How We Remember: Siblings and Memory

November 9, 2015 § 15 Comments

My wife and I are watching the BBC show Indian Summers. It’s about the British Raj in 1930s India and its summer retreat at Simla, in the foothills of the Himilayas.  The show centres around Ralph Whelan, an orphan who has risen in the British civil service in India to become the Personal Secretary to the viceroy, as well as his sister, Alice who has mysteriously shown up in Simla, leaving behind some murkiness.  Alice, you see, was married, and she claimed her husband is dead.  However, it turns out he is not.  I don’t know how this turns out yet, we’re only 5 episodes in.

But what interests me is the relationship between siblings.  Ralph is the elder child, though it’s not entirely clear how big a difference in age there is between he and Alice.  Nevertheless, it is big enough to make a huge difference in their upbringing.  It’s also not clear when their parents died.  Both Ralph and Alice were born in India, but Alice was sent back to England when she was 8, presumably when their parents died.  She has only recently returned to the colony.  Ralph, it appears, has spent most of his life in India.

The memories of Ralph and Alice of their childhood are radically different.  In the first episode, Ralph manages to have dug out a rocking horse that Alice apparently loved as a child.  She has no recollection of it.  And this sets the pattern. Every time Ralph recalls something from their childhood, Alice responds with a blank look.  At one point, she says “I didn’t have the same upbringing” as Ralph did.

I found myself thinking about the relationship between siblings and memory.  Halbwachs notes the social aspect of memory, how we actually form our memories in society, not individually.  In her acknowledgements to her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel provides a hint to the disparate memories of siblings when she thanks her family for not objecting to her publishing the book.  In Fun Home, Bechdel ponders her father’s death against the discovery that he was closeted, all the while she figures out her own sexuality and comes out.  Her memory of the events, and the way it is told, is carefully curated. She controls the entire story, obviously, as its her story.  But, clearly, the hint is that her siblings (to say nothing of her mother) might remember things differently.

Even in my own family, largely due to the 5 1/2 years separating me from my younger sister and the 12 1/2 years between my brother and I, it often feels like we grew up in three different families.  I remember things differently than my sister, and we both remember events differently than our brother does.  Even events all three of us clearly remember, there are wide disparities in how we remember things go down.

As the experiences of the fictitious Whelan siblings, the real Bechdels, and me and my siblings, the existence and function of memory in a family counters Halbwachs’ claims about the formation of a collective memory.  Indeed, given the strife that tends to exist in almost all families, it is clear that perhaps the formation of memories and narratives in families works differently tan in wider society.

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§ 15 Responses to How We Remember: Siblings and Memory

  • LaTinque says:

    So true! Whenever my brother reads something I write about our childhood, he says he must have been brought up in a completely different household. I, naturally, am sticking to my story….

  • Akire Bubar says:

    Yeah.I think this may be one of the many reasons so many families have trouble getting along – we think we share the same story, and make assumptions along those lines, but really we don’t. My sister grew up in a family of four under the dictates of a tyrannical father. Six years younger, I grew up with a single mother struggling to make her way in the world. Different *everything* – but most especially, different role models, heroes, and different struggles. Honestly, I’m more startled on those rare occasions when we make the *same* observations about family. Great post – I’m realizing that these kinds of differences in perspective within a family are probably more universal than I’d’ve thought.

  • Wendi says:

    Yes. Even though my brother is only 14 months older than me, and our sister 16 months older than him, I find our memories are often very different. Also, sometimes I’m not sure if I have a memory, or if I am only clinging to the story of a memory that one of them told me. My own six children have 17 years between the first and the last. I know the “bookends” grew up in completely different families but even the ones in the middle have very different circumstances and very different takes on our family history

    • Yeah, the memory thing: Allison Landsberg talks about prosthetic memory, by which she means we absorb cultural memories as if they’re our own. She’s talking about collective memory as a whole, but I have wondered if it applies to us as individuals in terms of smaller social groupings, like families.

  • Brian Bixby says:

    I’ve noted this in my own family, though the three of us siblings are separated by only four years. It’s become particular noticeable as we get older. It’s also more interesting because usually each of us has a different part to fill in the story.

  • Molly Bloom says:

    its even more fascinating to consider what happens to that memory when a sibling is deceased early in life. my brother and i were 7 years apart, and his passing when i was 16 was abrupt so my memories of our youths, together and separately, are constantly evolving as i mature and there is no one who can intervene and tell me i’m wrong or misinterpreting past experiences…!

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