The Illusion of Memory

Recently I watched two sci-fi movies that I deeply enjoyed; Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, and the live action version of Ghost In The Shell starring Scarlett Johansson. Despite vastly differing source material, they touched on related themes. Memory – or what is perceived as memory, also played heavily in the movie The Arrival. All of these were excellent movies that I highly recommend watching, as they both entertain and, for me, are incredibly good science fiction stories, full stop. Speaking of stopping, if you haven’t seen these, you’d probably want to stop here.

(Spoilers abound, you’re forewarned.)

Both touch on memory and experiences shaping who we are. Are we shaped by the experiences we’ve had, and the memory of the emotions and actions we took during that event? Will changing our memories, or removing the memory of a horrible experience improve or help our current selves?

Any fan of the Ghost In The Shell series knows that ghost hacking and false memory implantation is featured in the early sections of the story, especially during the Puppetmaster arc of the story (which was the main theme of the original animated movie.) I think this is a common feature of cyberpunk settings as well; so any hardcore fan of the genre probably has thought of the things I’m thinking about now.

In GitS, ghosthacking can give people the belief that they are in fact living entirely different lives from what they have in reality; that they have families and children, or other identities entirely. How the holes in their reality and illusory reality are patched together aren’t mentioned, or glossed over; perhaps their reprogrammed brains simply employ a form of aphasia to rewrite the data that they are receiving through their senses – in a sense, their eyes lie to them. The original animated movie gave the example of a garbage man who was used as a puppet to perform a moving-access ghost hack; he believed that he was going through a messy divorce and believed a photograph he was looking at was that of his daughter. The reality was harsh and the exact opposite: he was single, had never been married, and had never lived with anyone else. In the animated movie, they show that he is a broken man to pity, as the depth of emotions he felt were real to him; but emotions that were based upon fiction, a complicated lie. In the live action, the garbage man kills himself, unable to deal with the reality that the life he thought he lived was a lie.

The Matrix series shows also how one of the rebels wanted to return to the titular Matrix, because reality was far harsher and uglier than they wanted to face. They wanted the beautiful lie, the virtual versus the real.

Sword Art Online is the phenomenal series where on the launch of the titular VR-MMO, 10,000 players’ minds were trapped in the game, which became a lethal reality; to die in the game carried across to the physical – the body of the player would die as well. Ordinal Scale deals with some of the repercussions of that original story. Kirito’s initial inability to play with augmented reality games – or lack of enthusiasm in them – was a source of amusement. It carries across from the second story arc where his mind remembers the fights and sword style he used in the world of Aincrad, but are alien and somewhat ill-suited to real life combat, even with the illusory augmented reality battles he plays with his friends.

The main villain of the movie reasons that it is probably better for the former victims to forget their traumatic memories, to no longer have to live with them. (This is an excuse, mind; an ineffectual sop that deals with the main villain’s monstrous act of stealing those memories as well as risking permanent, spreading memory loss.)

One of the scientists in the live action version of Ghost in The Shell tells the Major that ‘people put too much importance of memories to define who they are,’ a similar, self-comforting excuse to try ease a guilty conscience.

I found myself thinking about this for a while, long after the movies ended – possibly because the second anniversary of Brandon’s death is only days away, yet another tick in the calendar counting away from the day our world changed yet again for the worse. I cannot deny that the loss of first Damien, and then followed so quickly by Brandon, hurt us all deeply – the scars still bleed; counselling has done absolutely nothing to help, and an attempt to try antidepressant or mood-stabilising prescription drugs (and I was on the mild stuff) frankly made things worse. We do a good job of pretending on some days that we’re okay; sometimes, we fool even ourselves; if nothing else, we are able to wear the masks that hide the pain. Myself, my arms ache from their emptiness, the loss of the tiny humans I once cradled there against my chest. I know only that I will always wonder what they would’ve been like now; Damien as a four-year old, and Brandon as a two-year old.

I sometimes will lose myself in the what if, and the maybe if they had lived daydreams, and in the memories of what had been. Some days the pain of loss is too much to bear; and at best I go through the motions of the day because life goes on.

But… would i take the blue pill? Would I rather have my memory wiped?

Or, as in the sci-fi movie Arrival, would I have chosen differently, if I had known ahead of time what would be, even if I knew that the future held that soul-rending loss?

I wish I hadn’t lost my sons. I wish I wasn’t as broken as I am now. Painful as my existence is now, I sometimes wish I could sleep and not wake up for a while, to escape the inescapable. I could, I suppose, have taken up a vice of some kind, a variation of the blue pill, to forget the grief. If people ask me if there are things I could change in my life, their deaths would be the things I would change; along with my father’s early demise.

On the flip side though, shortly after we lost the boys, Rhys and I talked. If I had known that we were going to lose the babies, would I have gone ahead with the pregnancies? Would I have chosen not to carry them and nurture them in my bodies, knowing that it was futile?

My immediate, unhesitating reply was no. From the moment I knew they were conceived (and in Damien’s case, I knew within two weeks that I was pregnant) they were cherished children, that I couldn’t wait to meet and hold in my arms, already loved. This was Rhys’ reply too. I couldn’t have given them up, ended their lives before they were born, to spare myself – or the rest of us, the pain of having loved them and lost them. Even our housemate, who tried to save Brandon and hurts along with us at his loss, sincerely believes that Rhys and I have another child; even if there’s yet another chance of losing another baby.

We shouldn’t give up that hope, even if it meant that we risk losing another piece of our souls in the process.

I might wish that they hadn’t died, but I do not want to forget them; do not want to forget the love and joy, even if it meant that I no longer had to suffer the pain. Do I feel tempted into taking – at least, as an idea – the blue pill, an implanted memory?

Sort of not really. I wish I could have seen what they kiddlywinks would’ve looked like as they grew out of newbie human stage to chubby bubby and onward. I would’ve loved to see the way they would’ve grown, how they would’ve sounded as they laughed, cried, or spoken; what delightfully funny things they would have said (or horrifying out of the mouths of babes stuff) – the mischief and trouble they would’ve gotten into, and all the good and bad experiences.

But that’s what my daydreaming is for. A blue pill for me would only be a temporary jaunt into a virtual reality; just to help me daydream a little better, maybe soothe my loneliness and sorrow (or perhaps it’d make it worse? It seems to me to be no different from dreaming.)

I mourn the fact that they died; that their existence, and ability to have experiences, and life – that I would share with them, as a parent, and witness as parents do – was cut off, so early, so soon.

I take the pain as proof of how much they meant to me. The fact that the pain is often very difficult to deal with only emphasises that. I’ll always miss the boys.

So no, I wouldn’t want my memories erased or replaced. Taking away the losses removes large parts of me; the things that weaken me as well as the parts that make me strong. Some part of me will always ‘exist’ never moving on from the loss; and perhaps in time, even the memories will fade, the pain dimming.

But I will live with that. I’ve chosen to live with it; both the good memories and bad ones. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am.

Pain is an old friend…

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