Personal Histories: On the Nature of Memory and Aurelie Sheehan’s Jewelry Box

Aurelie Sheehan’s Jewelry Box is a thin volume of fifty-eight vignettes in 119 pages. The explanatory subtitle, A Collection of Histories, would suggest that each of these is a history unto itself. One review on the back cover, by Lucy Corin, calls them “stories tuned like poems that behave like a memoir.” Another, by Michael Martone, uses an avalanche of fragmentary metaphors: “splinters of story… ice shards… silver slivers.”

With no introduction or any other hints at what to expect from this little coffret, I curled up as best as I could into my window seat on a bicoastal flight, ready to delve in. What I discovered was something like finding a box of trinkets and photographs at a stranger’s yard sale or attic. There is no way to know if these bits of jewelry, knick-knacks, photographs, letters, and postcards all belonged to one person, or if they all just somehow ended up in the same box. You wonder how they got there and what each object meant to each person whose life it touched. Jewelry Box is a good description of the book in that a jewelry box is just such a collection of artifacts with no apparent context.

We can only assume that the narrator is the same person throughout. If we assume that, then the events take place at different times in the narrator’s life, from childhood to adulthood. In the title story, the narrator shares items from her jewelry box with her daughter, each piece with some personal subtext and history all its own. This story could represent the whole book; each of the segments comes from a different time in life and carries a different weight and character. Sheehan shares these shards of memory with the reader like jewels in a box. Fragments. Artifacts. And from there, we can only assume that the book is primarily autobiographical or otherwise collected from the author’s own life.

Under the hypnotic influence of the recycled air, low light, and nearly eighty decibels of constant, deafening white noise, I started to get philosophical about memory and what exactly is the stuff that makes up our personal histories. Who we are. The stories that stick out the most in my memory of Jewelry Box are these: an adolescent girl, discovering a boy spying on her as she changes her t-shirt. A sexual fantasy involving near rape by talking animals of the sub-Saharan region. A sequence of cosmetic products used from the shower to heading out the door. A sixteen-year-old girl hired as a housekeeper goes to clean the house of an artist who exposes himself to her. A young woman goes to dinner with a former professor who gives attention to the waitress who tells them a joke. Musings on why the narrator is impressed or turned on by having a boyfriend with a big truck.

The effect of fragmentation comes from the lack of context. The stories are not linear. We can’t be certain that they all happened to the same one narrator. Some are events that happened in the world, others are internal experiences, thoughts, ideas, or fantasies. It’s a box full of the artifacts of a mind.

But isn’t that, in essence, what a personal history is? We all have stories. But they don’t line up chronologically. Different people in our lives remember things different ways. We tell vivid stories all the time and then learn that someone else recollects it in a completely different way. How many times have you heard one person tell a story, and another person says, “That didn’t happen to you, that happened to me.” We are made up of things we’ve heard, things we’ve read, ideas we’ve had, things we’ve seen, and stories told to us by our friends who we identify with so completely that we feel like they happened to us.

A personal history is a collection of histories. Maybe they do resemble the contents of an old jewelry box more than they do a linear narrative. In that way, maybe Jewelry Box authentically follows the pattern of memory and personal history.

Before I began to read the book, though, I decided to use Jewelry Box to implement a memory experiment of my own. Allow me a brief departure from Jewelry Box.

Last spring I read Joshua Foer’s successful Moonwalking with Einstein, an autobiographical chronicle of a year of memory training for the USA Memory Championships, filled with a good deal of all the bizarre and esoteric things Foer learned about memory science along the way. His book had me thinking a great deal about the way that we read books and take in information.

Until somewhat recently, memorization was a highly valued and honored skill. With the introduction of first the written language, then the invention of the printing press and the vast increase in literacy among ordinary people, the need to memorize became less and less important. Our easy access to personal libraries and gigabytes of searchable material serves as “external memories.” Now we don’t need to remember anything, even our spouse’s phone number. In times past, literacy was the privilege of the well-educated few, and many people memorized much of their small libraries word-for-word. In the modern day, we may have lost a certain special relationship with reading.

I have sometimes looked up to people who were educated in a very traditional way that placed an emphasis on memorizing texts. I am impressed by people who can defend a point with direct quotes, pulled up verbatim from the dregs of their memories. They haven’t simply read the material; they know the material.

Knowing and remembering are inextricable, and that’s a reality that we conveniently like to ignore in modern times. These days, memorization seems like a circus trick for such freaks as stage actors and religious nuts. But how much richer would reading be if the material didn’t disintegrate with time into a homogenous glop of vague impressions and ideas, in no particular order?

Back to Jewelry Box. With fifty-eight individually titled segments, Jewelry Box is a perfect candidate for list memorization. Drowsy and held captive in the dark cabin of the airplane, I employed a simple list memorization technique that Joshua Foer describes in his TED talk, “Feats of Memory Anyone Can Do,” called the “memory palace.” By the time I finished the book, I had memorized the titles and sequence of all fifty-eight segments of Jewelry Box.

Truth be told, the lack of context or linearity of Jewelry Box makes it a challenge to recall without memory tricks. We tend to remember what we’re invested in, and what we have the most emotional response to, whether that emotion is positive or negative, or better yet, some confused mixture of the two. That’s why we tend to remember stories that are extreme, or stories where we really get to know the characters and feel like they’re people we know personally. Without a clear sequence of events or any continuity, Jewelry Box is hard to invest in even though some of the stories are emotionally provocative. We haven’t learned to care about the characters because we never quite learn who they are in a traditional sense.

Two days later, when I wrote out the 58 titles and found that I had only missed one and changed the word order of another, I started to figure out what I had gained by this method. With this tool at my disposal, the near perfect recollection of 58 titles of the sections that made up this book, I discovered the emotional heft of each one. Because I only memorized the titles, I could only use them as prompts to remember their contents.

Many of the stories are provocative in some way. Dark, sexual, full of regrets for being taken advantage of in ways that are hard to define. Others are mundane. As an exercise for memorization, this experiment taught me that there’s a reason to be selective about the things we devote to memory.

Jewelry Box and my memory experiment showed me that although memorization has great value, when it comes to the nature of memory, this book had more to teach me about how memories make up our personal histories and our selves. Is Jewelry Box a worthwhile read? In the same way it’s worthwhile to inspect the contents of a box of trinkets and photographs at a stranger’s yard sale or attic. Many of the stories are relatable and go into private depths not often explored. Sometimes mundane things are fascinating, only because we don’t generally dwell on them. And sometimes mundane things, taken out of context, become profound.

Erica Blumenson-Cook earned a BA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. She works as a grant writer in Los Angeles.