Using Memories to Cope in the Present

Anyone who has ever owned an animal knows that in most cases it’s a relationship where we will eventually outlive our best friend. This scenario of losing a pet materializes vividly for the reader in David Huebert’s 2016 short story “Enigma.” In “Enigma” we hear and see, and especially feel, the narrator’s battle with letting go of her horse and long-time companion. With this letting go, we are given a glimpse into what brought our narrator to this point in her life through the use of memories. The lucidity of these memories lets us feel, along with the narrator, immersed in her recounting of the past. But why does so much of Huebert’s story use memories to build toward its climax? Because our memories are there to help us cope with what faces us in the present, as Huebert’s distressed narrator reveals.

Huebert’s story begins with a vague account of someone’s emotional pain over a sick horse, then quickly leads us into the narrator describing her childhood memory of whale-watching. She starts recalling her memories quickly by skimming many hours and using few words. Her descriptions of the past then transition to emotional narration that slows down time, extending each thought as she encounters first a humpback calf and then its mother. That is, her memory turns more vivid and strong as she delves into it. The narrator, who we now know is a woman, describes her strong attachment to these strange creatures and how it prompted her to explore an oceanography class outside of her regular routine as a teenager. As she relives her memories, we see her life was changed forever by the experience involving the whales and she recounts it to the reader as clearly as if it had just happened.

In the first part of Huebert’s story our narrator is using her positive memories—often referred to as nostalgia—to cope with the stress of dealing with her injured horse. In a 2013 article for Scientific American, Dr. Clay Routledge, a psychological scientist and professor writes, “My colleagues and I … believed that negative mood, loneliness, and feelings of meaningless would be potent triggers of nostalgia.” In his article, he further states that people whose positive mood is threatened, may even use nostalgia as a coping mechanism. It’s not difficult to see how this parallels the narrator’s struggles with her dying horse and her use of nostalgic memories to comfort herself.

The narrator continues to recall stories from her past while kneeling over her badly-injured mare. Throughout the evening, she compares more tragic memories to her present situation “thinking of the three cats I have buried in my parents’ backyard.” She seems to beg her memories to give her direction and distract her from the task at hand: injecting her riding partner of 10 years with a heart-stopping barbiturate. She achingly describes how her horse has broken her ‘coffin’ bone and shows difficulty in coming to terms with the situation. When she realizes that this is harder than she has imagined, she again draws from her memories and reminds herself of her ability to overcome adversity and succeed in the past where she “surprises parents and teachers and self with success.” It’s in this example that we see the narrator using memory to convince herself of how strong she is.

We can see why our narrator relies on memories to help her come to terms with the fate of her horse—but why does the author, a man, use a woman as his protagonist to tell this emotional tale? According to Fiona McPherson in her article entitled The Role of Emotion in Memory, “In women, it seems that evaluation of emotional experience and encoding of the memory is much more tightly integrated.” If this is true, then using a woman as his narrator helps Huebert tell his story because a female narrator’s memories are much easier linked to her emotions than a man’s is, making her coping ability more believable.

It’s important to realize, then, that memories are an excellent tool in coping with both daily life and the extreme situations we may find ourselves in. Using positive memories or memories of other negative but triumphant experiences to deal with a tough situation can lessen the stress you’re feeling in the present and lead to a more positive outcome. I have no doubt that with our narrator’s excellent memory, she will be “drifting and rising through an endless, liquid dream” with her beautiful mare for many years—but only after her heart recovers from this memorable night.

  1. Huebert, David. “Enigma” CBC Books, July 2017.
  2. McPherson, Fiona. “The role of emotion in memory” About Memory.
  3. Routledge, Clay. “The Rehabilitation of an Old Emotion: A New Science of Nostalgia.” Scientific American, July 10, 2013.

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