There has been a lot written recently about cases of "suppressed memory syndrome," involving childhood incidents so hurtful or frightening that the person suppresses all memory of them, only to recall them years later. There is bitter debate…
There has been a lot written recently about cases of "suppressed memory syndrome," involving childhood incidents so hurtful or frightening that the person suppresses all memory of them, only to recall them years later. There is bitter debate among experts about the reliability or even the existence of such memories.
Perhaps that debate could shed some light on the phenomenon I call "rosy memory syndrome." It is characterized by warm, vivid and nostalgic recollections of times that never existed. Those who are infected hearken back to simpler days when the only misbehavior by schoolchildren was gum chewing; when everyone was safe in his or her home; when Mom stayed home and baked cookies. Music lyrics were clean, everyone attended a Christian church, and life was good.
Of course, readily available data confirms that this magical time never existed. Until quite recently, a majority of youngsters simply left school at sixteen, to make a living as best they could in the farms and factories. In the 1950’s, only 34% of Indiana residents twenty-five or older had graduated from high school. Violent crime was statistically far worse than it is today. In 1994, there were 4.7 homicides per 100,000 adults 25 years or older, compared with 8.1 as recently as 1981. Mom was indeed more likely to be home; she was also more likely to be depressed or alcoholic or both. (If she did work, she was paid substantially less than a man performing the same job.) In most homes, her paycheck wasn’t available to cushion the blow when Dad lost his job or left for parts south with his secretary. Jews, Catholics, and African-Americans faced significant discrimination on and off the job. Books have been written detailing the social pathologies of the forties and fifties; the excesses of the sixties were largely a reaction to those pathologies.
The problem with simply accepting the myth of a comforting and simple past, much as we accept George Washington and the cherry tree, is that too many people want to base today’s laws on "facts" that aren’t and never were. Make divorces harder to get, and we can force a return to family cohesion. Make kids pray in school, so pregnancy rates will decline and graduation rates improve. Pass laws allowing police to enter homes without knocking in order to stop crime and return us to those safer times.
Americans in the 1990’s have real problems. Technology has changed the nature of the job market in fundamental ways, and the schools are not preparing youngsters–particularly poor youngsters–for those changes. Violent crime is down, but property and other crimes remain a very real problem. Too many kids are growing up with only one parent, or even with none. Race relations are a festering sore. These and many others are issues we must deal with.
The solutions will not be found in a past that never existed.