I heard the story of Mitt Romney and his memory lapse at an incident of bullying. The story is he and some fellow high school classmates held down a boy with longish blond hair, and Mitt cut the boy’s hair. Mitt says he doesn’t remember the incident. I'm the same age as Mitt and while I never assaulted a classmate in such a physical fashion, in those unenlightened days I mocked an effeminate boy, which made others laugh at his expense. I carry the guilt to this day. I’ve never forgotten a cruelty done to me, nor any cruelty I did to another. They tend to stick in my mind. I’ve even had to purge myself to a therapist about the ones that cause me the most guilt.
So Mitt “doesn’t remember that specific incident.” Maybe it’s because his life was so full of such “pranks” that the haircut assault was just one in a long string of acts committed against others, and having no conscience he has dismissed it from his memory. As for lying about it, I understand why he wouldn’t come out and say, “I was an asshole, I admit it.” That would go against the holier-than-thou, purer-than-pure image Mitt tries to project of himself: family man, husband and father, businessman, ruthless when need be, but always aware of the bottom line. “I enjoy firing people,” he once said, to which he can now add, “I enjoy bullying people.”
When I remember back on things that make me feel guilty I tend to remember them as if I’m looking at myself from outside my body. It's a false sense of memory, perhaps a way to deal with the guilt. There are many things I don’t remember at all. My brother is good at telling me things I said years ago that I can't remember in any shape or form. Maybe I don't remember those because they didn’t make me feel guilty.
I’ve groped for a way to explain the ways of memory, but came across a perfect example in Ben Hecht’s 1963 collection of essays, Gaily, Gaily, about his time as a cub reporter just before World War I:
“. . . remembering is a shifty process. Since memory is my collaborator in these pages, I pause for a look at it. No more illogical and evasive co-worker exists. It is not to be coaxed or scolded into action. Although memory is as much part of me as the features on my face, it has seemingly divorced itself from me, and retired to some lonely attic, without a stairway leading to it. It is odd that so common an experience as memory should be mysterious. . . . I remember things mistily. There are sometimes brightly lighted little areas, like a well-kept playground. But more often, events stripped of words signal in a denuded landscape, ‘Here we are, the proofs of your existence. Come have a look at us again.’”Unless Mitt hit his head or took a memory-blocking drug like Versed before his press conference I wouldn't think he’d forget an assault. It may be an embarrassment to him, a memory that he'd rather not admit to, like mine of taunting a gay classmate, or most likely, it’s a lie to prevent having to own up to it. He might not be embarrassed. But I'm sure an advisor or two told him that in 1964 holding a boy down and cutting his hair may have been considered a prank, but in 2012 it’s gay-bashing. At any rate, he gave a sort of half-assed apology for pulling pranks, which means he remembers some memory that had been put in the “lonely attic, without a stairway leading to it.”