Noah Brier | January 12, 2022

The Childhood Amnesia Edition

On memory, imagery, and emotions

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We first met Emanuel Derman (ED) when wrote the excellent Japan edition for WITI. He grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to Columbia University in New York to study for a PhD in physics. He wrote the book My Life as a Quant, and is syndicating a memoir on Substack which is worth a read. - Colin (CJN)

Emanuel here. It’s odd how little one remembers of one’s childhood. I’m pretty sure I remember more than most. 

Childhood amnesia has been a named condition since 1895. There are a variety of psychological and neurobiological theories about it. Freud thought it was a kind of hysterical repression of events of a sexual nature. There is a study that indicates that people with greater recall are more likely to disclose a greater range of information to others in everyday interactions and I feel that might be true. There are theories that there can be no autobiographical recall until children develop a sense of themself as a continuous entity. Others believe there can be no memory without language to encode it. I find this highly implausible because most of my memories from that time don’t involve words, but rather, strong emotional imagery. 

Why is this interesting?

I have many many early childhood memories, a rush of them from my first three or four years, all of them vivid. 

Dread. The earliest is of a darkened room filled entirely by a long heavy dark dining table. The curtains are drawn. Several doors lead off. I want to go through one of them to a bedroom on the far side. They won't let me. It must have been when my father's mother, whom I don’t remember, had died and her body was lying in that bedroom. It was1946 and I was thirteen months old. 

Longing. I remember missing my mother when she was away at work in my father’s garage nearby. I recall sitting on the front steps of the stoop of our house, looking down in the direction of the garage around the corner, and try to reel her in with my imaginary fishing rod, winding the imaginary spool. I knew it wouldn’t work but it made me feel better to do it. 

Longing Relieved. When my parents go to the movies in town on a Saturday night, I often wake up before they come home and I cry for my mother. My sister sings me a long song with infinite verses, about what my parents are doing moment by moment. The song continues until I fall asleep or they come home. 

Pleasure. My twelve-year-old sister wheels me around the block in my pram in the morning before her school, singing Half a pound of tuppeny rice/ half a pound of treacle/ Mix them up and make them nice/ … Pop goes the weasel! and then bouncing the pram at the end to give me a fearful and expected thrill. 

Pleasure Forbidden. My nursemaid takes me for a walk beside the park. I have just had my fingernails cut, and I run my newly bare fingertips over the sinusoidal bump bump bump of the dusty green corrugated iron fence. It is a strange pleasurable sensation to have the raw ends of my fingers bounce and throb over the metal. My fingers turn a little green and grey from the dust. She scolds me for getting my hands dirty and wipes them clean.

Shame. My father carries me on his back when I am too lazy to walk when I am three or four, and I am embarrassed and hide my face when we pass kids I know at the beach. 

A Treat. I am four and my father takes me into a kiosk in the boardwalk where you can record a little vinyl record about two minutes long. I sing songs I know. Later he takes me into the camera obscura on the elevated promenade above the beach where, in the dim darkness, you see projected on the table the moving images of people strolling outside. 

Fear & Empathy. I like to sit on the front steps of our house, facing the street. One afternoon an old bearded homeless man leans over the gate and speaks to me. I get scared and run inside for safety. When my mother and sisters comfort me, I feel bad for having hurt his feelings. 

Guilt. I am four and I like to play with the garden hose in front of our house. I stand on the red cement walkway that runs from the front gate to the front door of our house and grip the rubber hose, aiming the shiny brass nozzle so that the parabola of water lands on the little lawn on the right. Then I want to make the water go to the little lawn on the left. I swing the black rubber snake and shiny brass mouth with both fists, aiming to make the stream leap through the air without any water touching the cement. The nozzle strikes the forehead of my father who has come up behind me. He is taken to the hospital for stitches. It’s my fault. (ED)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Emmanuel (ED)

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