Memory is constructed as much as it is recalled. We own our pasts in a highly personal way: our imaginations fill in gaps as we remember bits. It’s an amazing process, one I use in my writing often. A texture becomes a wooden railing. A smell becomes the weather. A feeling becomes an event. The strand of memory twines with how we are in the now; the present colours the past. That much I understood since my intro to psychology class as an undergraduate. What I wasn’t prepared for was how completely the now can shift recalling the past.
“You don’t own my memories. I will remember you however I want.” One of my oldest friends, two years ago, when I explained how referring to me as I was isn’t appropriate. And she was correct: I couldn’t make her do anything. Her stories about our times together were hers and if she wanted to keep using my old name and pronouns when discussing events in the past, well, there was nothing I could do.
My mum made similarly critical noises at my desire to simply be Clara/she/her in stories of the past. She hasn’t told many stories since I made my position clear; I’m not entirely sure how she feels now. Occasionally she will say things my dad said and use my old name with an apology. She’s not a fan of revising people’s words, and again, there’s nothing I can do. She’s remembering and I can’t control that, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me.
“You refer to your childhood self using your current name and female pronouns.” A quizzical remark from a friend back in January.
“What else would I do? It’s what I remember,” came my reply. And it is. What else would I remember? But to my friend, that seemed odd. She didn’t elaborate, but it was clear she had more thoughts about it.
“I DON’T REMEMBER ANY OTHER WAY OF BEING. I THINK TO EVENTS OF MY PAST AND I RECOGNISE THAT I WASN’T PERCEIVED FEMALE, BUT I WAS A LITTLE GIRL.”
I don’t remember any other way of being. I think to events of my past and I recognise that I wasn’t perceived female, but I was a little girl. I behaved like one. I saw the world through that lens, even if I had the dissonance of expectation against me. My family praised my non conformity and saw my rejection of expectation as odd, but pleasantly so. Recall has meshed with reconstruction and my identity went ahead and asserted itself on my memory. And why shouldn’t it? My past is an expression of self. For me, using my name and pronouns when talking about my childhood is tying up a loose end.
I have no memory of how my feelings worked before hormone therapy. I can objectively understand that they were different, but I couldn’t explain it in specific terms anymore. Early on, I could. After a few months it got harder and now I really don’t know how testosterone would make me feel. But I wouldn’t want to find out.
There is a whole internalisation process that people often neglect to discuss. It’s similar to the little moments teenagers have when they start being called ma’am or sir. When they get referred to as ‘that lady’ rather than ‘that girl’. How we’re seen changes how we see ourselves. It takes time to make that adjustment. In my case, I have the added phase of being perceived female.
As positive as it is, being perceived female after all this time is jarring; it still causes odd moments where I don’t quite realise they’re talking about me. But remembering myself is even weirder. And if I find it weird, my friends and family can’t be blamed for struggling.
My mum and old friend both said to me recently that they only think of me as Clara now, even in the past. So do I, but how far does that go? I don’t think it’s worth testing. Best to continue to grow.
“LIKE SO MANY THINGS IN THIS PROCESS, EVOLUTION HAS PROVEN MORE EFFECTIVE THAN REVOLUTION.”
Like so many things in this process, evolution has proven more effective than revolution. My friends and family might objectively remember certain things, but, like me, they don’t add the subjective depth to the recall. How little or how much is not a thing I know, but they wouldn’t have told me that if they hadn’t done at least some of that processing. Will my mum stop using my old name when quoting people? I really hope so. I think my dad would have, had he been given the opportunity, but that’s another guess. But for now that doesn’t matter. It may never matter. What matters is as I’ve grown into myself, so have they.
Losing subjective depth to certain memories is strange. Certain things my mind just blips past: I know it happened, but I can’t or won’t take time with it. It’s like the things that are too incongruent with my present state just get cut loose. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Perhaps I will revisit them at some stage and integrate them back into my reconstruction of the recall that is my past. Even if I don’t, it may never matter.
It’s a coping mechanism to embrace the now. One I’m familiar with. Cut the past loose, forget the future. Those things are too much to deal with. Worry about the now. My mum would tell me to not get wrapped up in the outcome. She didn’t mean to not think about the future, but it’s a way of keeping oneself open to what may come. Similarly, it’s possible to not get wrapped in the starting point. And, like outcomes, not focusing on starting points doesn’t mean dismissing the past. It only means that we needn’t let where we started rule where we are. We can be informed by starting points without being bound by them, just as we can be mindful of outcomes without becoming set on specific results.
I’m lucky to have people grow with me. As my past is shaded in pink, I find many things about it easier to approach. I find myself even a little nostalgic — a quality I never embraced before. I remember my past and I remember me. I was what I was then, and I understand it better having expressed myself differently in the now. And as we evolve, there’s no telling how I will remember the past. Part of the fun is in finding out.