On Valentine’s Day actress Ellen Page came out as a lesbian and my first thought on hearing the news was, Tell me something I don’t know.
The thing was, she was telling me something I didn’t know.
Or rather she was telling me something I didn’t know I knew until she told me. Then all became clear.
And settled in my mind and memory.
Of course I always knew. It was obvious. No question. Plain as day. First time I saw her in X-Men: The Last Stand I thought, Why did they make Kitty Pryde gay? Well, I mean, they’re all gay, metaphorically, but why is Shadowcat literally a lesbian?
Except that I almost certainly never thought any such thing about Kitty Pryde or Ellen Page. (My only real thought was probably along the lines of Why did they recast Shadowcat again?) I never thought Ellen Page was gay, and not because I assumed she was straight. Because I never thought about her sexuality at all. And that’s because I never thought much about Ellen Page at all.
She’s a good actress. I admired her work in Juno and rooted for her to win the Academy Award that year. And her portrayal of a certain type of actress in To Rome With Love was so devastatingly right on that I winced for whichever of her former friends from her high school drama club was being so mercilessly parodied and wondered what she’d done to Page to deserve it. Actually, she did it so well that I hoped she was doing a self-parody because that level of self-awareness and that much lack of vanity is rare in movie stars and if Page could be so clear-eyed and unself-forgiving that promised well for her future career. But I didn’t follow that up with any insight into her sexual identity.
But To Rome With Love was the last movie I saw her in and I didn’t much like it and Juno hasn’t worn well in my memory, so I haven’t rewatched either one or made a point of replaying either in my head. I know she was in Inception but when I think about that movie I think about everything except her part in it. That’s not a knock on her performance. It just wasn’t much of a part, and Inception wasn’t about its characters anyway.
And I know she’s going to be back as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: Days of Future Past and while I’m looking forward to the movie I’m not looking forward to her return, particularly. In fact, if they’d left Shadowcat and Page out of it entirely (instead of giving Shadowcat's role in the original comic book story to Wolverine), I probably wouldn’t have noticed. Again, that’s not a knock on Page. I’m just not much of an X-Men fan and I don’t care about Shadowcat or any of them who aren’t played by Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, or Ian McKellan, for that matter.
What I’m trying to say is that Ellen Page is not someone I think about, one way or another, even when I’m thinking about her, if you know what I mean. And still I knew she was gay.
Knew it all along.
Tell you something else.
I don’t follow college football. The SEC is entirely off my radar. The University of Missouri might as well not exist for all I know about it as either a Division I powerhouse or an institution of higher learning. So I’d never heard of Michael Sam before he came out the other week. But I’m certain that if I had heard of him and seen or read even one interview with him, I’d have always known he was gay.
I hope it’s clear I’m not claiming to have finely-tuned gaydar.
I’m admitting to having an easily edited memory.
Just like yours.
Just like everybody’s.
None of us remember.
When people use the phrase a selective memory, they usually mean that someone is deliberately mis-remembering. But all memory---everybody’s memoriy---is selective. Remembering is an act of selection.
Memories don’t live in our heads, whole and discrete and carefully stored on mental shelves to be taken out and played like DVDs when we need them. They have to be retrieved in bits and pieces from whatever neurological cubby holes they happen to be shoved into at the moment and reassembled. And it’s inevitable that in the reassembly, which takes place in less than seconds, details we included the last time get left out, forgotten, and details we left out the last time get remembered. Some of those forgotten details are true. Some of the newly remembered ones aren’t. And vice-versa. The new assemblage is bound to include information we stored away since the last time we remembered whatever it is we’re remembering. Some of that information isn’t ours, that is, we didn’t remember it, it was imposed. We saw a photograph, were told a story by someone else who was there, read a book, saw a movie, thought things over and based on other information that isn’t specifically related to that memory causes us to see it differently---Oh, that was the year they went to Spain, so she couldn’t have been there!---and all of that changes the memory, usually without our even being aware that it’s changed. That we’ve changed it.
It should be noted that in the process it’s possible for things that did not happen, that did not happen then, that happened but to someone else, to get inserted into our memory as if they are ours. Which is to say, we routinely remember things that did not happen.
Add to this that memories are mostly built out of what we observed at the time and most of us just aren’t that observant.
There’s not enough tucked away in there for us to construct a good story out of, and that’s what remembering is, storytelling. We’re either telling ourselves or telling others a story and we want those stories to be interesting and entertaining. Missing the kinds of details and facts that would make them so, we instinctively, reflexively, unconsciously usually but not always, make stuff up.
And who’s to say we are? How’s anyone to prove it? We were there, after all. And aren’t their memories as faulty and suspect as ours?
We know our past experiences, previous knowledge, and various assumptions, preconceptions, prejudices, and associations can color our perceptions of the moment and we can try to control against it. It’s difficult but we can train ourselves to do it. It’s harder to prevent it happening the other way, with our perceptions of the moment coloring our past thinking. Our memories don’t exist apart from our present thinking. They are of the past but they’re happening---being selected, reassembled, reconfigured, rewritten---in the present and they’re affected, adulterated, altered, and added to by whatever else we’re thinking as we remember them. I can’t remember what I thought about Ellen Page before Valentine’s Day without remembering what I’ve learned since.
And we’re biased. Mostly we’re biased in our own favor. We’re biased to think well of ourselves. We’re biased to believe we are smart or at least not stupid. We’re biased towards feeling we are right. Right to think what we think. Right to have thought it all along. And it’s amazing how often we are right about all that, that we’re smart, that we’re right to think what we think, that we thought it all along.
How often have you heard someone say, how often have you said “I knew that!” “I was just about to say that!” “Everybody knows that!”
No, you didn’t. No, you weren’t. Everybody except you.
Me neither. You’re right, I wasn’t. And except me too.
But we’ll swear we did, were, and do. We’re sure we did, were, and do. We look into our memory and there it is, where it always was, the right answer, the true fact, the real story.
It’s amazing how close to instantly we can rewrite a memory. Rewrite right over the old one. And it’s amazing how close to instantly we can marshal evidence that the new memory is correct. Amazing how it turns out that everything and everything is proof we were right all along.
I knew he’d cheat on her! Look at the kind of car he drives.
Of course she’d have done that. Remember that time back in college when she “forgot” her ID.
It I wasn’t aware of it and actively working against letting it happen, it’d be the work of an instant to convince myself that my never having thought about Ellen Page’s sexuality was proof I knew instinctively she was gay. I mean, otherwise, wouldn’t I have at least fantasized about her once or twice the way I have about other, straight---or as far as I know straight---actresses like my imaginary movie girlfriends Gwyenth and Uma?
Except how do I know I never did? After all, she looks almost as much like my first high school girlfriend as Scarlett Johansson looks like my second and of course I’ve Fanta….
The point is I don’t know if I’m remembering what I’m remembering remembering correctly. I could be telling myself and you one big lie. And this is troubling not least for what it suggests about the nature of mind and personhood. But it’s also a concern for me as a blogger because most of what I do around here depends on my having a reliable memory.
When I write about movies, I need to trust and you need to trust that what I’m remembering I saw I actually saw. When I review a book, I have to trust that I’m remembering what I actually read. When I write about the comings and goings here at the Mannionville ranch I have to trust I’m not just telling a rattling good yarn. When I write about politics I’m trusting I’m remembering it all right, what I read online and in the newspapers, what I learned in history class, what I saw on TV, what I know from experience, what I know from sources I don’t remember what they were now.
I’m a pretty diligent and copious note-taker but when I look at my notebooks I have to remember what it was I was telling myself to remember with my notes.
And how do I know I’m not remembering any of it the way I remembered that I always knew Ellen Page was gay?
It’s like in that old Spider-Man comic when after the Jackal clones Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy and the Peter clone dies in a fight with the real Peter. Peter tells himself he doesn’t have to feel guilty because the clone wasn’t a person. The Gwen clone asks Peter how he knows he’s not the clone. Peter’s first reaction is to say Of course I’m not, I’d know if I was and then he stops himself and realizes he wouldn’t know. The clone would think he was the real Peter too.
“Far out,” he says, impressed by the conundrum.
At least, that’s how I remember it.