"Technically, the process is brain damage,"
-Dr. Howard Mierzwiak
It's been awhile since I've been as emotionally moved by a movie as I was when watching Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. Yes the plot sounds gimmicky: Jim Carrey plays Joel who meets Kate Winslet's Clementine on the beach. Her spontaneity wins him over. Inevitably their relationship comes apart. He's too set in his ways for her. He finds out her free spirit comes with a psychological price. One day he finds out she has undergone a procedure that erases him from her mind. He decides to get even and undergoes the same procedure to forget her. But during the memory erasing process he decides that the memory of her, as painful as it now is, is better than knowing she'll never exist for him ever again in any way shape or form.
It's a broken love story of staggering power. As the story unfolded in its clever way I felt tears welling up in my eyes. Co-written by Charlie Kaufman, the same guy who gave us Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind is deliberately unconventional. Yet at its core, at its heart, the film wonderfully contemplates the power our memories have in coloring what we perceive our current reality truly is.
Maybe the movie moved me so deeply because the purpose of our memory has been on my mind since that question has come up several times in the memoir writing class I'm taking at the Loft with the blue-eyed editor (who happened to accompany me to Eternal Sunshine on this particularly sunny but windy Saturday afternoon). One of the women in the class has let us know she suffers from memory loss due to a medical condition. Her contributions often seem more suitable for therapy sessions than they do to a course in writing. She has told us that one of her biggest frustrations is that since different people relay different versions of events, she isn't sure what she can believe actually happened and thus her trust of her own memories of the described situations suffers.
Every Wednesday for the past several weeks I find myself sitting there with my friend, and being the only guy in a class with 17 women has been at times jarring to say the least. Yet I've found it isn't only my gender that separates me from the others. We've learned so much of memoir writing involves digging deep into memories and the woman with the medical condition isn't the only one who has questioned how much one can trust one's memory. All the others seem to write because they find it helps them sort through and remember specific memories. Not me.
I was reading one of the stories about the suicide of Spaulding Gray where it mentioned that his own writing was often based on trying to find an outlet for memories that were still too powerful, that haunted him relentlessly. Sharing his memories with others lessened the power they had over him. Having not been that much of a fan of Spaulding Gray I suddenly felt a twinge of a connection. I've always written because it felt if I didn't the images, the memories would bounce around eternally in such an overwhelming way that the only conceivable end result would be to end up crazier than I already was.
Sitting there watching Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind all could I remember was how much energy I've expended the past dozen years in trying desperately to forget one who I may one day manage to erase from my memory all the while sad that I now can't even quite remember how her face looked.
This is the week it's now 15 years since I took a cross country trip/journey with Stephanie Jane. It was a trip/journey that led me to fulfill a lifelong dream of writing a novel. But in fulfilling that dream I put an end to my relationship with Stephanie Jane. I stayed up day and night writing that novel, taking memories of the trip, of the journey, of the relationship, of my love of Stephanie Jane and putting them down on paper so they wouldn't echo forever in my head, so the memories could escape and find a permanent place to exist. I'm not proud of that. And it remains the biggest regret of my life. By writing about, by turning my memory of all that happened and my feelings about her into a story, by blurring nonfiction and fiction I deliberately (in a self inflicted passive aggressive way) turned her from a friend into just a made up character. I wanted to forget her at the same time I was trying to immortalize her.
Repeat after me- Clementine is no Stephanie Jane. Yet the Winslet character reminded me of what I loved so dearly about my friend. Stephanie Jane wasn't there to save me from my own darkness yet after telling her (one of the first that I did) what I had recently been through, her response was so typically perfect (and nearly Clementine worthy). "We'll just have to make new memories to replace the old."
I still remember our first time out together we were at a party of somebody who was a friend of a mutual friend. Stephanie Jane sensed I was uncomfortable as I hung out in the kitchen while most of the others were in the living room. When she came back to see how I was doing I told her (carefully revealed to her) that the recently written short story about her I had shared was one of the first pieces of writing I had been able to spill out me having suffered from my first bout of writer's block. She seemed quite honored and said, "I'm gonna make a folder to keep all your writing in."
In the memorable imagery of the movie as Carrey's Joel character is having his memory erased bit by bit we see remembered objects like fences, houses, books, and blankets systematically deleted from his mind. It's wonderful movie imagery, quite effectively capturing that dream like state where you wake up wanting to remember what your mind has just created knowing that no matter how hard you try what you keep when you awake for real won't be what you want to try to always remember.
Likewise it's Winslet's Clemetine who urges Carrey's Joel that to bypass what's happening, to ultimately remember her and his love for her he has to somehow place her in places she didn't really exist. So in a great scene he remembers a time when he was a child watching his mother leave him to a related babysitter- only in his memory he has placed Clementine, dressed in an aunt's mini-skirt and go-go boots as he is a little man-child hiding underneath the family's kitchen table. The proportions shown in the scene are all out of whack and as the memory erasers proceed Joel sees it all whirling down the drain of the kitchen sink, choking on his own breath.
I wanted Stephanie Jane to save me. I had fallen and I wanted her to be the one to pick me up. I later saw that wasn't fair and her limping away in her own way let me know that. I thought her last words to me were going to be, "I still feel the same as always" after I told her that seeing her for the last time sent me way over the edge.
And then 12 years later September 11 happened in our country. And I accidentally found Stephanie Jane again. I called her and she was shocked to hear from me. We cautiously revealed all that had passed since the last time we had spoken. Her voice so familiar shocked me when she said that our true shared love- music- didn't mean as much as it used to. And when I told her how much of her remained inside of me, I think she was honored, disturbed, saddened, and proud, all at the same time.
As Eternal Sunshine revealed itself I knew the tears in my eyes were mine and mine alone. One can't hold on to what one remembers all in the sake of some noble devotion to the importance of one's past.
I remember each and every moment with Stephanie Jane with such clarity despite how much I've tried so hard to forget. Maybe it was writing it all down. Maybe it was that she got through at a time when I needed something and someone to get through and I was willing to reach out to the one with a dreamlike kindness and limp. As much as I idealized her I've come to realize she wasn't a spirit who survived to rescue me. Her growing up in foster homes, smoking, drinking, and stumbling too much I didn't see her for what she told me she was. Yet I did see her for all she could be even if she never quite knew that. I'll always remember that.