YOUNG AUSTIN (seven), backlit, reads a book and crosses the stage to a chair. He is very much not looking where he is going. A silhouette, an outline, a memory.
SOUND FX: a swarm of bees, slowly intensifying.
AUSTIN (now), in aisle. He wants to tell you something.
That was me. In the backyard of our house in rural New Jersey. Which no one believes exists. It doesn’t much any longer. But back then it was vast fields for launching rockets, creeks for ice-skating, ice for crashing through. I am five years old and reading and leaning against this oak tree, this grandfather over my childhood. My mother is on the deck with my sister. My twin brother climbs the ladder nailed into the tree. And my father is off-stage. But soon. I am five years old when I place my hand into the crook of the tree and punch into a beehive.
Young Austin sets his hand on the chair. Austin echoes this move. The swarm sound is now quite loud.
Austin raises his hand to his face. Terror.
And like that, I’m covered in yellow jackets. Carpeted with them. Bees in my eyes, in my mouth. I’m terrified.
Young Austin runs the fuck off stage.
And so … I run. Across the backyard, trailing these bees like I’m on fire and I see my father he’s my dad right? He’ll know what to do but I race toward him—
He runs away. This is what I wanted to tell you about: my dad running away from me.
Austin ascends to the stage.
The poet Louise Glück says “Everything that happens to you happens to you in your childhood and from then on out it is just repeat, repeat, repeat.” My mother swept down, and saved me. She slapped the bees off and I survived. But that moment, that betrayal, that running has stayed with me for thirty some years. I think we all have these scenes playing out in our heads, our various expositions.
But a few months ago, I was at home with my mother where the subject of my father comes up a lot. They’ve been divorced for years and still he’s in heavy rotation. And I ask her about that afternoon with the bees. I wanted to know what she said to my father afterward. What she saw in him then, the cowardice.
Lights shift. A transformation. The first of many.
Aussie-lee, that’s so funny. Your father didn’t run. I was the hysterical one. He scattered the bees with his hands. He threw a blanket over you. He was always leaping into the breach. But at least we learned you weren’t allergic. Have you talked to your father recently? How is his halitosis?
Lights shift. A return.
My father didn’t run. This news completely unsettled me. My parents divorced a year after I was stung. At some point, I must have made sense it by writing on top of the memory—to turn my father’s running into a larger departure. But what else in the skein of stories I’m always telling have I made up? How much of any of the memories that any of us carry—the ones that make us us are threaded with fiction?
Doesn’t this bother anybody else?
Lights shift. Austin moves into the Evidence Room of the stage: a cold, hard light. The place of explanation. Do what you must to keep them listening.
Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist who studies memory and trauma. She became well known during the wave of repressed memory trials in the early nineties—remember those?—when she served as an expert witness for parents against their own children. Children who claimed, many years after the fact, their fathers and mothers were Molesters. Murderers. Extreme Ticklers.
A lot of Satanists out there, judging by the testimonies. Loftus looks at how trauma can cause “storage” failures. The inability to inscribe a memory correctly at the moment of acquisition. Loftus conducted an experiment using film from a surveillance camera during a robbery. She took two groups. The first group just watched the video. The second watched the same video except it ended with the image of a baby//
SOUND FX: BANG.
//getting shot in the face. The second group—the “child getting shot in the face group”—could hardly remember details about the robbery. The trauma of seeing that image caused a storage failure. If experience is a kind of stylus, scoring into your days, shock jumps the needle.
“Stressful events eat away at memory,” Loftus says. After this terrible film, she had the second group watch a news report about the robbery full of false information, and this second group absorbed the lies into their version of the events. Go through something, and you’re vulnerable to what Loftus calls “post-event information: opinions, inferences.” And invention.
One of the limitations—and disappointments really—of stressful memory research is that it’s ethically impossible to conduct the “ideal” storage failure scenario. In the nineteen-sixties, the social scientist Stanley Milgrim had subjects “electrocuting” people to test their obedience. Only one of his subjects refused to turn the dial all the way up. They decided he went too far. And they made tests like that illegal. I wonder where we’d be if they hadn’t stopped him. What we would now know.
SOUND FX: a car engine, idling, then off.
Lights shift, dim. Austin sits in the chair and relaxes into the thirteen-year-old version of himself.
It’s night. At the parking lot of the Bridgewater Mall. It looks like we’ve landed on an asphalt moon. I’m thirteen years old. And I’m thumb-wrestling my twin-brother in the back of a passenger van. Let me just say, I’m pretty much a Greek god of thumb-wrestling.
Sneak attack! Ow, Colin, you just fucking scratched me. Why do you have to scratch? We’re going to have to get you declawed. Jesus. No I don’t want to play that game anymore. I’ll play another game. I’ll play this game.
Sneak attack! Austin strangles his (unseen) twin brother. Then, suddenly, he is also strangled (by his other arm.) You work out the magic.
AUSTIN (AS FATHER):
Austin Colin, quit it right now!
Austin quits it.
My father and his new girlfriend Ann sit in the front seats. They look out at another van, across the lot. I can just make out the sound of a scraping across the metal floor, the sound of strange arrangements.
Ann is a professional dog breeder of golden retrievers. At her house, dogs roam the place in packs. When my brother and I go down to visit on weekends, in the ritualized schizophrenia of divorce agreements, we sleep on the couches. Mornings: a moist nudge in the face by a panting, amber stud.
We’ve come tonight, to the Bridgewater Parking lot, to breed a dog. Ann did this all the time. She sold off the sex drives of her best studs for thousands. She’d coup up the dog in the back of a van with a bitch in heat and just wait. Like us, like now.
SOUND FX: a ghostly long howl. Produced by Austin.
Suddenly, the dogs begin making this weird disorienting cry without pause, like some circle-breathing experiment I’m trying out on my clarinet. Ann opens her door to go check on them. My father gets a flashlight and turns back toward us and says, Boys, do you want to see?
I’m thirteen years old. Of course I want to see. I had just watched of Faces of Death II and the footage of naked people getting shot in front of a firing squad was kind of hot. As we walk over to the van, my dad starts to explain.
Lights shift. Darker still. Austin has a flashlight. He moves downstage, beaming it into the audience.
You know when you put your finger in a bottle and you can’t get it out? When dogs are done making love, they get stuck. So they have to yank and yank to get free from each other.
This was the sum total of sex education I would ever receive from my parents. For years, I thought sex worked like Chinese Handcuffs.
We arrive at the open doors of the van. The light inside is broken. The flashlights play over the moving shapes of the dogs. I can barely see and I’m terrified.
Austin crosses the lip of the stage, peering into the black.
Looking back, twenty years later, I can still see that parking lot so clearly. The blood on the floor. The violence. Their heart-breaking cries and shame on the dogs’ faces even, if that’s even possible with dogs.
Isn’t trauma all kinds of things?
My father takes my hand and whispers—
Don’t tell your mother.
This is a story that I’ve told so many times, polished and tightened and made perfect for telling that I’m sure it happened. Except the Bridgewater Mall wasn’t built until 1990. Long after those weekend visits with my father stopped forever.
Austin puts the flashlight away.
Lights shift. Austin heads to the Evidence Room.
No police investigation of a case involving recovered memory has ever found any evidence of Satanism.
Does memory lie, or does it just want to tell a really good story?
I decided to call the rest of my family to see what they remembered of that afternoon with the bees.
MY TWIN BROTHER:
Dude. I have no fucking clue. But let me just say your beard looks super pubey right now.
Oh my Goooooood I have no idea what you’re talking about but you guys used to be so. Cute. In. diapers. I used to bite your feet.
Well yeah, let me see. We saw one of the bees come out under a railroad tie that was back there and into a log. I thought we should turn the log over and pour some gasoline and kill them. Well, we turned the log over and they all came out! I don’t know if anybody got stung or not, but it sure was exciting.
I think we did put gasoline on them, eventually. That got them.
This is what science says. We experience things. Later, we remember them. But every time we do, our memory is colored by all the instances in which we remember it. What we remember is, over time, the remembering. This is what the science says. Or at least that’s what I remember.
The surgeon, Wilder Penfield, operated on one thousand epileptics to stop their seizures. He opened their heads like a can. Then he removed parts of their brains on the fritz. But while he was at it
He decided to run electrical currents into different parts of their brains. Just to see what would happen. The patients were conscious the entire time. And as he did so, the line between memory and invention began to blur.
SOUND FX: A swirl of sounds. An orchestra plays.
One man who was not a musician, had the sensation of playing in a concert orchestra.
SOUND FX: A crying baby.
A childless woman remembered nursing her own crying baby.
SOUND FX: Italian.
A man who had never left the country recalled having conversation in a foreign tongue.
One thing Penfield proved: Memory is homeless. It’s stored everywhere, all over the brain, like a giant hive. The second? That we’re all good liars, psycho-chemically speaking. When the patients were asked later to identify these memories, only thirty-five of one thousand could. Only thirty-five people could say what they’d seen, heard, felt on Penfield’s surgical table was something they’d actually experienced. The other nine hundred sixty-five looked at Penfield blankly, fingering their sutures.
Who knows what we’re holding onto up here?
Who knows how much any of it is actually ours?
Here’s one that is. I promise.
Austin sits in a chair. He is about to have a conversation between himself and his mother. Be prepared.
My mother is driving me home after my freshman year of college. And she’s very nervous.
Aussie, there’s something I want to talk to you about, that I’ve been waiting to talk to you about for a long time.
Austin, mouth agape. In shock and shame. An inner monologue begins.
FUUUUCCCCKKK. She knows. She knows that I’ve been smoking pot like a fiend for the past nine months. Okay, eight months, one month I was just coughing and pretending. No. no: Even worse, she knows about Christof. She knows that I fooled around with the German exchange student who is also a boy and I’m not sure which is worse.
(OUT TO AUDIENCE)
Mom—You can tell me anything.
It’s about your father. Your father and I did not get divorced because we did not love each other.
Mom, isn’t this exceptionally old news?
We promised that we would wait until you were eighteen to tell you and old enough to understand. We got divorced because your father was sleeping with men. And lying to me about it.
Austin, mouth agape.
Mom, I think we’re all bisexual.
Mother, mouth agape.
Years before, my brother and I had gone through my father’s bureau and found porn in the bottom drawer. What’s a standard issue privacy violation among family? Later, I would only remember Playboys, which I found totally tame and boring. But, years later, my brother reminded me that we saw gay magazines and videos in those drawers. “I thought Ann was into that stuff,” my brother said. I proceeded to block that information entirely. What we hold onto.
My mother tells me this news about my father and a week later, he announces he’s getting re-married. Not to Ann. She’d fallen out of the picture long ago. To Ginger, a woman he met in the church ski club. My father isn’t religious, doesn’t know how to ski and hates clubs. Really solid start to a relationship.
I decide I’ve got to talk to him. I’d written him off. I had become good at turning his every approach into a retreat. But maybe this would connect us. I hadn’t slept with any men—well no one except Christof—but I was definitely planning on doing it more. Maybe this would turn into a bridge between us.
I write him a letter. Dear Dad: What’s up? I hear from mom that you slept with men … He calls and says let’s meet at Bennigan’s. Now, do you know Bennigan’s? Bennigan’s is a family restaurant. I have this feeling that intense shit goes down at Bennigan’s, but nobody wants to remember it that way.
My dad shows up in a suit and loafers. He’s in the final years of working for an insurance company, and even the suit looks bored. I’m nervous. Very nervous. Family secrets: they’re the monsters.
SOUND FX: restaurant noise. Bennigan’s.
Dad—so you got my letter?
He says he gave it to Ginger.
Austin, mouth agape.
Oh that’s cool. So … what’s the deal? Do you want to tell me your side?
And he begins to tell me: There were men, the husband of a couple they knew. A real estate agent took him to an empty model home and seduced him. A seminary professor who wouldn’t quit with his advances. His pharmacist, the man who gave him sleeping pills, who traded the drugs for sex.
Austin stands, moves away from himself.
As I listen, I realize something. Every one of the stories has to do with him being “taken advantage of.” According to him, he never approached anyone. They just came onto him. Like even as a grown man, he never could. Just. Run away.
This bitterness rises up inside me. These things, these assignations, just happened to him—but he’s not the man that he was. I expected to be transformed by that conversation. But I feel myself pulling away. Even as we talk, I feel myself—
Austin raises his hand to his face. And echo.
—taking the stylus off the record.
Now, I can’t remember a thing about that conversation. Strange: a storage failure precisely where I wanted one.
Werner Herzog’s movie Wings of Hope is about this woman who was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the Amazon. The plane exploded midair. Everyone died except this one girl who fell through the sky, still belted into her row of seats. She crashed into the canopy of trees thousands of feet below and walked away. A miracle. Thirty years later, Herzog being Herzog, he interviewed this woman STANDING IN THE WRECKAGE of the plane that had never been removed. And he asked her
How did you zurvive? What do you remember?
And the woman blinked, very peacefully, and she said
I only opened my eyes for an instant. And I looked and I saw that there was no one is the row with me and that meant that my parents were dead and then I saw the ground spiraling below me. And I was spinning and I think that spinning saved my life. And that’s it. That’s all I remember. That’s all I’ll let myself remember.
That’s all I’ll let myself remember.
I think the world is always crashing up toward us. Some part of us can look down, right into the acceleration of an ending. Some other part of us is set to wiping catastrophe from our minds even as it happens. I think what saved her life is that she can barely remember a thing.
The stage returns to backlight. Austin moves down into the aisle. Young Austin returns, reading, walking toward the chair. Toward everything to come.
I wanted to tell you something tonight about my father that was true. I wanted to remember him better. More completely. To get through the fog and give him a second chance to be a person, to be himself. And not just the version I hold in my head. But I think I failed.
Maybe what memory is trying to do is just keep the failures away from us.
But in another way I’m lucky. Because tonight will be what I see what I look back. This will be what I hold onto. What is mine. What might be now, just a bit, yours.
Young Austin sets his hand on the chair.
Austin Bunn is a writer, screenwriter, and professor. A Michener-Copernicus Fellow, he is the author of The Brink, published by Harper Perennial and selected as a Lamdba Lit finalist and Electric Literature “Best Short Story Collection of 2015.” He wrote the script for Kill Your Darlings, with the film’s director John Krokidas, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and won the International Days Prize at the Venice Film Festival. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Zoetrope, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Science and Nature Writing, and elsewhere. His monologue, “Basement Story,” won the Missouri Review Audio Essay Prize and has been broadcast on WBEZ, Third Coast, Australian Radio, and Michigan Public Radio. The audiobook of The Brink won the Audie 2017 for best fiction collection from Audible.
Image provided by author.