Re-enacting memories

One way to ‘think with dementia’ is to phenomenologically shift from ‘memory’ to ‘remembering’ and to mine ‘remembering’ for its qualities and potentialities as socio-culturally limned experience. Whereas ‘memory’ invokes static mappings of representation and world, ‘remembering’ is temporally emergent. Whereas ‘memory’ invokes individual capacities, ‘remembering’ is a situated, genre-ed activity that invites co-participation. ‘Remembering’ exudes qualities of performance, not least of which is an arousal of present sensibilities as shards of lived moments which are incrementally pieced together. Whereas ‘memory’ privileges (all kinds of) truth, ‘remembering’ privileges moment-by-moment revelations of the existential significance of events, people and objects – and beyond.

Milan Kundera (1981) tells us that remembering is not the negative of forgetting, but rather a form of forgetting. All of us need help in stepping back through the fog of time. The challenge for ethnographers of living with dementia is to discern the experiential journeys undertaken by the remembering self in concert with others. Crucial for ‘thinking with dementia’ is the challenge of delineating conditions that seem to promote revelation and move interlocutors towards accessing a present/future-implicative past.

The ethnographic story that I will (eventually!) relate illustrates several communicative affordances that intensify rememberers’ psychological involvement in past events:

Affordances of everyday co-narration

  1. Everyday narratives of past events are generous to rememberers, in that they are messy. Instead of tidy plotlines, the narratives meander here and there, go off on tangents and return, and flow back and forth across past, present, future and possible lifeworlds.
  2. Moreover, and crucially, multiple interlocutors contribute to the remembering underway by asking and responding to questions, and contributing bits and pieces of information regarding settings, protagonists, events, psychological reactions and possible implications.
  3. Building on 1) and 2) above, everyday narratives support remembering by turning narratives into loci for collaborative problem-solving around past events.

Affordances of event granularity

  1. William James (1958 [1902]) distinguishes experience – as an undifferentiated flow – from an experience – which is more or less differentiated by punctuated moments (see also Dilthey, Turner). Narrative is traditionally viewed as a disjunctive rendering of an experience.
  2. Yet, as narrators recount what transpired in the past, they differ in the granularity of their depictions, from relatively generic to detailed ‘punctuated’ accounts.
  3. Curiously, and wonderfully, as narrators incrementally, turn-by-turn, collaboratively build details of the past (as they query, clarify, elaborate, disagree and imagine alternative possible courses of events), the potential for a phenomenological modification heightens. As additional details of narrated events emerge, the events may progressively disclose themselves to narrators, allowing them to ‘dwell’ in the intersubjectively produced revelations. A kind of phenomenological truth is achieved, which in itself may become emotionally untamed.

I have never analysed the ordinary narratives recounted by persons living with dementia and other interlocutors in their surroundings. After fieldwork in Madagascar and Samoa, I fathomed how and why families, scientists, children with autism and adults with panic disorders in the US recount narratives with others they know well. In writing for ‘Thinking with Dementia’, I am struck by how co-narration lays down tracks for how every person perceives, remembers, and emotionally and ethically responds to past life events. That is, remembering is very much an interactional project, as events become co-narrated with the same and/or different interlocutors over and over throughout the course of one’s life.

Take the case of children remembering. Often called childhood (or infantile) amnesia, very young children have difficulty recalling early pre-verbal experiences (especially before the age of 2) when they are older. What I have seen, however, is that a child’s early life experience often becomes told and retold by adult family members, especially parents, in the presence of the child. It is as if remembering is made possible through co-narration; narrating with the child becomes remembering with the child.

The intimate link between co-narration and co-remembering of an early childhood experience can become emotionally intense, even explosive, when a child is drawn into querying and hearing about specific details of that experience. The details about the past (time of the tale) can precipitate a child becoming upset or angry in the present (time of the telling).

Here, at last, is an ethnographic story:

It is a summertime evening in California. Patricia, her husband Dan, and their two children, seven-year-old Oren and five-year-old Jodie, are around the dinner table. Patricia and Dan recently returned from a holiday, and Patricia decided to make guacamole (an avocado-based dip), which they enjoyed eating on their holiday, as an appetizer for dinner. Oren asks his mother what she put in the guacamole, and when she tells him “Hot salsa and chilli”, Oren gasps, collapses back on his chair, and pretends to die. His mother wryly comments, “Uh, we lost Oren. Well, he was a great kid”.

Then, abruptly, Oren becomes alert. Present experience slips into a remembering of the past. Oren turns to his mother and draws her into a narrative about a time when he ate a chilli pepper in a restaurant when he was a toddler. He begins with a query:

  • Wasn’t it funny when you thought that thing was a pickle? And I ate it?

But instead of affirming Oren’s stance, his mother contradicts him:

  • No, that wasn’t funny. I thought it was, uh, um, a green bean.

Oren continues:

  • And it was really a chilli? It was really a chilli?

Unsure of when this experience transpired, he asks his mother how old he was, and conferring with Oren’s father, she establishes that he was not even two years old. Very rapidly, details of the experience are built into the narrative through Oren’s questions and his mother’s responses. Each detail deepens Oren’s sense of the consequential nature of his experience.

  • Oren (to sister):         And then – and then you know what happened? I ate that chilli pepper? [Imitating the action of eating it] And Mom thought it was a bean? And I ate it? And I burned to death.
  • [Turns to Mom]       What happened? What –
  • Mom:                          You burnt your mouth.
  • [Oren and Mom look at each other]
  • Oren:                           Was it all over?
  • Mom:                          [Nodding yes]
  • Oren:                           Did I have to go to the hospital?
  • Mom:                          [Shakes head no once, low voice] Nah.
  • Oren:                           What did they have to do?
  • Mom:                          We gave you ice.
  • Oren:                           Where.
  • Mom:                          In your mouth.
  • Oren:                           Oh, my god. How long did I keep it in?
  • Mom:                          A few minutes.
  • Oren:                           Did I love it in?
  • Mom:                          You were crying.
  • Oren:                           I didn’t like it in there?
  • Mom:                          [Shakes head no] You were hurting. Your mouth hurt. It was burned.

At this climactic moment, the past explodes into the here-and-now, as if Oren only now realises the cost of his mother’s failure to protect him long ago. In a Heideggerian fusion of temporality and care, Oren points to his mother, reaches over, touches her cheeks and shouts:


His mother immediately concurs:

  • It was my fault.

But Oren has not finished his retribution. As his mother begins to account for her mistake, Oren pinches and twists both of her cheeks.

  • I thought it was [Oren now pinching both of Mom’s cheeks] a, um, green pepper.

She gasps loudly, pulls Oren’s hands away, and exclaims:

  • OW, that really hurts honey!

The co-remembering ends with Oren’s justification:

  • Your fault. I get to do whatever I want to do once.

Although his mother shakes her head no lightly, Oren provides an eye-for-an-eye principle for his retaliation:

  • Just like [it] happened to me, it happens to you.

I will leave you with this perfectly ordinary family dinner as a window into the untamed journeys that remembering can take through co-narration.


Kundera M. (1981). The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin

James W. (1958). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Mentor (Original work published in 1902).


Elinor Ochs is Distinguished Research Professor of Anthropology at UCLA. Drawing upon fieldwork in Madagascar, Samoa, Italy and the United States, she primarily documents durative and fluid dispositions and practices undergirding becoming competent speakers and actors across the lifespan, settings, and communities.  Her research on language socialization, narrative, and emotion bridges linguistic, psychological, and medical anthropology. Ochs also directed the UCLA Sloan Center on Everyday Lives of Families (2001-2010) that analyzed how social class configures communication, connectedness, childcare, health, commensality, leisure, work, and consumerism.  Selected honors include MacArthur Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences Member, Honorary Doctorate Linköping University (Sweden), President of Society for Linguistic Anthropology, and President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics.

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