Making sense of 'Absolution'

While the year swirls to a close, perhaps you too, dear teacher, are aware that the falcons cannot hear the falconers … At least, not when it comes to ‘Absolution.’

“This book sucks!”

“Why can’t it be written in the proper order?”
“And they don’t even remember properly or tell the whole truth …”

“They’re sooooo messed up!”

Such was the conversation between two extra lesson pupils. I have to admit that what they said all had merit. What I asked them was quite simply, “Isn’t that the nature of memory?”

There was a startling silence.

I filled it. This is how:

John Green writes the following, “You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.” When asked to expand on this, he states, “Memory is notoriously faulty. It is unreliable because of how our brains are wired. Memory shapes history. We like to think that we can observe or remember something ‘objectively,’ but there’s no such thing as objectivity. Human memory is a flawed and eccentric mechanism; it’s not like a hard drive.”

In an article entitled Can your grandparents' trauma make you more anxious? by Jenev Caddell, PsyD (http://mentalhealth.about.com) she explains how research out of Emory University School of Medicine on mice demonstrates that memories can be passed down to future generations. Specifically, researchers trained mice to fear the smell of cherry blossoms. It was shown that there was a part of DNA in the mice's sperm that changed in a way that reflected a greater sensitivity to the smell of the cherry blossoms, and that this sensitivity was passed down to their offspring and their offspring's offspring, who also demonstrated high sensitivity to the smell of cherry blossoms despite never having encountered it before in their lifetimes. Researchers also found a change in the mice's brain structure.

People who have experienced a trauma often suppress that memory or their brain re-wires the details of the memory, so that it will become more palatable.  People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder experience memory-related difficulties. They might not remember precise details of the trauma or they might have extremely vivid and ever-present memories.  It is well-documented that some people repress, conceal, shut out traumatic experiences. But sometimes, a traumatic event like witnessing a murder, being terrorised by a rapist or experiencing an environmental disaster like a flood or fire, leads to those events being etched on the mind, and re-lived. For survivors of the Nazi death camps, ‘horror seared memory’ became something persistent, haunting and robust. (www.psychologytoday.com)

So why have I deviated into the realm of psychology when addressing the whines of desperate grade 12s? Simply because I believe that Flanery has captured this reality perfectly – or imperfectly!

It is true that the book is not chronological. Neither are our memories. It is true that the characters are ‘messed up.’ Clare and Sam are damaged people. They are broken and fragmented because of all they have experienced. Clare lives with the guilt of her role in the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law. She feels she is inadequate as a mother and she is haunted by ghosts of the past. I am certain that if she were given a polygraph test, she would pass it as she stated that the obnoxious Ms White existed and tormented her. (This, despite the fact that Flanery has emphatically stated that Ms White is a figment of Clare’s imagination!) Sam too is likely to be suffering from PTSD. His time with Bernard is enough to scar him for life. And Laura? Was she driving? Was Sam driving? Did they commit the murder together? If you had witnessed the disposal of decomposing bodies, even once, what would that do to your memory?

Flanery was asked if Sam could be interpreted as being a metaphor for South Africa. He smiled broadly and declared, “I really like that question! Sam is damaged, broken and fragmented … trying to heal. And so is your country … I like this interpretation!” How could the memories of a country influence the memories of an individual? How do the writers of history grapple with truth, fact, fiction?

The answers are up to you. What I urge you and your class members to do, is think about memories. As someone who often forgets where exactly I parked my car or put my classroom keys, memory plays a large role in my life! But think of this in a more serious realm. Green reminds us “What you remember becomes what happened.” Think about this in terms of the literary characters but also in terms of the TRC. What happens when the personal intrudes on the political truth? Or the other way around. And while courtrooms demand that witnesses tell ‘the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, is this ever, truly possible? The gyre is widening. The beasts are slouching and I would say, “Absolutely (not)!”

Ingrid Barnsley

Categories: Macrat Musings

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