Parallax Views

There’s a lovely moment in The Avengers (the movie, not the TV series of blessed memory) where Black Widow and Hawkeye are on Park Avenue just below Grand Central Station, fighting off hordes of scary aliens on flying Jet-Skis. They’re just about overwhelmed, but fighting gamely on, and Widow says, “This is just like Budapest all over again.” Hawkeyes quirks an eyebrow: “You and I remember Budapest very differently.”

That’s families right there.

My brother and I had different families. We grew up in the same household, had the same parents, shared many of the same incidents, and yet our memories, and the emphases of those memories, are very different. I was the older, the girl, shy and anxious, early on coopted to be my mother’s support and caretaker. My brother, the younger, the boy, the artist. My father, if you had asked him, was equally delighted to have a daughter as a son–but he wanted to teach my brother all the boy things (many of which I really wanted to learn myself). Without thinking about it, my parents fell into many of the ways of thinking about gender that their generation (and my own) accepted. We were, without malice, treated differently, occupied different ecological niches. Different families.

This meant that each of us missed things the other thought were pivotal.  He has whole bundles of memories that I only very slightly remember (there’s almost a joke-book’s worth of my father’s jokes that I cannot recall at all). On the other hand, he did not realize that my mother was drinking until I left for college, because that hadn’t been what he saw from his vantage point. We would have grown up to be very different humans anyway, but the divergent narrative threads is something that surprised me deeply when I first noticed it as an adult.

For a long time I thought my family was weird this way, that other families had a single track of programming. But the older I get, the more see this is the case with everyone’s families. A friend of mine, eldest of three kids, had a very different childhood, and a way different relationship with her parents, than the two younger. Even the perspective of adulthood hasn’t kept them from some very Rashomon-like conversations.

Parallax is the difference, or apparent displacement, of something, depending upon the viewer’s position relative to the seen thing. Per Wikipedia, “A simple everyday example of parallax can be seen in the dashboard of motor vehicles that use a needle-style speedometer gauge. When viewed from directly in front, the speed may show exactly 60; but when viewed from the passenger seat the needle may appear to show a slightly different speed, due to the angle of viewing.” Rashomon, cited above, is a good example of parallax memories: a Kurosawa film in which four different people tell their version of the same incident. Each one is telling their truth, as they know and believe it.

My brother and I have reached a point where we accept that the other had a different experience of our lives growing up. Still, it’s jarring to find that something that loomed really large in his past was barely a speed bump in mine, and vice versa.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Parallax Views — 5 Comments

  1. Very true. And yet I think we can have parallax views of any human endeavors, in which we live and work in close proximity with others. This became really clear to me when we teachers would reminisce about past years, and while everyone seemed to think that, say, 1996 was awesome, there’d be the teacher whose face would pale. Oh yes, she had that class that year . . .

  2. Yes. Every one of us has a different experience, for many reasons. But I think there’s a frequently unexamined notion that the family experience/narrative should be the same. In some families the narrative, bolstered by storytelling (“oh, you remember Aunt Marge and Uncle Henry, honey–when they came that Christmas and accidentally ate the dog…”) is so iron clad that it takes an act of courage to contradict it.

    • This is true, though I have been finding out first-hand that it is definitely not the case. (Interviewing 98-year-old great-aunt about the childhood she shared with my grandmother and two other sisters. And phew, did they have different takes on events!)

  3. My sister and I generally find a lot of agreement on our family influences — that is, we share a sense of the difference between the way our family did things and the way other people did them. There is, of course, that difference in birth order — to our dying days, she will be my baby sister, and we both have amusing views on the big sister/little sister roles in the world.

    It occurs to me that our differences are due to the fact that I spent my first four years on Earth as the only child, while she was alone with my parents during high school after I left for college. Those are very different periods in people’s lives.

    • Hugely different points, Nancy. Mad’s example of dealing with her mother’s drinking problem all through her youth, while her brother didn’t really twig to it until she left for college is a great example. I had some similar dynamics in my family, our knowing how to deal with a problem. But to this day I think that one family member pretty much stayed close by and never married to keep an eye on her parents.

      The stories are very different.