Imagine a bride looking through her wedding album. She recognizes herself in the various photos, dressed in her pristine and disposable gown, standing alongside her beloved, surrounded by friends and family, ensconced in flowers and champagne. And she can’t remember a single actual moment of it.
Justice and Jeremy Stemper were married on August 1 2014 in Virginia, USA. Justice was twenty years old. She was certain her wedding day would be etched in her memory forever, but just two weeks later she was involved in a car accident and injured badly. During her recovery, she realized that the last five weeks prior to the accident had been erased from her memory completely. Along with the difficulty of admitting to her husband she could not recall any of their wedding, her partial amnesia also left her detached and lacking any significant memories. This rite of passage, a process culminating in the nuptial ceremony, was stripped of her in retrospect.
We tend to think of memory as a form of storage or hard drive where mental images of past experiences are saved. In fact, research has shown that memory functions very differently.
Memories are not kept intact, ready to be retrieved at a moment’s notice. Actually, each time we recall something, we must also store it anew. Thus, the more frequently we recall a particular memory, the higher the probability that the original memory further fades from our recollections. A copy of a copy of a copy. Human memory is not a recording device. It is constructive, or, rather, reconstructive (reformed and rehabilitated). We may recall experiences that never transpired, or recall events differently from how they actually unfolded. While memories may represent our pasts and our identities, they also contain a great deal of fiction. In fact, it is almost impossible to distinguish between true and false memories (for example, research by cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus from the ’70s and on have demonstrated time after time how false memories may be planted in people’s minds).
Memory is one aspect of our consciousness. It is a dynamic process, both permanent and continuous, through which we understand and operate our past and our present. Think, for example, of watching a film at the cinema. Sitting in the darkened room, watching 24 still images flit by each second, as our brains connect and merge them into moving images. Memory works in a similar fashion. The mind links our immediate present to our past; synthesizing the two creates a sense of movement. Memory is motion. Each gaze or glance at the world around us is one of recollection, as it invariably carries with it the past.
Over two million couples get married in the US each year. In Israel, the number just exceeds fifty thousand. Over half of them will no longer be married after the first decade, but the significance of the ceremony remains undiminished. Its power stems from the force of the promise it entails. Wedding days are still “the happiest day of our lives”, still “the day each girl dreams of”.
By definition, weddings clearly symbolize a transition from one social and conscious state to another. It validates the relationship between two people (as well as that of their families, although that measure of affiliation varies in different times and societies). It marks a farewell from single life, and the reemergence into society with a newly altered status. By its very nature, marriage is public, and the social, official acknowledgment of wedlock confirms the individual’s (and couple’s) dependence on authority. Couples thus willingly affirm their adherence to tradition and this hierarchical social system, their belonging to a social structure greater than themselves. The trappings and significance of its symbols imbues them with a sense of sanctity and eternity, and along with the official status it provides, the wedding ceremony provides a community theatre through which we may present ourselves anew, always reflective of this inherent value system, both overt and covert, creating a snapshot image of our group belonging.
This tactical act is a performance. The declaration is the act made here, one given its cogency through an entire array of authorities and punitive measures – and just as importantly, from the countless number of precedencies that came before it. It is the repetitive nature of this act that lends it its weight (one could say that this hegemony is perpetuated by repetition).
Weddings are a promise of a rosy future, and remain so even after they are replaced by “real life”. No wonder the documentation of weddings remains so essential a component to the event itself – whether through the video and still images of the “production”, or by the bureaucratic records, such as prenuptial agreements or ketubah marriage contracts. The documentation, even if never required ever again, still constitutes an assertion of the ceremony’s significance, its role in maintaining personal and community memories. It aids memory in presenting what we believe the past should be. However, it turns out that memory is also elastic and easily malleable, just as photographs may be selected and filed in photo albums at will.
The significance of the marriage ceremony – a well-known aspiration established in countless plays, films and popular songs throughout history – is the starting point from which every one of the works in “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget” germinated. Weddings and their documentation serve the participating artists as the anchor for investigating the familiar ritual structure against questions of memory and trauma.
The self-referencing serves as the central core of memory and consciousness. The product of their interrelations are an ever-developing and changing self-awareness, dynamic and subjective. But the dependence we have developed for devices of visual memory and memory storage, and the deliberate nature of rituals, narrow our vision, making it difficult to comprehend the ever-changing complexities of others (and further, diminish our ability to comprehend our own complexity as time and documentation widen the distance). It is this focus on the “flaws”, the course edges of this enfolding cover over a constantly changing heart – that allow us to truly see others. And they are, exactly, as we are ourselves.