How little I know – forever in the children’s room
Whenever I talk to friends about their and my youth, I have the feeling that everyone else remembers rather more than I do. Be it kindergarten events, school anecdotes or first teenage dreams.
For a long time I concluded that they simply interpreted the threads of memory more freely. When I wasn’t in a good mood, I also brooded over the premature onset of dementia. Only recently has a theory of collateral damage been solidified in my mind, i.e. that many memories with formative unpleasant experiences that I should have had were unintentionally buried… by me.
It was Gertrude Stein who spoke of the fact that history takes time to form and that it is ultimately the writing of history that creates its memories. (Original quote: “History takes time. History makes memory.”; quoted from a fridge magnet).
What if we don’t have access to all historical events and the social contexts surrounding them, not because of manipulation, but due to personal reasons like our own self-protection or simply forgetting about them?
I have to think of the track “Wie wenig du weißt” by Trinkwasser, the joint project by Jörg Burger and Lothar Hempel, now that I’m finally sitting down to pen this text I’ve been carrying around for a few days. A little ode to The Smiths and their song “Death of a Disco Dancer” – and today, one day after the death of Andy Rourke, of course, besides fragments of memories of endless The Smiths-listening afternoons-and-nights during my teenage years, also closely connected to the death of the Smith bassist.
But back to remembering – or rather, un-remembering.
I spent the past few days in Stuttgart. My sister, who spends most of the year looking after our mother, who has been dependant on constant help since a stroke three years ago, was on a short holiday and so I stepped in. Fortunately, unlike me, my sister tends to cultivate vacations as short moments of interruption close to home, not as endless expeditions like I do – her holiday destinations are, truth be told, always about 30 to 60 minutes away, and her length of stay is between 48 and 72 hours.
Fortunately, since I could not stand it longer “at home” either, because as soon as I enter my mother’s apartment (where everything is now arranged for care) I am always overcome by an incredible lack of strength. Confronted with the return to one’s childhood bedroom and my mother’s habitat, my body pulls the ripcord, so to speak, and asks for a lot of escapist sleep, so as to avoid letting myself be pulled down too deeply into the maw of memories between care intervals.
But however willingly I give in to the inertia, confrontations with the past are simply unavoidable when the environment is so full of resonant stimuli.
We are all accustomed to a world of constant and increasingly rapid change. However, returning home to the reality of my mother’s life is at the same time a journey through time in which the clock does not really turn back. Of course, it is also 2023 for her – and yet everything in the house and also around the house looks like it did in the late 1980s when I still lived here. The U.S. barracks, which were less than 20 meters from the Bolzplätzle, where I spent half of my teenage afternoons playing soccer, have long since given way to German single-family homes, but apart from that there is an overwhelming timelessness, manifested in the individual stops on my daily jogging route, which leads past the Bolzplätzle to the dog club, on to the Robert Bosch Hospital, to the tennis club (where I spent the other half of my teenage afternoons) and then, shortly before I arrive back at my mother’s house, there is the petrol station on the right side of the road, for me a non-place in the intermediate realm of Steven King and David Lynch.
I owe this to my father, whose alcoholism encouraged him to appoint his son as an ally, sending me to the petrol station day after day, mostly to buy “a Rotweinle” (a red wine, pronounced Swabian style), but sometimes also “a Johnnie Walker”, if he needed to forget reality at a more accelerated pace. Even if I usually got a few extra “thalers” to get a Mickey Mouse booklet (whereby it was primarily an unspoken contract of silence, so that my mother would not know anything – which of course was an illusion), the petrol station also had a positive attribution for me, so I erased it over the years more and more from the map of my memories, only to be confronted with it each time by violent flushes.
Just one of many places in the hood of my childhood that want to lure me in with a false tongue, because of the good old days. But there weren’t many good times here, but mostly repressed abysses, family tragedies, quarrels of my parents, addiction-related escapades that you hide in the eternal fog of oblivion just as you experience them.
During my last visit I had to think a lot about Terre Thaemlitz, whom I had the great pleasure to accompany on her “European tour” (on the occasion of an exhibition at the Halle für Kunst Lüneburg and three events in Berlin) the week before. In his critical analyses of society, Terre does not leave a good hair on the family, which for her is ultimately – to put it very briefly – just a non-place of constant abuse of power. And who would I be to disagree with him …
If, despite widespread experiences not unlike my own, people are drawn to recreate that home that made their own formative years so difficult (not in the sense of conscious repetition, of course, but in the perceived belief that they can somehow do it differently), this is explicable only if you believe a transfiguration has been achieved. Otherwise it’s just a deliberate forgetting of what one has experienced.
In his book „Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography“, Roland Barthes reflects comparatively on what he calls the paradox of the 20th century, as that interval of time that invented both history and photography: “But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a purely intellectual discourse that abolishes mythical time; and photography is a sure but fleeting testimony.“ (Original: „A paradox: the same century invented history and photography. But history is a memory fabricated according to positive formulas, a pure intellectual discourse which abolishes mythic time; and the photograph is a certain but fugitive testimony.“)
Yes, our intellect can create and abolish time, is able to negate what we have experienced.
With the combination of real and pictorial memories this is no longer so easy. Both tear down self-built walls in the mind and often abruptly confront us with the past.
The photo accompanying this column shows that petrol station where I used to go shopping for my father. It is a recent photo. I haven’t tested it, but I think (and hope) that if you sent a teenager in today that he wouldn’t be allowed to buy alcohol, at least back then no one cared.
I know it’s not nice to admit this openly, but whenever I leave my mother’s house, when I leave my old nursery behind again for a few months, I barely step over the threshold and start breathing normally again. My body has obviously designed a protective state to put me in so that as little of the memories come up as possible, a kind of “family sleep.”
In the last few visits, I’ve been hit all the harder at the tram stop that takes me to the train station. Just 50 metres away as the crow flies is the former children’s room of my childhood friend Gustl. Today the shutters are always down, because a few years ago, plagued by the demons of his life, he sought suicide from the roof of the high-rise building – and jumped right in front of his parents’ window.
Family tragedies are everywhere. Try as we might, we can never get rid of them. We have to learn to live with them and make the best out of the dialogue with the past, knowing that it is up to us to make the future better.
(Thanks to Alexander Mayor for helping me sound good in english)