Linking the past and the present: That’s a theme you find in song (“Auld Lang Syne”) and in images and news stories relating to the new year, and hard as I try to tell myself that the turning of the calendar page to January is no more significant than the passage to any other month, there seems to be no escaping the reflections it brings. This year, the page-turning is especially poignant. EQMM has just spent an entire year looking back at its history and accomplishments, reuniting with old friends and supporters, and enjoying the celebration of its 75th anniversary at events sponsored by Columbia University.
In the course of the past year I’ve reflected often about the many people and experiences that have defined my own quarter century at EQMM, and I’ve found that my recollections sometimes differ slightly from those others have of the same events. I was struck by this as I listened to the panels at the EQMM 75th Anniversary Symposium this past September, and I think such differences in the shadings and interpretation of memory are what one should expect.
Memory may be the chain binding old and new, but it has many unreliable links, from a factual standpoint, and it’s probably a good thing it does, for it’s often memory’s creative distortions that provide the engine to drive us forward. As I look back over the past twenty-five years, certain events, both good and bad, loom larger than rationality dictates they should. I’m sure that if I were questioned about the details of these occurrences with the rigor of a good interrogator, my memory would prove to be fallible in significant respects. But I don’t always wish to put the picture in better perspective, because I think it’s sometimes memory’s impressionistic renderings that provide the best guide for where to head next. Where, for instance, would our culture be without the drive forged in so many people by exaggerated recollections from childhood?
If we all had perfectly accurate memories, without gaps or creative embellishments, mystery fiction too would, I think, be incalculably impoverished. Take away books that turn on the suppression by memory of harrowing acts like murder, and we’d lose such important parts of the crime canon as Agatha Christie’s last published novel, Sleeping Murder. Without memory’s ability to manufacture things that never happened at all, we’d be without novels like Sue Grafton’s U Is for Undertow. And many of the great interrogation scenes in courtroom mysteries would be rendered pretty lame if John Q. Witness were always found either correct or a liar—rather than misled, in details big and small, by his own memory.
There are a very small number of people who have what is called “superior autobiographical memory.” They have, apparently, perfect recall of every day of their lives, starting at varying points in childhood. One of the interesting things I’ve read about these extraordinary people is that they don’t simply remember facts—everything from the weather to current events to what everyone they encountered said and did on literally any given date—they also have complete recall of their emotions relative to those events. They describe their memories as like being there, living it all over again.
I wonder what the world would be like if everyone had the superior recall of these memory savants. Certainly human societies would have evolved very differently from the way they have; for one thing, maybe we’d have a more reliable justice system. The ordinary human memory is apparently so fallible that separate witnesses to the same event, questioned within minutes of the occurrence, frequently give conflicting accounts of what happened, and this is becoming a recognized problem with eyewitness testimony in the solution of crime. Some might consider this a problem of perception, but it seems to me that most perceptions we’ve had time to give voice to may already have been given a creative interpretation by memory.
One of the things that was so fascinating about the EQMM symposium at Columbia was that some of the impressionistic recollections of panel participants could be seen side by side, so to speak, with the factual record provided by documents in the EQMM exhibition we visited afterwards. Most often, the latter bore out the former, but with details that filled in the picture in interesting ways (especially as regards Fred Dannay’s correspondence with authors and some of his edited manuscripts). I came away feeling that we need both the factual record and the impressionistic one provided by human memory in order to form a vital image of the past.
As we look ahead to 2017 and beyond, it will be with some deep impressions left by our 75th anniversary retrospective fueling our forward impetus. We enter 2017 with a new format—six double issues per year—and this change presents both opportunities for innovation and challenges to retaining the character of a magazine that has been prized by its readers for so long. If we can start to meet that challenge in 2017 in a way that inspires the kind of energy amongst readers that we saw in 2016, it will be a happy new year for us indeed.
We wish all of you a productive, creative, and happy new year too!
Enjoyed your comments here on fact and memory and the collision/collusion of the two—both in terms of EQMM’s history and then those references to crime fiction, testimony, etc. And best wishes to you for a happy new year ahead! Tough to top all the great things in EQMM’s 75th anniversary year, but already looking forward to what 2017 will bring. 🙂