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Siri Hustvedt is the author of four novels, a book of poetry, and a number of short stories and essays. She is the author of "The Blindfold" (1992), "The Enchantment[…]

Studying a humiliating memory from her own childhood convinced the author that we “place” what we remember, and vice versa.

Question: Does your claim that “explicit rnmemories thrive onrnplace” mean that non-location-based memories tend to fade?

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Siri Hustvedt: Well, this is a very rninteresting thing andrnthis is based on, in some way, introspection of my own, thinking about rntherncharacter of my own memories.  Butrnthis idea of loci and place, that goes way back. It goes... certainly rnCicerornhad this notion that in order to remember things, they have to be rnplaced, andrnmemory systems would often use a house. rnSay you need to memorize a speech. rnAnd what the technique would mean is you would give yourself a rnspatialrnlocation and usually a house.  Yournwould walk through it as you give the speech, so you would assign rnvarious partsrnof the speech to different rooms, and this seems to help keep the words rninsidernyou. 

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I have found that all of my memories seem to need arn placernand that a good part of what we think of as explicit memory has to do rnwithrnlocation. So for example, it is not that when you started going to gradernschool, say you went to the same school, that you remember every day of rnyourrngrade school experience. What you are remembering is the site of thosernexperiences.  Some of them explicitrnand many of them completely buried or forgotten. 

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I find that I need to locate my memories.  There was one illustration that I gavernin the book that interested me.  Itrnwas a failure of my own memory, an error. rnAnd this is what it was. rnWhen I was four years old, I was in Norway with my mother andrnsister.  We were at my aunt's housernsitting around the table, having a meal. rnI remember—I can see the living room perfectly in my mind.  My cousin, my older cousin, Vivica,rnbegins to cry.  I love this because—she is older rnthan she is still older than I am—and so I felt rnbad, I didn't know why she was crying.  I pushed rnmyself off the chair, and Irnremember my feet were dangling, so I had to drop.  Wentrn around and patted my cousin on her arm to comfortrnher.  And all the grown ups burstrninto laughter and I was so angry and humiliated by that laughter.  Of course no one meant any harm, but Irnwas four. 

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Only a few years ago, I've carried this memory ofrnhumiliation around with me my whole life. rnOnly a couple of years ago I recognized that it couldn't have rntakenrnplace in that living room because that house had not been built.  What had happened was that in order tornpreserve the memory, I replaced one house with another.  Myrn aunt's second house, the one builtrnafter that I do remember vividly. 

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I think this tells us something about the nature ofrnmemory.  First of all, that it'srnshifting.  There are no fixedrnoriginal memories that we can actually get ahold of, and that place is rnsomehowrnvital to the retention of those memories; even if we need an artificial rnhousernto put it in.