What if We’re Wrong?

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What if a person really could forget the horrors of the past?

Yes, I know; we therapists tell you it’s impossible to do without paying a price. We say that you have a lumber room of the mind, a hidden closet in which you stuff all the traumas and memories you wish you had no use for. We say, in time, the contents of this room start to smell. House guests, looking for the bathroom, will open the wrong door and let all your heartaches escape. The closet gets crammed with memories, so that if you try to put one more in, two more are dislodged and tumble out at your feet. All the horrors will find a way out, somehow, or they will make life difficult if they remain locked up. There’s no end to the neuroses, psychoses, character dysfunctions, family dysfunctions, and general malaise you are subject to if you try to put anything into that closet.

Therapists tell you it’s impossible to be effectively rid of the past and want you to take our word for it. You have to deal with the past, clean out the closet, pull out every item in turn, dust it off, and find a place on the coffee table to keep it. Face your demons or forever be running away from them. Deal with it, we say, as if you’re a lackadaisical croupier and we’re eager blackjack players. Become conscious of the unconscious, we urge. And we would be the very people to help you.

“I don’t see what this has to do with me,” you might say. “I don’t have any demons in the closet.”

Every therapist would then just smile. It’s no use trying to explain repression to someone who’s repressing. You’re never going to get it.

But, what if therapists are wrong, and it is possible to forget the horrors of the past? Maybe therapists don’t know. After all, therapists only see people who have trouble. People who don’t have stuff stinking up their closets never have a reason to see a therapist. In fact, anyone who would have successfully forgotten the past, wouldn’t know they forgot the past because they had forgotten it. In fact, get this, maybe we all forget the past all the time and don’t even know it.

If that’s the case, then why can’t some people forget the past when they want?

You can’t if you believe the past still exists in the form of bad feelings. That’s the same as therapists believing the past still exists in the form of repression. But, what if the past doesn’t exist at all? What if, once the present occurs and recedes into the past, it becomes, well, past? What if the past, being past, is no longer real and is replaced by nothing but a fiction? What if both bad feelings and repressed material are figments of the imagination?

If the past was a fiction, then you might be able to rewrite it, making it quite possible to forget the past.

In that case, why can’t you rewrite the bad feelings out of your story, or do away with a story, altogether?

First of all, people need a story. A story is what glues everything together and establishes a self. If you have no story you’d have no self; and, having no self is a fate as bad as, and indistinguishable from death. A person must have a story even if she never tells it to anyone; and, if she does tell it to someone she must have something to say. Therefore, she has to have a story so much, she must construct one out of nothing.

Why can’t you replace your past with a story that includes no bad feelings?

That has to do with your selection of genre.

When most people sit down to write a story, they have trouble either knowing what to say, or how to say it. Most people, professional writers included, generally end up writing a story that conforms to a genre. It’s easier that way. You don’t need as much imagination. You have the general plot already outlined. All you have to do is fill in specifics. Readers also prefer genres. They want to know what they’re reading before they invest the time and money to read it. They want a story to reinforce their particular view of the world.

In choosing his horror story genre, a horror writer seems to say, “There’s evil in the world, you can face it and vanquish it.” The romance writer claims, “Your instincts are good, and you can use them to find perfect love.” In a ghost story, “The spiritual and the corporal worlds are divided, but we can bring them together.”

The story therapists tell when they are talking about the closet is a type of detective story. “There are secrets, but I can uncover them.”

Then there’s a genre that you could call a trauma story. “All this crap has happened to me and look at what it made me do.”

But what if the real secret is that the closet full of memories and traumas is really empty? What if all the smells and noises emitting from it are nothing but stories we tell to scare us away from the truth, that the past is gone, never to return. What if the therapists and their patients both have created genres that assert that secrets cannot be buried, while they bury the one secret they cannot accept: that the past does not exist, and we are all just full of hot air?

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