A couple of weeks ago I got a padded envelope in the mail from Canada. The return address was my friend Margo’s in Ontario. I’ve known Margo for 40 years but haven’t seen her in at least 30—not that it matters. She’s one of those friends you connect with on a deep level, and the bond lasts a lifetime.
Margo is a writer and I assumed the envelope contained a chapbook or maybe a magazine with one of her articles in it. Imagine my surprise when I opened it to find a stack of my old letters to her inside. There were nine in all, the earliest dating all the way back to the 1970s.
Margo was doing a major downsizing, she explained in a note, clearing out drawers, cupboards and closets. Hence the letters, accompanied by a Xeroxed article about how today’s digital correspondence—all those e-mails and texts—is so evanescent and vulnerable to loss that it might well become a serious problem for future historians. Indeed, when Margo and I write to each other nowadays, it’s by e-mail. I’m not sure how I would go about retrieving our trove of messages from the Gmail server, should I want to see them again.
Rereading the letters written by my younger self was an interesting and at times unsettling experience. The first, chronologically, described the run-up to the first Christmas after the death of my father. I sounded pretty depressed. The second told of the implosion of my first marriage a couple of years later, and of the professional and personal challenges I encountered upon moving to New York.
What interested me wasn’t so much the content, but the alternate reality the letters revealed, especially those relating to my first husband. My actions and attitudes as disclosed in the letters didn’t fully square with the story I’ve told myself about the marriage’s end.
I’ve been reading the late journalist David Carr’s searing memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” about his years as a drug addict and how he crawled out of that life. The book is all about memory and the tricks it plays. Carr tackled his own story like a reporter, interviewing eyewitnesses (friends, colleagues, lovers) and obtaining documents (arrest records, paperwork from stints in rehab). He found that his memory didn’t jibe with the facts.
“We often edit or entirely rewrite our previous experiences—unknowingly or unconsciously—in light of what we now know or believe,” says David L. Schacter in his book “The Seven Sins of Memory.” In other words, as Carr puts it, we remember only the stories we can live with.
It’s a great corrective to revisit these forgotten experiences and try to tease out what’s true, minus the sugar coating. You get a fuller, clearer picture of your life. I’ve returned the favor by sending Margo’s letters back to her—the handful I could find. I might learn a lot about myself and my friends by rereading all the old letters I’ve kept…and then returning to sender.