence, he still shared her bedroom and saw her in a nightdress that revealed perhaps a little more than it ought?

"It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood," Freud writes in an 1899 article on the topic of childhood memories. "But memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess."

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