I Hear the Place That Can’t Be Named


Whoever the smarty pants is in the European Union who came up with the “Right to be Forgotten” clearly did not grow up in Springfield, Oregon. I will tell you from recent experience around the Christmas tree that no one’s most embarrassing deed is ever—ever—forgotten. Between ham and scalloped potatoes and sugar cookies and gingerbread, we talked about bad hair and failed businesses and torrid affairs and car wrecks and missed jump shots and lost children and just well-placed stink eye from decades—if not centuries—ago. And it’s not just Springfield, either. I know my friends from Houston and Toronto and Durban are also deep in gossip that has ossified into mythology, into culture.

I understand the impulse to forge such a shiny new right. It sounds unassailable. The Europeans are striving to protect the desire of individuals to “determine the development of their [lives] in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.” It turns out, though, the details are not quite as metaphysical as all that. After a few commissions and task forces and passes at legislation, the Court of Justice of the European Union stepped in and concluded that—if requested—search engines must break links with articles and other materials about individuals that contain information that is “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.”
In the lead case, a Spanish man wanted links removed related to an old real estate auction he had participated in to settle social security debts. He argued—and the court agreed—that links to articles about the auction should be removed from Google “because they infringed his right to privacy—they weren’t relevant to his situation today.” The court did note that the right to be forgotten is not absolute and would require a case-by-case balancing. Of course, John Oliver and others had a field day with the fact that no one had ever heard of Mario Costeja González and his bad debts until he made legal history forcing Google to forget about his old troubles with the social security system.

From the moment I first started reading about such a right, I was enchanted. I loved the sound of it, the idea that our most humiliating deeds could be erased, could just be obliterated. Plus it was Europe! So smart and progressive about these things, the Europeans. And because many of the digital privacy warriors I admire were promoting it, I was ready to sign up.

Yes sir, I would love the right to make other humans forget events that by current lights are “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive.” That’s a superpower I would like to have. In my family, stories are told and retold dozens—if not hundreds—of times in exactly the same way, often to prove that I am the absent-minded one, my sister is the practical one, and that it was glaringly obvious from the moment of our births.

I would love to have family members—dear as they are—stop telling tales from forty years ago. And I would like others to forget the years when I dyed my hair a genetically modified corn color, making me appear a confusing combination of forbidding and afraid because my eyebrows created nasty dark gashes in my otherwise colorless face. And others to forget the times I cried at work or the horrible night I got drunk at a party and mocked a friend for her weight just to make myself feel better after a nasty breakup. And still others to forget twenty years of sloppy overlapping relationships and the trail of cruelties and wounds left behind. Seriously, it makes me cringe to know that there are people living on this planet that remember any of those things. Boy do I want the right to have them forgotten.

As I look back on all those frailties and failings and just plain sins, it’s a bleeding miracle and incontrovertible proof of grace that I have any friends and loved ones at all. And it makes those enduring, scarred, tender bonds of kinship and friendship among the dearest things in life. It is remembering and loving anyway—not forgetting—that binds us even if the recollections are absurd, undignified, cruel, or humiliating.

Of course, there are extreme examples of expungement that fall in their own category. We don’t want folks who have served their time in the criminal justice system to be forever consigned to harassment and employment discrimination and struggles to find housing. We don’t want victims of revenge porn to be permanently saddled with the vindictive impulses of creepy ex-boyfriends. But as for the rest of our poor choices, expungement from others’ memories seems counter to the human condition and distances us from the acts of forgiveness and grace that enmesh us in culture and community.
I love this poem by Paul Celan that as if it erupts from rumor and faint memory, passed lip to ear over the generations, offering grace and almost mythological solace:

I hear that the place can’t be named,

I hear that the bread which looks at him
heals the hanged man,
the bread baked for him by his wife,

I hear they call life
our only refuge.

(Tr. Michael Hamburger)

What if the hanged man or his wife or the flowering axe were forgotten in a fit of shame? What if the links were broken? To what would we attach ourselves in our own desperate and flawed search for refuge? How would we find company in our own dark—but equally fleeting—hours?

Smallpox blanketsBesides, we’re an untrustworthy species when it comes to memory. It’s not just our biological tendency toward forgetfulness, but a collective impulse to flee that which is painful or shameful, that which calls our motives into question. We don’t seem to have trouble forgetting land grabs and genocides and lynchings and burnings at the stake and slavery and blankets laced with small-pox. Americans, in particular, aspire to be a forward-looking people. We tell ourselves that we should not dwell in the past but lean into the future, with all its promise of progress and redemption. As Carolyn Forché put it in the introduction to her remarkable anthology, Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness:

Modernity, as twentieth-century German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno argued, is marked by a superstitious worship of oppressive force and by a concomitant reliance on oblivion. Such forgetfulness, they argue, is willful and isolating. It drives wedges between the individual and the collective fate to which he or she is forced to submit.

Should we—through some newly minted human right to be forgotten—pave the way for modernity’s basest impulses? Should we trust ourselves to forget what is truly forgettable and remember that which is lays the path for wisdom, no matter how painful or humiliating it is to recall? I should think not. In Japan, survivors of the atomic bombs at the end of World War II are training younger people to be “memory keepers.” The survivors fear that if they do not formally assign their memories to members of the next generation, it will be easier and more convenient to forget the suffering brought on by war as Japan moves away from its post-war commitment to oppose militarism.

There is also the obvious risk that such a right will be exercised most vigorously by those who have the most to gain. I fear the right to be forgotten is less likely to be invoked by some hapless thirty-year-old who doesn’t want his boss to see the photos of him smoking weed in eighth grade than by oil spillers and sweatshop owners and prospective candidates for Congress.

And forgetting, after all, will happen soon enough. Lord knows, there are plenty of things I have forgotten I wish I could remember. I can’t remember my first kiss or even who it was with. I can’t call up the voice of family members who I miss like a limb. I barely remember my high school graduation or my parent’s fortieth wedding anniversary. I don’t recall my junior prom. Did I even go? I have forgotten teachers’ names and the wallpaper in my childhood bedroom and books that held me rapt for days at a time. And it’s getting worse. Not only does middle age bring on an all-out search for nouns, but new research shows that our smart little devices are eroding our ability to store memories. Apparently, the passivity of scrolling through the internet doesn’t create the pathways to solid memory like actual embodied human experience does.
It’s a lonely thing, forgetting and being forgotten. And truth be told, most of us will be forgotten someday. For me, that’s even more chilling than the memory of my senior picture featuring me leaning up against a fake tree in my pink polo shirt and purple pull over. And I have to ask myself, in the wisps of recall that might remain of me, do I want my descendants to think of me as a carefully curated brand that I control from beyond the grave? Or would I rather them catch a glimpse of me, warts and all? And what does it mean for our own sense of self? Does we also get to forget those times when we were silly or cruel or will we still suffer over them, even when the rest of the world has forgotten?

And isn’t that what we—as writers and struggling human beings—are doing in this business anyway, fighting against inevitable forgetting? Aren’t we struggling to make meaning in the face of imperfection? And even more so, in the face of death? The “right to be forgotten” sounds beautiful but—like so many things in this Anthropocene age—is willful and pointed toward hubris and destruction. In the same way that I might yearn for the “right to eat gummy bears without my teeth falling out” or “the right to fly if I put a quarter in my shoe” or “the right to leave on every light in the house without burning a lump of coal,” there are aspects of the human condition I can’t control. Like other people’s memory of me. And I guess that is one of the beautiful messes created by being alive in full view of others.

Honestly, it’s not that I even care that much if Google breaks its link to news articles from ten years ago—though I suspect those fractures will be strategically employed to bury the misdeeds of the wealthy and powerful and sociopathic—it’s that I think that by asserting we have a legally enforceable human right “to be forgotten,” we are getting a little too big for our britches. We are—once again—trying to transcend what it means to be imperfect mortals muddling in the company of other sad sack mortals. It’s about us trying to be superhuman in asserting ourselves over the inner lives of others in a desperate attempt to make ourselves feel less broken. But as those of us from Springfield, Oregon—and every other tight-knit community on the planet—know, we can never run fast enough. It’s too late. Our tiny humiliations and poor choices have already been codified into lore that may or may not be passed to the next generation, keeping writers and therapists at full employment for decades to come. Our cruelties and failures are on full display and always will be, whether Google knows about them or not. And here we all are, linked together, loving each other anyway.

Wendy Willis is a poet and essayist living in Portland, Oregon. Her book of essays, These Are Strange Times, My Dear, was published by Counterpoint Press in 2019 and was a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Her most recent book of poems, A Long Late Pledge, won the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize and was released by Bear Star Press in 2017. More from this author →