By Scott Graber
It is Saturday, early, and a quick turn on our deck reveals the sweet, tangy aroma of slow-cooking pork. This weekend Port Royal is hosting the “Brews, Bands and BBQ Festival” on Paris Avenue — just about 50 yards from where I’m now sitting.
Barbecue — North Carolina vinegar based barbecue — was part of my childhood. The smell of whole, pit-cooked hogs carries me back 70 years and brings a feeling of warmth and contentment. I remember Bob Melton’s rustic (Rocky Mount) restaurant in particular, but those paper plate, picnic table, cole slaw meals did not inhibit deviation into the mustard-sauced versions popular in South Carolina.
But this morning I read there is utility in forgetting.
There is a doctor, Scott Smalls, who has written a book called “Forgetting; The Benefits of Not Remembering” (Crown, 224 pages, $27). In this book we get a primer on dendrites (where memories are stored) and the fact that we “Dream to Forget” according to Francis Crick of double-helix fame. Apparently these tiny spines (in our brain) have a limited storage capacity and while we sleep these dendrites decide which memories will remain and those that will be discarded.
Dr. Smalls says this selective process is a good thing.
Lest you think I actually read “Forgetting” let me confess I read a review of that book in the New York Review of Books (March, 2023) earlier this morning. I read the review as I drank my coffee and basked in the aroma of barbecue.
Dr. Smalls illustrates his theory with the story of Yuval Neria who fought with Israeli infantry in a battle at Beaufort Castle in Syria (1982). The fighting was intense with close-range killing, explosions and lots of violent, hand-to-hand death. Frequently this kind of trauma leads to PTSD and a lifetime of depression. It is important that the worst of those memories are bleached-out, bathed in humor and pushed into near oblivion.
When I was growing up on army bases throughout the United States, I don’t remember much discussion of World War II by the adults. Perhaps it happened late at night at the oaken bar in the Officer’s Club at Ft. Sam Houston. But it was unusual to overhear war stories from our fathers unless they were humorous, self deprecating or involved organizational stupidity. I don’t ever remember my father speaking of casualties or death even though he was in the middle of the Philippines with Douglas MacArthur.
In retrospect — and after reading the New York Book Review — I think our fathers somehow managed to forget the worst of it; or to focus on the camaraderie, the fellowship and whatever humor they could distill from their generational nightmare.
The NYRB review then moves from Dr. Scott Smalls to Dr. Lewis Hyde and his book, “A Primer for Forgetting; Getting Past the Past.” (Picador, 372 pages, $18.)
The discussion also moves from personal trauma to national trauma.
The national trauma at the heart of Hyde’s “Primer” is the slaughter of indigenous Americans at Sand Creek and at Wounded Knee. Then there is Slavery — America’s Original Sin.
How does the United States deal with these traumas?
Hyde talks about the “amnesic amnesty” following the death of Franco in Spain. A “pacto del olvido” (Pact of Forgetting) allowed a traumatized society to postpone addressing the brutality and the human slaughter that came out of Franco’s Regime. The Spaniards seemed to agree that the “whole of Spain lost its head” in a kind of “collective insanity.”
The new Spanish government insisted that victims of both sides forget about reparations, show trials and put time and distance between their insanity and the inevitable call for accountability.
Hyde points out that legalized amnesia, a/k/a amnesty, came after the Athenian Civil War (400 BCE), the Scottish Civil War (1560), the Thirty Years War (1648) and, of course, Apartheid in South Africa.
Germany, on the other hand, has spent the last 75 years documenting, memorializing and compensating victims of the genocide it began in World War II. Germany has passed laws making it a crime to suggest that this incredible slaughter was a fiction. Which brings me to Eric Lomax.
Lomax, a depression-ravaged veteran memorialized in “The Railway Man,” was savagely, routinely beaten by a Japanese soldier who he eventual found, and then forgave, after the end of World War II. When asked how he could forgive this monster, he said, “Sometime, the hating has to stop.”
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.