Remember The Day River Phoenix Died? Not As Well As You Think You Might

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The passing of time that makes memory possible and necessary is also what makes memory fade and die. 

-Geoffrey Batchen in Cabinet

Untitled (Forgotten Game) c. 1949
Joseph Cornell
Image Via Rocialle

What actually happened and what we remember are two different stories. There are simply too many factors working against our memories ever being entirely factual.

We might blame first the passage of time. So we compose history books of events that were current once. We write in our diaries and put dates at the top of the page. We take photographs. We try our best to orient ourselves within the vast and unknowable. And yet we're never entirely accurate in assessing how we pass through time and how it passes by us. Our memories are faulty, they shift as we access them and are inextricably entwined with our psychological needs. We feel time is going fast or slow, but it isn't. We attempt to synch up with the planet and the sun. We use words like days, weeks, years and in this way we try to describe how it is that we grow older.

Borges says, " all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false." Perhaps examining our relationship to the celebrities, controversies, crimes, disasters, current events and artifacts of our culture might be a way to seek the real story. The people and occurrences of our public world just might illuminate and provide context to the personal.


flashbulb mem

In a recent conversation with a friend I referenced The Challenger explosion. He was one at the time and so, unlike me, didn’t remember sitting in the elementary school cafeteria watching an actual spaceship explode in mid-air on television. When I quizzed my 32-38 year old friends they all remembered it as vividly as I do. We remember our teachers crying. We remember the confusion as the adults decided how to explain something so horrible to us. We remember the older kids got sent to the auditorium to talk about their feelings and the younger ones were distracted with games.

But my memory of that morning when I was 7 is likely not as accurate as I think. Apparently it's a flashbulb memory, a memory that vividly captures the moment when we learn about an emotional or traumatic moment. Despite the ostensibly photographic clarity of these memories, they are thought to be as imperfect as all memory and not necessarily consistent over time. What makes flashbulb memories notable, according to some psychologists, is the, "intersection of the personal and the public." It's why people claim to know where they were at the moment of an assassination attempt or Princess Diana's car accident. We think we remember it more clearly than we do because of this "flashbulb" quality. We equate vividness with accuracy.

I remember the April night my boyfriend drove over to tell me Kurt Cobain had killed himself. We sat outside in the hammock and talked about death, and Nirvana. I wore overalls and no shoes and it was springtime in Virginia. And I remember the morning after Halloween in 1993 when I sat on the couch with my best friend and we heard that River Phoenix had died the night before. We listened to the gratuitous insensitivity of Joaquin's 911 call being played on a loop. It's all so clear in my mind; eating cereal, wearing pajamas, watching the news, how upset and surprised we were to hear this sad thing about the boy we'd watched endlessly in Dogfight. But if we're talking accuracy, studies show I probably remember those two moments with the same clarity as other, less dramatic moments in my teenage life. The difference is that I believe my memory of the night in the hammock, or my morning after Halloween are more clear.

oregon trail
Oregon Trail.
Image Via Buzzfeed.

When Buzzfeed created this list and this list about childhood in the '80s I thought I wouldn't relate to the pop culture references. I was born in 1979 but I didn’t have a television for many years and was raised in the woods by hippies. I figured I must've missed most of the archetypal stuff. Yet as I scrolled through the list it was like someone had excavated some long dormant part of my fundamental self. Oregon Trail! Debbie Gibson! Caboodles! Card catalogues! Pegged jeans and plastic charm necklaces! Jake Ryan! Seeing these things didn’t just make me remember the tangible objects, in fact those were secondary. Suddenly the sensory details of ages 5-10 were as present as if they’d happened yesterday. It's nostalgia, certainly, but also a haunting of sorts, how memory can come flooding back in so many vehicles, things I'd long since forgotten revived and made immediate. These seemingly superficial objects of the past connected with other memories, with the tiniest details, but also with the larger ones.

By remembering certain things in certain ways we create ourselves. The reminiscence bump is a phenomenon which explains why ages 10-30 tend to be the ones we remember the most clearly (apparently a disproportionate amount of our memories are from this time). There are a number of theories as to why this occurs, some of the most interesting ones have to do with us structuring our memories around figuring out and reinforcing who we think we are. In addition to being a little scary, it also makes me wonder if remembering correctly isn't even necessarily the most important thing. I've always been a bit preoccupied with how to ensure the exactness of memory, but perhaps the flaws, fading, vividness and complexity of our memory has mostly to do with our present moment and as such is less about recollecting and more about who we are right now, how the accumulation of those memories has created identity.

The Berlin Wall.
Image Via Outside the Beltway.

So we are formed, not just by what happens, but by how we remember what happens, by the public and personal, by the momentous and tragic, by the mundane and forgotten, by JFK Jr. crashing his airplane into the water, by OJ driving that white Bronco down the highway, by the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. By Desert Storm and the Berlin Wall coming down. By Heath Ledger dying and The Challenger exploding. But also by all of those countless days and nights in between, by those we think we've forgotten because they passed by uneventfully, by those we think we remember.

Time passes and we age too slowly and imperceptibly to notice, half-forgetting and mis-remembering our lives along the way. We certainly don't gauge ourselves with the same type of objective scrutiny we direct toward celebrities. It's easy to watch The Long Goodbye and marvel at how Elliott Gould went from being Phillip Marlowe to Ross and Monica's dad. Yet we're distracted and don't pay attention to how exactly we went from being 14 to 24 to 34. While watching Silver Linings Playbook a few weeks ago I was a bit amused to see Julia Stiles playing the bedraggled, uptight, married sister to Jennifer Lawrence’s riveting, charismatic younger sister. Julia Stiles and I are the same age (roughly, she’s actually two years younger) and I was genuinely confused for a moment that the actress my age was playing the tired, unhappy wife while the adventure and romance happened to someone ten years younger. It isn't that I'm overly concerned about getting older but that I feel a sense of wonder at how complex and subjective the functions of time and memory are within our perceptions of ourselves.



I spent a recent dinner party regaling my guests with reading the Lollapalooza line-ups from the early '90s as each of us in turn exclaimed aloud at remembering those concerts. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sonic Youth, Hole, Beastie Boys! Remembering evoked being 15, 16, 17. As we clamored to tell our stories, initially in relation to this one event, our memories then opened outward in the most wonderful, meaningful, blurred ways. We told stories about curfews and lack thereof, about our parents, about the questionable decisions of our teenage years, about parties in fields and crushes, about the cities we grew up in and moved to, about music and what we love. Our lives came flooding back to us, however fragmented, vivid and inaccurate.