In his 2010 Booker-shortlisted novel, In A Strange Room, the South African author Damon Galgut plays an unsettling trick with perspective. The book is a triptych of stark, stripped-down fictions about travel, each centred on a character named Damon. For the most part, Damon’s actions, thoughts and feelings are described from an observer’s point of view, in a conventional third-person narrative. But at various points the author shifts perspective to show that the ‘he’ of the narrative is actually the ‘I’. The Damon to whom things are happening is the same as the Damon writing the book.
"He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was."
The author’s trick is to separate out two kinds of self: the one that experiences an event through his own eyes, and the one who is observed, from some removed position, as an actor in the scenario. Galgut uses this device particularly to trace the gaps in his story, which are the gaps in memory:
"They disappear into darkness, and into a hole in memory too, the next picture I have is of the two of them, in stark daylight again, climbing through the mountains."
If you stop to think about it, this separation of observer from observed is actually a common feature of memory. Particularly in early memories—memories of childhood—we are sometimes the ‘I’ and sometimes the ‘she’ or ‘he’.
Here’s an example from one of my own earliest memories. I’m two or three. I can see a small child down on the floor of a family living room, pushing a forklift truck across the carpet. The small child is me. I don’t particularly trust the memory, partly because it hails from such a young age. But one feature in particular intrigues me. If this is a genuine memory, how come I’m an actor in it? Why am I seeing myself in the third person, rather than re-experiencing the scene as it would have appeared to me? Why is the kid with the forklift truck not looking out at the world through his own eyes?
Psychologists use the term observer memories to refer to this third-person species of memory, and they contrast them with field memories, in which we look out at events from our own point of view at the time. Observer memories are a puzzle in memory research: they should not exist, but they do. They intrigued Sigmund Freud, who saw in them evidence that memories are reconstructions. The truth of the event has to be hidden, perhaps because it is damaging to the ego. And so a façade is thrown up, in which some details may be accurate but this telling shift in perspective remains to undermine confidence in the memory.
The difference between field and observer memories also gives us tantalising clues to how memories are shaped by emotions. In one study from the 1980s, researchers asked participants to focus on either the emotions or the objective facts of the events they were recalling. When the task was to think about feelings, the memories that resulted were more likely to be field (first-person) memories. When objective facts were the issue, more observer memories resulted. One thing this study shows is that the way we are asked to do our remembering shapes the memories that result. Memories are about the demands of the present almost as much as they are about the facts of the past.
This link between emotion and perspective makes sense of author Damon’s flips between ‘I’ and ‘he’. Telling his story in the third person allows the teller some emotional distance from it. When the Damon-in-the-scene hears the news of his lover Jerome’s death, the shock jars the authorial Damon back into the ‘I’. In contrast, there is a kind of dissociation at work in a harrowing scene about an overdose, in which the ‘I’ remembering looks down on the ‘he’ in the scene as it would on some helpless victim of a trauma.
Observer memories are particularly common in recollections of early childhood. As we get older and our self-narratives become more established, our memories are more likely to preserve the original field of view. The slippery processes of remembering, though, continue to find ways to objectify us, as the authorial Damon keeps discovering:
"But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching."
Charles Fernyhough's book on autobiographical memory, Pieces of Light: The new science of memory, will be published next month by Profile Books. He'll be leading our event on Memory on Thursday 7 June, for information and to book click here