Taking Control of Personal Myth

A lovely friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Stacee Reicherzer, posted a blog on her website that raised a thought-provoking question: When is a good time to part ways with our yearbooks? She recounts her own break-up with her high school yearbooks, and that moment when the yearbooks no longer had power over her personal myth:

I’ve pulled them out occasionally, seen the smiling or brooding faces in headshots, the group photos of various teams and organizations, and the candids of kids I barely remember engaged in various activities. Peppered throughout the yearbooks are optimistic words about the fun and rigor of campus life and extracurricular activities.

And I feel…nothing: no nostalgia, no sense of connection, no real experience of this as a representation of my life.

I still have my yearbooks. I’ve moved several times since graduating high school, and I still carefully pack them into boxes and take them to my next home. I then unpack them, and, without giving them a second glance, put them on the top shelf of my Mythology/Depth Psychology bookshelf. Yes, I have one of those.

I also have a lot of stuff. Each time I move, I approach the process with a mixture of trepidation (moving is a pain in the ass) and exhilaration at the prospect of getting rid of things. Emphasis on “things.” They’re just stuff, right? Mementos of forgotten memories, memories of forgotten times, time-keepers of my life.

But they’re actually so much more than that. Those things are the artifacts of my personal mythology. My life narrative is tied up in those things, and after the memories have long faded, those artifacts can help me reconnect to those nostalgic, halcyon days of suck. (I’m not being hyperbolic; other than friends I’ve kept in touch with since high school, I have few good memories of anything prior to roughly 24.)

Stacee advises,

If the memories that are evoked by perusing a yearbook aren’t joyous but are instead either painful or simply stale, the yearbook no longer has a function in our lives.

The act of throwing something away is something I don’t take lightly, but it occurs to me that the simple act of discarding (or recycling) those artifacts are a symbolic act of me taking charge of my personal myth. In choosing to shed the memories of the past, I’m making the choice of the narrative past I choose to carry into my future. I have the memories inside of me, and some lucky folks get to be part of the story-circle when I recount those times, but there’s a point when it’s a good idea to let them go. Those things that we move from home to home, even in forgotten boxes, are physical manifestations of our memories. If we see them in front of us, we will always have the visual reminder of those memories.

Yearbooks are a particularly complex artifact, because, unless you’re fortunate enough to be your own editor, they’re someone else’s version of you. Those are even more toxic visual reminders if you’re trying to streamline your personal mythology. They’re not even your story.

Perhaps it’s time to think about the fate of my yearbooks, and my trunk of mementos, and my photographs stacked pell-mell in a box. Chances are, at least one of the other 2000 people in my high school class still has a copy of that yearbook. I can’t entirely escape the narrative, but I don’t have to carry it around any longer.

My thanks to Stacee for inspiring this contemplation! Image courtesy of the Baltimore Sun and this interesting article about yearbooks and colleges.