How well do you remember events of ten or twenty years ago?

“Memory is fiction. We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives.” ― Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia

I first read Portrait in Sepia when it was released in 2000. As I re-read it for the first time this past week, I thought “how ironic this is that this is a novel about memories and I’ve forgotten most of it.”

The storylines of books tend to run together for me because I read a book per week. However, Allende is one of my favorite authors so, logically, I ought to remember more of each novel’s details. Except for high energy action books, I tend to read novels closely; I don’t scan sections or skip descriptions or conversations to get to the so-called “good parts” (as some people call the pivotal scenes).

Several weeks ago, I re-read The House of Spirits, a novel I read in 1982 when  it came out and one other time before this year. Again, the details were so hazy it was almost like reading the story for the first time. I can understand why high school and college literature teachers tell us they re-read the books they teach every semester that they reach them.

Even though I forget so many details of novels, I discover new things every time I re-read them. So, in addition to the surprise at how much I’d forgotten, there’s the excitement of seeing a character or an even in a new way.

When people ask me about my childhood, obviously I know most of it. Or, maybe I don’t. If I can’t remember a book in any detail several years after reading it, how reliable is my memory about anything in my past or the country’s past? Sketchy, at best. Though family Christmas letters have long been mocked as falsified (or carefully told) versions of what a family did during every past year, the only way I could be sure when I did something thirty years ago was looking in a binder of old Christmas letters to see what year something happened.

Things get worse when I realize that after using fictionalized bits and pieces of things I saw or did in some of my own novels, I begin to see that the line between what I really did and what a character did in my novel has gotten a little blurry.

We’ve heard often that those who witness traffic accidents and other events are often unreliable. They think they have a clear picture of the event when, in fact, they don’t. They think their view of an event was like that of a stationary security camera. In  reality, they glanced away at noises, movements of other people, etc. What they didn’t see, they think they did see because the mind fills in the gaps with what it thinks probably happened. They don’t know they’ve done this, and experts say that a lie detector test won’t pinpoint discrepancies in their versions of events.

An article in the current “Writer’s Chronicle” deals with this issue for the authors of memoirs and historical novels. It’s called “The True Story? How to Deal with Evidential Gaps While Writing a Biography,” by Viola van de Sandt. What really happened during such gaps often comes down to circumstantial evidence. Sometimes, important events can only be sketched in and presumed through fragments of diaries, articles, letters, etc.

I have often wished I’d kept a diary, a cut-and-dried account of daily events. I tried multiple times, but could never stick with it. So I have a lot of gaps in my own personal history. As Allende’s protagonist in Portrait in Sepia said, “I try desperately to conquer the transitory nature of my existence, to trap moments before they evenesce, to untangle the confusion of my past. Every instant disappears in a breath and immediately becomes the past; reality is ephemeral and changing, pure longing.”

I assume my memory is faulty. It’s been proven to be that way many times. Who I am and what I think I saw of daily events is more of an approximation than anything else. If you have a foolproof method of keeping track of your past, I’d sure like to know how you do it.


My novels At Sea and Mountain Song are partially based on my own experiences. But I can’t promise you I know the fact from the fiction in them.


Briefly Noted: ‘Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter’

Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter, by Kate Clifford Larson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 6, 2015), 320pp.

If you remember the era when John F. Kennedy was President, you probably don’t remember his sister Rosemary. There’s a reason for this. The first daughter of Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr, was confined at 23 to a mental institution in Wisconsin where she would remain until she died at 86 in 2005.

Kennedy - Wikipedia photo
Kennedy – Wikipedia photo

At birth, a nurse held her in the birth canal for two hours while waiting for the doctor, fearing the doctor would lose money if the delivery occurred before he arrived. Potentially deprived of oxygen, she was developmentally disabled. Rose and Joe concealed this, even from her siblings. Her IQ was judged to be a 70. A gorgeous child, she even met Queen Elizabeth and other dignitaries. However, as she grew older, she became rebellious, causing Joe to send her to a hospital for the lobotomy that almost succeeded in turning her into a vegetable.

In a review titled The Saddest Story Ever Told, the Wall Street Journal, calling Larson’s book a “heartbreaking biography,” says while lobotomies did modify behavior, there was no evidence that they cured mental deficiencies. “The American Medical Association warned of its dangers. Nevertheless, Joe went ahead.”

rosemarykennedyShe was left crippled, speechless, and quiet with a substantially lower IQ. As The Wall Street Journal puts it, “The operation had been botched.” That seems to be a contradiction in terms, but nonetheless apt.

Larson old NPR, of Rose and Joe, “I have sympathy for their position, but given their wealth, there were other alternatives, and they only had one vision of an alternative, and that was convent schools. And there were alternatives for Rosemary at the time — and he chose this radical, radical choice. At the time, it was still very experimental, so as a father, would he have experimented on his sons? I don’t think so.”

Kirkus calls the book “well researched,” author Will Swift calls it “a poignant story,” and author Marya Hornbacher calls it “an engrossing portrait of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s tragic misunderstanding of their oldest daughter’s capabilities, and of how her fate changed the Kennedy family forever.”

I call it an American tragedy about (as Larson calls her) a “lovely, lovely child, [who] grew to be a lovely adult woman” who was ruined by health care professionals and then hidden by negligent co-conspirators named Rose and Joe.


Briefly Noted: ‘Reshaping Our National Parks and Their Guardians’ by Kathy Mengak

Reshaping Our National Parks and Their Guardians: The Legacy of George B. Hartzog Jr., by Kathy Mengak, with a foreword by Robert M. Utley, University of New Mexico Press (April 2012), 336 pp

When Glacier Park’s Centennial Program Committee received the George and Helen Hartzog Volunteer Group Award for promoting the park’s 2010 centennial, many visitors were unfamiliar with the man who led the National Park Service between 1964 and 1972 or with the award established in 1998 (and subsequently supported via a fund created by his wife) to honor those donating time to help the parks.

Published earlier this year, Kathy Mengak’s Reshaping our National Parks and Their Guardians ably tells the story of the highly successful NPS director who added 72 new parks to the system during a contentious political era in American history. In his book review in the Autumn 2012 issue of “Montana The Magazine of Western History,” Craig Rigdon writes that while the author’s “fondness for Hartzog is evident…she provides a fairly balanced review of his career.”

Originating with Mengak’s dissertation at Clemson University, the book draws heavily on twelve years of interviews conducted with Hartzog and other key officials. Hartzog died in 2008.

Kurt Repanshek (National Parks Travler) writes that Hartzog “was a cigar-chewing, Scotch-loving, Stetson-wearing, lover of fishing, hard-charging director who often knew exactly what he wanted and found a way to get it. One way or another.” His review of the book is posted here.

From the Publisher

Wikipedia Photo

This biography of the seventh director of the National Park Service brings to life one of the most colorful, powerful, and politically astute people to hold this position. George B. Hartzog Jr. served during an exciting and volatile era in American history. Appointed in 1964 by Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, he benefited from a rare combination of circumstances that favored his vision, which was congenial with both President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and Udall’s robust environmentalism.
Hartzog led the largest expansion of the National Park System in history and developed social programs that gave the Service new complexion. During his nine-year tenure, the system grew by seventy-two units totaling 2.7 million acres including not just national parks, but historical and archaeological monuments and sites, recreation areas, seashores, riverways, memorials, and cultural units celebrating minority experiences in America. In addition, Hartzog sought to make national parks relevant and responsive to the nation’s changing needs.

I like Rigdon’s comment that while most people remember the National Park Service’s first two directors, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, Reshaping Our National Parks and Their Guardians demonstrates that “some of the most critical years in the agency’s history took place during George B. Hartzog’s tenure as director.”


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Bears; Where They Fought: Life in Glacier Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley” and two contemporary fantasy adventures set in the park, “Sarabande” and “The Sun Singer.”

All three books, from Vanilla Heart Publishing, are available on Kindle. “Sarabande” and “The Sun Singer” are also available in trade paperback.