Shadow Boxes

Shadow boxes fascinated me as a little girl. You could cut out cardboard in the shapes of people and furniture, fold a bottom edge of each piece and glue it to the inside of a shoe box, cut a quarter-sized hole in the narrow end of it, peek inside, and voila! A different world. Flat shapes became 3-D. It was all in how you looked at it.

I’ve always found perception fascinating. In college, as a creative writing major, I wrote a novel called “Shadow Boxes.” It was a story of perception and deceit. All of the main characters were perceived differently by each other, depending on what they were shown and what they needed to see. Toward the end of the book, a significant event causes the central character to drop her guard and allow herself to be seen. Because of her actions, another key character decides to come clean with the illusions she’s created. By facing the truth, the characters were able to live different, difficult, but fuller lives.

It’s these precious moments of perception that can infuse our fictional characters with fascinating layers, and it’s perception, too, that can inhibit you from owning your truth in memoir. If a reader challenges you about one of your memories, remember this: we all see through different eyes.

Different Views

Five people stand on a hill looking at a tranquil valley below. The grass is lush and a stream flows through the landscape. Each person sees the same sight—the location is a fact, but each has a different perception of it, which becomes his or her truth.

  • A real estate agent sees development potential.
  • A fisher imagines getting a great catch.
  • A farmer sees a perfect spot for raising grain.
  • A rancher sees the grazing potential.
  • An artist is inspired to paint the scene.

Or imagine this: Someone pockets a pack of pens in a drug store, walks out the door, and disappears into the parking lot. The clerks ask for information from anyone who may have seen it happen. A woman who had been standing a few feet from the pens counter says she noticed a teenaged boy with sandy blond hair and eyeglasses. A young man standing in a check-out line had noticed a tattooed man with a beard and bill cap perusing the pens. How old was the man? About twenty-five. Was he wearing eyeglasses? No. Sunglasses. When the man was caught not long after this event for shoplifting at another store in the same complex, an unopened package of pens was found in his possession. The man was nineteen years old, strawberry blond, clean-shaven, and wore no eyeglasses.

Memory can be fickle.

But memory can also be sharp. When significant events with emotion attached to them occur, physiological responses take place in our brains that etch the memory of it in ways that can last a lifetime. Ask anyone where they were when President Kennedy was shot. It’s one of my first memories. I was three years old, and I stood in front of the television (a big box on four legs) with my parents seated behind me on the couch, in tears, watching the president’s funeral. What did I know about a president? About assassination? About funerals, or death? The experience etched because my parents were crying over this event and there were children in the funeral scene, children who looked to be about my age. My perspective was affected by my age. I was worried for those kids. After all, my parents were crying just looking at them.

Strive to be truthful and know that not all of your readers will agree with the “facts.”

“The Lunch Date” (below) is a brilliant short film that plays on perception. For five minutes, a certain situation is very real to both characters, but when one of them walks away, it becomes an entirely different story. It’s like looking in to a shadow box: everything depends on how you look at it.