Thursday, July 29, 2010

Una the Naughty Little Sister

Una has an interesting relationship with the My Naughty Little Sister stories by Dorothy Edwards. She loves them because they are an absolutely True Story of her Life. They are the Chronicles of Una. But she is also slightly concerned. Why is it always her that is naughty? Why is never Freddy?
"Maybe they are made up books about somebody else?" I venture, in the face of her ardent belief. "Maybe it's not you at all."
"No," she insists. She is the naughty little sister, even though we seldom use the word naughty in our house.
This belief is deeply ingrained. One day I tell her, "Maybe it's time for me to teach you how to sew?"
"I already know how to sew," she grumps. In the face of my disbelief she adds: "Remember? In the naughty little sister?"
On another occasion she comes up to me and says, "I would like to try spongy trifle again."
"Okay..." I say, with a question mark in my voice. When have I ever made spongy trifle?
"I think I would like it more now." And I realise, it is the naughty little sister who has tried it before (without much success by the sounds of things).
Una has impressive powers of recall when it comes to The Naughty Little Sister. She knows more of the stories than I do because she listens to them on tape* at night in the bedroom she shares with Fred. She remembers the time she (as the naughty little sister) bit Father Christmas and when she went and visited a grumpy neighbour on her own.
It is not that surprising that these books have filled the gaps in Una's own memory. False memory making is a past-time of both children. "I remember when I was in your tummy and I wanted you to wake up so I kicked you and kicked you," says Fred. "Remember when I was a toddler and couldn't speak properly and I said Mama? Papa?' prompts Una (to which I respond with a non-commital mm.) As these stories get more elaborate, I find myself internally rebelling. I sometimes feel threatened by their made up memories, as if my own real memories of their infancies are being undermined.
From their point of view there is already so much in their short lives that has disappeared (something they are constantly reminded of as this pregnancy sends Martin and I down memory lane to a time when they were present, but before their conscious memory begins). Fred barely recalls kids she went to kinder with two years ago (and is surprisingly uncomfortable about going back into this shadowy half-remembered place, now that Una has just commenced her first term at the same kinder - I remember similar physical unease as a child at the idea of going "back"). In my experience with Fred she had an uncanny memory up to the age of about 3 or 4 - she would ask about playmates she hadn't seen for months and despite the fact that she only watched ABC Kids on very rare occasions her product recognition was nothing short of alarming. Her memory, while still good, is now far more selective. I guess she's asking a lot more of it as she learns to read and spell and do maths, as she consumes information about the human body and Japan and the difference between front and back support at gymnastics.
For Una finding such a clear record of a life that resonates with her feelings and experiences and sense of self has more than compensated for these black spots, for the shadowy patches of forgetting. By taking on the identity of the never named Naughty Little Sister she can put a narrative to those feelings, to her sense of who she is and her place in the world.
There will be a time, not very far from now I suppose, when Una has to face the fact that these memories are false. For example as I wrote this post I asked her, "What's the earliest thing you remember?"
"I remember things," she said. "Some things. I remember when I was the naughty little sister. Freddy had a doll and it said Mama when you leaned it back and closed its eyes when you tipped it forward and opened its eyes when you stood it up and I took it, and I threw it out the window–"
"No!" said Fred, who has come home from school out of sorts and in the mood to contradict (usually she is very indulgent of Una's naughty little sister fantasies). "I NEVER had a doll like that."
Una begins to cry. "You did! Yes you did!"
And Fred, in the face of Una's false remembering begins to cry too. Martin intervenes, and all the while Una is insisting that Fred DID have that very doll, she did, she did.
Later I ask her what she remembers from when she wasn't the naughty little sister. She understands the question straight away, but answers with the stories we've supplied her with (her first word, 'Hi!', the time she chopped her finger off). I suspect that it's not that the memories aren't there, it's more that she doesn't know what to recall, or how to bring it to mind, she isn't sure how to answer the question. Her own memories are sensual flashes triggered by a smell or a place or a feeling, or implicit (remembered in the unconscious actions of the bodies, like walking, talking, holding a pen, threading a bead) - they aren't a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.
The real naughty little sister?
One day sitting on the couch, cuddling into my belly, Una says, "Can you write a book called the big little sister?" Almost as if its the act of writing that makes reality. She is asking me to write her into being. And look, here it is, a placeholder for memory, if we are both to forget this time in our lives when she became the naughty little sister.
And in the end, how much more authentic (or less?) are her memories of being the naughty little sister than the stories we have told her about herself. As adults I think we assume that our memories are the sum total of who we are and I think we definitely privilege "episodic" (or narrative) memory over implicit memory and sensual memory. We are inclined to construct ourselves through memory... As I mentioned in my previous post, in Star Trek - but also in Buffy, Lost and many other popular narratives - (conscious) memory is identity and loss of memory threatens cohesiveness of self.

Memory is identity, at least in part. But memory is also fiction. It is unreliable. It is imprecise and relative and tricksy. Memory is myth-making. And myths always borrow from previous stories, from the accumulated history of human memory. Una's conflation of her own memories with the stories of the naughty little sister strikes me as a very literal, external performance of a process that is normally a lot more discreet: the way we incorporate books into our psyches, how books cohabit with our souls, how books weave themselves into our complex neural web and become - sometimes indistinguishably - enmeshed in memory and self.

As a compulsive reader throughout childhood this thought is astonishing and reassuring, that the books are still there, and part of me.

As a writer, it is both a powerful thought and an extremely daunting one.

*Thanks Jelly, for the book and the tapes.


  1. I love this post, Penni - I am so interested in continuity of memory and the feeling of belonging/sense of self it provides.

    When I was little I told my mother stories about "Dorothy and the kids" when I was in the bath. I was Dorothy, and I looked after the kids. I still get 'her' experiences mixed up with my own memories.

  2. The extent to which the Jorgensen/Russons are living a parallel existence with the Lees never fails to amaze me. My Naughty Little Sister is also embedded into everyone's consciousness in our house. Aren't the audiobooks amazing?

    As for memory, I too am fascinated by this topic. The things you speak of Una and Fred are scarily familiar. I've often wondered what effect our digital archiving of photos and video will have on memory. I wonder if it will make false memory less common?

    Thanks again for your beautiful blog.

  3. I think that I journal/blog/write/keep/create memories through photographs. I have always photographed everything, and as a result, I believe that many 'memories' I and my children have, are memories of photographs, rather than actual events. Not a good thing, I try not to photograph everything these days for that reason.

  4. Sarahanandarcy7:08 AM

    I love the sound of your girls Penni.
    Hannah is sure she is Lola. And when Bianca lived here it seemed to be so true the way she looked after Hannah.
    When I was young I loved the Ramona Quimby books but being a sensible older sister with a younger rebelious sister, I read them wishing I wasn't Beezus! But no matter how hard I tried, my younger sister would always out Ramona me, without her even trying to be anyone but herself and I'd come out looking even more like Beezus.

  5. there is a thick hedge near my grandmother's house. i think there is a high school behind it. but i dreamed there was a marvelous playground behind it and i crawled under the hedge with my grandma and we went there. i was so sure it happened i used to remind her of it.

  6. Love both these posts, Penni. I have been watching with some mourning as Ned's memories of his early childhood fade and become something to be performed rather than felt.

    Fred's knowledge of herself as something other than the label other people give her is a wonderful thing.