What if a person really could repress the horrors of the past?
Yes, I know; the shrinks tell us it’s impossible to do without paying a price. They say that we have a lumber room of the mind, a hidden closet in which we stuff all the traumas and memories we wish we had no use for. They say, in time, the contents of this room start to smell. Left alone, strange noises will begin to emerge. House guests, looking for the bathroom, will open the wrong door and let all our heartaches escape. The closet gets crammed with memories, so that, if you try to put one more in, two more are dislodged and tumble out at your feet. That is to say that all the horrors will find a way out, somehow, or they will make life difficult if they remain locked up. There is no end to the neuroses, psychoses, character dysfunctions, family dysfunctions, and general malaise we are subject to if we try to put anything into that closet.
The shrinks tell us it’s impossible to be effectively rid of the past, and want us to take their word for it. In fact, the Therapist Emeritus was just now telling that to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat. He had just been going on about the ghosts that just would not leave him alone. She claimed these ghosts represented haunting stories from his past, things he was trying to forget.
“So,” she said, “See, you can’t do it, can you? That’s what we therapists have been trying to tell you people. No one ever listens to us. It’s like we’ve been talking to the wind. You have to deal with the past.”
The Therapist Emeritus didn’t really say that. But she thought it.
She did say that he had to deal with his past, clean out the closet, pull out every item in turn, dust it off, and find a place on the coffee table to keep it. Face his demons, or be ever running away from them. Deal, she repeated, as if he was a lackadaisical croupier and she, an eager blackjack player. Become conscious of the unconscious, she urged. And she would be the very person to help him.
“I don’t see what these ghosts have to do with me,” he said to the Therapist Emeritus. “It’s not my past I’m trying to shake, it’s THE PAST. It’s y’all’s past. It’s other people’s ghosts who won’t leave me alone. I don’t have any ghosts.”
The Therapist Emeritus slowly nodded her head as one does to a child who has just said some fantastic thing that shouldn’t be believed.
“Of course you have ghosts,” she said. “Everyone has ghosts. If you have disappointments, regrets, lost loves, or sadness, you have ghosts. Traumas and injuries are ghosts. Even those that may seem minor to an adult, can be overwhelming when they happen to a child. If you have ever changed anything about yourself, the part you left behind is a ghost. There’s ghosts all over, inside and out. You can’t say you don’t have any ghosts, if you have ever lived.”
There’s a difficult moment in therapy when the therapist purports to know more about the mind of the patient than the patient knows about himself, and the patient begins to believe her; not all the way, but a little. That moment between the Therapist Emeritus and the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat had just occurred.
“OK, so maybe I have ghosts. But, my ghosts aren’t nothing compared to these ghosts. I can deal with my ghosts. I just can’t deal with these.”
The Therapist Emeritus now had a smile for the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat, as one smiles at a child who had just said something adorably naive. She thought, it’s no use trying to explain repression to someone who is repressing. They’re never going to get it.
But, what if the therapists are wrong and it is possible to forget the horrors of the past? Maybe the therapists don’t know. After all, therapists only see people who have trouble. People who don’t have ghosts, never have a reason to see a therapist. In fact, anyone who would have successfully forgotten the past, wouldn’t know they forgot the past, because they had forgotten it. In fact, get this, maybe we all forget the past all the time and don’t even know it.
If that’s the case, then why couldn’t the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat do it?
He couldn’t because he believed the past still existed in the form of ghosts. In the same way, the Therapist Emeritus believed the past still existed in the form of repression. For all their differences, both the Therapist Emeritus and the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat believed similar things. They both believed the past, whether in the form of one’s own ghosts or other peoples’ ghosts, still existed and walked among us, doing ill. But, what if the past doesn’t exist at all? What if, once the present occurs and recedes into the past, it becomes, well, past? What if the past, being past, is no longer real and is replaced by nothing but a fiction? What if both ghosts and repressed material were figments of the imagination?
If the past was a fiction, then you might be able to rewrite it, making it quite possible to forget the past.
In that case, why couldn’t the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat do it? Why couldn’t he rewrite the ghosts out of his story?
First of all, he has to have a story. A story is what glues everything together and establishes a self. If he had no story, he’d have no self; and, having no self, is a fate as bad as, and indistinguishable from, death. A person must have a story even if he never tells it to anyone; and, if he does tell it to someone, he must have something to say. Therefore, he has to have a story so much, he must construct it out of nothing.
Why couldn’t the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat replace his past with a story that included no ghosts?
That has to do with his selection of genre.
I may not be a therapist, but as a fictional character who everyone thinks is an English professor, I still possess particular insights and understandings. As a fictional character, I know what I’m talking about and, as a professor, I should be allowed to profess. This is my theory about what happened to the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat.
When most people sit down to write a story, they have trouble either knowing what to say, or how to say it. Most people, professional writers included, generally end up writing a story that conforms to a genre. It’s easier that way. You don’t need as much imagination. You have the general plot already outlined. All you have to do is fill in specifics. Readers also prefer genres. They want to know what they’re reading before they invest the time and money to read it. They want a story to reinforce their particular view of the world.
In choosing his horror story genre, Stephen King seems to say, there’s evil in the world, you can face it and vanquish it. Danielle Steele, the romance writer, claims, your instincts are good and you can use them to find a perfect love. In the same way, The Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat ended up writing his life into a ghost story. The spiritual world and the corporal one are divided, but we can bring them together.
The Therapist Emeritus has her genre, too. She likes to consume stories conforming to the standard therapeutic narrative, I was lost, but now I’m found. If she succeeded in persuading the Weather Beaten Man in a Cowboy Hat to rewrite his ghost story into that genre, then his story would contribute to her own, in her own favored genre in which to create a type of detective story. There are secrets, but I can uncover them.
But what if the real secret is that the closet full of memories and traumas is really empty? What if all the smells and noises emitting from it are nothing but stories we tell to scare us away from the truth, that the past is gone, never to return. What if the therapists and their patients both have created genres that assert that secrets cannot be buried, while they bury the one secret they cannot accept? The past does not exist and we are all just full of shit.