Sometimes forgetfulness is good

6 mins read


It is Saturday morning and a thunderstorm is passing over Port Royal. Normally, I would be happy about the plunging temperature, the wind and rain in July. But Saturday morning is when I bathe and barber my yard with help from my friend, Joe Morrall.

Saturday morning is also when I get the Wall Street Journal’s “Review.” Lately I’ve come to rely on their book reviews although they are skewed to non-fiction — war and rumors of war — and less comprehensive when it comes to new fiction.

This morning, there is a review of “A Primer for Forgetting” by Lewis Hyde (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26) which makes the case that certain things should be forgotten.

“Bad remembering causes time to clot. Bad remembering can be an error of content (we remember the wrong things) or an error of action (we remember for wrong reasons). Time is, ought to be, fluid and to be fluent within time, we must let a lot of life drop away.”

Several weeks ago, I corralled my brother and sister (in the midst of a wedding reception) and made them talk about my father’s anger. Then, a week after the wedding, I invited both of them to dinner and peppered them with a list of prepared questions — “Did our mother really love our father?”

As I approach 75 years on this troubled planet, I am obsessed with my past and the parts of that past that have disappeared.

Which brings me to my college classmate, Johnny Sams, who sailed into Beaufort a couple of nights ago and invited me and my wife onto his sleek, state-of-the-art yacht for wine and conversation. I readily agreed.

Johnny was not only a classmate, but was also in my company, India, and succeeded in every way that I failed. He got promoted — eventually going up to 3rd Battalion Staff — and went on to earn three stars in the US Air Force. And so, for nearly four hours, we sat on his boat and talked about our time together at The Citadel.

My experience at the Citadel was uneven. I went to the military school against the advice of my father — “You’ll never make it,” he told me when I broached the idea. And the following year — my plebe year — is one I have tried to forget.

I was singled-out as a person who did not belong in the Corps of Cadets. Several of the cadre tried their best to get me to leave the school. 

And every now and then, especially when I read a book like “A Sense of Honor” by James Webb, those plebe year memories come back at me like a migraine headache.

The memories that lurk in my consciousness are not the push-ups, pull-ups and late night sweat parties. What remain are the whispered insults, by the upperclassmen, that one is a “douche-bag” while standing in an over-heated room trying to hold an M-1 rifle at arm’s length. What still lives (in chemical form) in my brain is the idea that I was defective and unworthy.

Lewis Hyde believes — and let me be clear, I haven’t yet read his book — that “forgetfulness is not always a disaster. It can be a balm, a blessing, a way of forgiveness and rebirth.”

But what does he say about collective forgetfulness? What about forgetting the removal of the Cherokee peoples to Oklahoma? Or the internment of the Japanese in World War II? Or the importation of Africans to the American South?

Hyde has a high regard for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed the end of apartheid in South Africa. He said this process ‘worked’ (he is careful to point out its shortcomings) because it involved a “shared understanding of what happened, public confession, and some sense of justice.”

So it seems we’ve come round to the Roman Catholic ritual of confessing of our sins, getting absolution, and then doing penance in the form of prayer — “Hail Mary full of grace. Blessed art thou among women …”

But there is a distinction between the Catholic version and what is now under discussion as relates to the sins of slavery. The first is whispered to a priest, in the darkness and is veiled with anonymity. The second is a public acknowledgment of guilt and the award of damages — called reparations.

At the moment, between 55 and 60 percent of Americans are unwilling to confess the sins of their fathers if penance involves reparations. Years ago — when I was a Roman — I might have been reluctant if the priest had said, “And for your penance, Scott, make a good act of contrition and leave a $100 check — payable to the Sodality of Our Lady of Fatima — in the collection plate next Sunday.”


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