I hate doing this, but I have realized it is time for me and this book to part ways. It was a rocky relationship from the beginning. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht started out with a prelude chapter of the main character describing her earliest memory from when she was four years old. In four pages of rich detail, the main character describes how they get to the zoo, everything that everyone was wearing, what they say, and what they packed for lunch the day that she went to the zoo and saw an accident where a tiger mauled a zoo employee.
That was the first time I put the book down. Nobody remembers their ‘earliest memories’ that clearly. I can understand that seeing a tiger attack would be memorable, but the amount of information that would get stored from that day that is clear enough to remember decades later would be a few brief moments surrounding that vividly gruesome event.
There are a few reasons for this psychologically. One is called “weapon focus” and is something that affects the accuracy of all eyewitness testimony: If there is a weapon involved in a scene, people get hyperfocused on the weapon itself and it becomes much more difficult for them to remember any other details about the scene clearly. They are focusing on the gun and whether or not it is pointed at them, and they aren’t as likely to notice little details like what the perpetrator looks like. In this case, the weapon is the tiger’s mouth and claws. She recalled lots of details about the attack itself and that is realistic, but chances are she would be so focused on what was happening with the tiger that she wouldn’t have noticed which other people in the crowd had turned away from the scene and which had watched. Even if these are things she sees in her peripheral vision at the time, it would not get stored in her memory because her attention would be on the tiger. That’s how memory works. It isn’t a video camera that records everything in finite detail: We tend to remember the important parts.
Second, and more importantly, people’s earliest memories are usually pretty brief moments in time, with not a lot of detail. I’ve done a lot of reading on the psychology of memory, but just in case I was misremembering, I asked several people what their earliest memory was: how old they were, and what happened. Most people had a hard time placing their exact age when the memory occurred and could relay the entire memory in 1-3 sentences.
One of my earliest memories was opening up a hardback book about dinosaurs while my sister was at swim lessons. I was sitting on the bleachers with my mom to my right and I could see the pool just above the top edge of the book. I remember being really excited about that book because I really loved dinosaurs, and being surprised at how the page was so white and had so many words on it.
It took three sentences to describe that memory. I don’t remember what my mom was wearing that day or what I was wearing that day. I don’t remember the car drive to get to the swim lessons, or the walk into the building, or anyone else being around. I don’t remember what I ate for lunch that day or what the weather was like. I don’t remember anything that was said to me before, during, or after opening the book. Early memories are short and tend to focus on something very important: What I remember was the moments where I first cracked open this amazing book and began to read.