How do we see and know, and how perception is filtered by the lens of experience and beliefs. This is what this project has really been about. Exploration of this both in a small scale close personal way, but noting the parallels also on a larger scale.
As I discovered, listening to my sister, her recollection of specific events is often different to mine: although we were both present witnessing the same happening we brought different perspectives. Asking my mother and grandfather to record their memories of the 30’s and 40’s was interesting as they brought their perspectives to the situation. My grandfather was a young father at the time and had anxiety about the whole process. He was upset that his recollection and my mother’s did not always co-incide, and part of the visit with him was being clear that this work was not about ‘discovering what really happened’ and passing some sort of judgement. It is about listening and trying to make sense of why things are the way they are, with kindness and compassion so as to gather understanding. My mother was a child, and is now remembering experiences which she preferred to forget, with a certain amount of anger and regret, at what happened to her and her much younger brother, and remorse for what she could have done differently to help her brother. However, people make decisions in the context of what they know at that time, but without the luxury of a retrospectroscope.
In my family, as in most families, people will have done or said things that with hindsight they wish they had not. To err is human. And as a matter fact, to cover over your mistakes and wish them away is completely human as well. My partner has often said to me “Denial is not just a river in Egypt”. Tavris and Aronson explain all this beautifully in their book Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). This is a book that sympathetically explains how sane and sensible people can get themselves into terrible messes, as a consequence of self-justification to minimise cognitive dissonance.
Tavris and Aronson wrote the following passage in their introduction:
“Now between the conscious desire to fool others and unconscious self-justification to fool ourselves lies a fascinating grey area, patrolled by that unreliable, self-serving historian – memory. Memories are often pruned and shaped by an ego-enhancing bias that blurs the edges of past events, softens culpability, and distorts what really happened. .. as the self – serving distortions of memory kick in and we forget or distort past events, we may come to believe our own lies little by little. We know we did something wrong, but gradually we begin to think it wasn’t all our fault, and after all the situation was complex. We start underestimating our own responsiblity, whittling away at it until it is amere shadow of its former hulking self.” (Tavris and Aronson pg 6)
The quote on the tablet is ‘And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free:’. Is that right? I am not sure the truth as pure facts is of much relevance to me in the context of this project. I am much more interested in what were the influences that led to people doing the things they did. Setting things in context.
It was put to me that the words on my tablet might have been more appropriately carved in stone or concrete, two very permanent materials, resonances of the 10 commandments written on two stone tablets given to Moses by God. I have been thinking about this, but my perception of the truth in this context is that it is never ‘set in stone’, forever new information will come to light, changing the way in which old material is viewed. And that that although learning the truth can bring healing and forgiveness, it can also lead to destruction, division, blame and judgment. It can be a two edged blade, and a rusty blade. For this reason I think a tablet made of casting powder, which is imperfect, inclined to flake off as the layers delaminate, has fissures, and at its core is held together internally by a bits of scrap wood, plastic plumbing tubes, copper ties, brass screws and a whole load of bits of stringy scrim is fitting.