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Excavating the Past

A flurry of recent articles heralded virtual reality sessions that re-immersed seniors in places where they’d once lived. With or without high-tech goggles, so-called reminiscence therapy enables people struggling with memory loss to pleasantly re-experience their past. According to researchers, the mental health of those in these projects improved, both emotionally and cognitively.

Last year, I undertook a prolonged journey to my own past, courtesy of 20-ish years of journals – more than 45 black-and-white-speckled composition books corresponding to 1974 through 1995. Rereading these volumes was a crucial part of writing an autobiography/memoir in which that period of my life figured strongly. I did not experience the delight described in those articles.

With trepidation I opened two liquor-store boxes, blotched with gray mold and grime. They’d sat sealed in four different damp basements for nearly 30 years. Had the contents of these decrepit corrugated containers been chewed up by mice, insects or worms? Had the words in the notebooks bled into fat, blurry streaks?

Although the cover sheets of the notebooks needed staples to get reattached to their cardboard stiffeners, the streams of ink inside remained as legible as before. I could begin reading, slowly, taking in not only what I recorded of my life from age 22 to 42 but also a panoply of surprises.

Comparing what I remembered with what I’d written felt like seeing that a black-and-white print and its photographic negative didn’t match. As clearly as if it were yesterday, for instance, I can recall my intimidating job interview in 1977 with the then-president of Smith College, Jill Ker Conway. Her posture ramrod straight, her hair in a prim, housewifely ‘do, her accent crisp and patrician, she asked formal questions of me across a wooden conference table.

But I wrote nothing about Conway in my journal, instead describing the philosophy majors who attended the seminar I was required to give and my astonishment when two soon-to-be-colleagues invited me afterwards to smoke dope with them before dinner. What?! Only the faintest wisp of recognition brought back that part to me now.

In other notebooks I came across segments of my past that had been wiped completely from my memory. Most disturbing: A first and last name, along with a description of the guy’s dirty blond hair, musical tastes and jaunty disposition. Apparently I slept with him for months when I was around 30. No matter how I strained my retrieval muscles, not a single image or fact about him came back.

Most other lovers I had when I was single I could re-imagine in meticulous physical and sensual detail – and I did so as I worked my way through the years of journals. Curled up like a shrimp under the bedcovers, I replayed snippets of heartfelt lovemaking or ambivalent lust, no virtual-reality technology needed.

Rereading just a dozen or so pages a day from the notebooks and reliving who I used to be made me feel queasy, though, as I went about my daily life. Though helpful for the memoir writing, the journals brimmed with cross-hatched drama: I love teaching! I have no friends here! This life isn’t meaningful for me! Teaching is boring! X’s flirting is driving me up a wall! Am I going to be able to make a living freelancing? The effect was like watching so many episodes of a telenovela at one time that its emotions stuck around, a gluey residue clogging the circulation of my own thoughts and feelings. Yet I was reading about me, the former me – not some fictional character.

Courtesy of the ups and downs I’d recorded at the time, re-immersing even in the happiest era of a two-year love affair did not give me a glow of contentment. Woven into the joys, the journals showed, were confusion and betrayal. Even writing about it now, the not-knowing that inevitably tinged whatever I went through makes my stomach hurt. I’d so much rather let my mind puff off into the future, for me a dreamy realm of hopes and plans.

With the virtual-reality headsets, I believe, those seniors are enjoying a rosy, in-the-clouds version of their past, minus real-life complications. I too might enjoy an idealized journey back, with doubts and upsets expunged. Like a personalized vacation movie, it would entertain and soothe. But as for revisiting one’s actual past? Re-experiencing what really happened decades ago was disconcerting, dizzying and disturbing for me. Honestly, I don’t recommend it.


Marcia Yudkin publishes the weekly newsletter Introvert UpThink (, which critiques society’s misunderstandings of introverts. Her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Ms., Next Avenue and elsewhere, and she is currently completing a memoir, Nothing to Prove: Recovering from Wittgenstein.

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