Photo credit: L. D'Allessandro
“I cringe when people talk about the resiliency of children. It’s a hope that adults have about the nature of a child’s inner life, that it’s simple, that what can be forgotten can no longer affect us.”
— Lynda Barry
Some recent research suggests that the human brain actively suppresses or erases memories, and there are pathways and proteins that are dedicated to forgetting. That in turn implies that forgetting is adaptive, perhaps necessary for learning new information or staying sane. For me, it’s a counterintuitive idea. Forgetting so often feels like failure: information we know we were given but can’t access, events for which we were ostensibly present but which no longer exist in our minds. I wonder, too, about the different modes and levels of forgetting. If you were very young when you learned to swim or ride a bicycle, you probably don’t remember the lesson, but your body still retains the knowledge, forever calling up the motions, pumping your legs and finding balance or buoyancy. Likewise, you can remember someone positively or negatively without remembering why; for example, what they did to produce an instinctive chill or frisson of pleasure down your spine. It’s possible to no longer remember what
happened, precisely, while remaining changed by it.
I doubt the details of my memories from childhood. My memories start earlier than what is probable, and I have always been a chronicler and a storyteller; I still have a diary from when I was six, and it was my second diary, having filled the first. What I remember is less what actually happened than the events as I told them to myself, as I chose to record them, with all the self-serving alterations of a child and the melodrama of a developing fabulist. But the emotional truth, as distinct from the literal truth, the psychological texture of childhood — I think keeping journals helped me hold onto that a little more clearly.
Children have little control over where they go or what they do, and their thoughts outstrip their powers of expression, as a toddler understands hundreds of words when they can only produce a few. Children often say something that feels deathly serious to them, but the adults around them laugh in response, calling them silly or cute. I remember that infuriating powerlessness. I remember the complexity of the social worlds we created, patching the gaps in our understanding with imagination and deduction. I remember how painfully intense our lives were, how vulnerable and cruel, in a kingdom kept largely and intentionally hidden from adults. I remember the conviction that we were not small, dumb grownups, but some other variety of creature altogether; if we lacked some of their powers, we had others that they had lost.
In my most recent novel, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore
, five girls, aged 9 to 11, leave a sleepaway camp in the Pacific Northwest on an overnight kayaking trip. After an accident, they find themselves stranded and alone. The book alternates between this experience and the girls’ lives beyond — growing up, falling in love, and having children of their own.
I remember the conviction that we were not small, dumb grownups, but some other variety of creature altogether; if we lacked some of their powers, we had others that they had lost.
Most of the novel revealed itself to me in the slow, ever-surprising unfolding that makes writing fiction such a joy, but I knew a few things going into it. Once no adults were around to help them, once they had no choice, I knew the girls would prove themselves to be more physically capable and pragmatic than anyone would have supposed. At the same time, like any group of humans — especially girls this age — they would struggle for power and manipulate each other’s emotions, without necessarily knowing what they were doing. And the consequences of doing so, out in the woods with their lives at stake, would be very different than they would have been on the playground.
We see the disastrous kayak trip from the perspective of one of the girls, Siobhan. Siobhan is first introduced as a lover of books where children go off on their own and have grand adventures in the incongruous absence of parents and caregivers. Most of Siobhan’s references are invented and modern in tone, but I had in mind Enid Blyton’s Famous Five
series, as well as a handful of science fiction novels from my childhood, where apocalyptic events leave children and teens to fend for themselves. I wanted Siobhan, familiar with this fantasy of camaraderie and freedom, to struggle with the reality of such a situation — with hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.
Finally, I knew that the adults in the girls’ lives would misinterpret everything that happened. They would recast their actions in the light of how the world persists in seeing little girls: sweet, innocent, and helpless. They’d assume that the girls would forget. They’d downplay their trauma, expecting their lives to continue as though nothing had happened, and the girls themselves would start to believe this. The obvious scars would heal. The details would fade in their minds. They would encounter greater problems and tragedies in their lives.
"But what is forgetting," Lynda Barry writes in “Resilience,” one of the One! Hundred! Demons!
in her collection of graphic vignettes by that name. Writing around an early childhood trauma, describing the complicated, nebulously connected effects it has several years later, when she’s 13, Barry asks, “When you put something out of your mind, where does it go?” That question haunts me, and it guided the writing of The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore
and For Today I Am a Boy
, as well as the poetry collection How Festive the Ambulance
. She lives in Seattle, Washington.