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Book Review: The Memory Sessions

The Memory Sessions   by Suzanne Farrell Smith

152 pp, ISBN 9781684481477, Bucknell University Press, 2019

In my first recalled memory, I may not have even been walking yet. I am sitting on the living room floor in front of my father’s favorite chair—a gaudy gold swivel with scratchy upholstery. It must be dinnertime. I can hear my father come in the kitchen door before I see him round the corner, put his hands on his knees and greet me with a big smile. He is so happy to see me, his youngest child.

But is that really a memory?

There is a photo of me, sitting in that exact spot, wearing a powder blue taffeta party dress, taken by someone at the exact angle I imagine my father would be at in my “memory.” Isn’t it just as likely that I’ve created an entire first memory from this one framed photograph?

Such are the questions plaguing Suzanne Farrell Smith in her haunting, deeply felt and gorgeously rendered new memoir The Memory Sessions. Smith’s father dies when she is just six years old, killed by a drunk driver on his way home from work. Outside of a few fleeting details—the doorbell chime, the police officer’s voice, a Knight Rider episode interrupted—her memory is wiped clean, not only of that pivotal night, but any childhood memories before or since, up to the age of about twelve or thirteen. Over the years, while her three older sisters  each have warm, comforting images of their father, Smith feels more and more desolate and alone with her lack of recollections.

So begins a search, first through conversations with her mother and sisters, later through targeted therapies, to uncover the memories she is sure are buried somewhere deep in her psyche, frozen by trauma. When Smith takes us with her on her heart-wrenching journey—through hypnosis, acupuncture, cognitive behavioral therapy, somatic experiencing—we hold our breath right alongside her as she comes achingly close to an actual memory, a beach memory with her dad, only to see him morph back into the man in the brown suit from her photos. We strain and shift with the author under the weight of her trying.

Smith’s writing is evocative and genuine. Her metaphors are gentle, moving. She plays at her father’s basement train set, pulling a yellow car off the track just in time to save it from the oncoming locomotive. When Smith experiences age-related floaters in her vision, she imagines it “as shrapnel, a piece of the first part of my life being dragged along…sometimes it seems the speck might be a tiny, whole memory, like an afternoon in the swimming pool or a board game with my sisters or even my father’s slack face as he naps on the couch.” Smith’s despair at her lack of memory pervades her every thought at times.

Before each therapy session, Smith’s expectations rise. She imagines entire father-daughter scenarios she will regain. So when the treatment ends unproductively, with no memory unearthed, her disappointment is tangible.

Smith’s search for memory becomes more urgent as her aging mother implores her daughters to come to their childhood home and help her clean out boxes of attic treasures. While her sisters gleefully recount recalled recitals, family vacations and grade school friends their trinkets bring to mind, Smith’s knick-knacks only pick at the never-healing scar of her childhood amnesia. The more she forces the memories, the more elusive they become and the more she questions any fleeting reminiscences. On a trip to San Diego arranged to re-create a long ago family vacation, her husband asks at the flamingo exhibit, ““Do you remember something?”… “I don’t know,” I tell him. I think, flamingoes, and want it to be a memory.” Then later, at the Sky-fari monorail ride, “”I think I was scared to go on,” I tell Justin. I’m afraid of heights now. Was I afraid of heights back then? Or am I trying too hard to find a source of my fear, to assign to this random piece of equipment some meaning?”

Smith explores other issues in the book; her relationship with her mother is tense as young Smith becomes distant and dark after her father’s death and her mother struggles to comfort her. Losing her father so young and so suddenly also leaves her with a paralyzing fear of losing her own husband as well. But the fault line throughout the book is memory.

Toward the end of the memoir, Smith’s mother sends her the upright piano she played as a girl. Played in the cellar while her father hammered in his workshop next door. Played while her mother sewed cotton dresses for her daughters in the basement sewing room. Smith has no memories of her father. But the muscle memory in her fingers, the sense memory in her ears as she picks out concertos and movements she learned in fifth grade will have to be enough. It is all the memory now she has.