The Way It Was — or Wasn't

by | December 29, 2015 | General | 3 comments

by Jean Roberta

As 2015 speeds to a close, I’ve been thinking about memory and its relationship to the imagination that all writers need to cultivate.

I’ve been reading Skin Effect: More Erotic Science Fiction and Fantasy Erotica by M. Christian. I promised to review this collection months ago, and now I have time to do it. In the opening story, “[Title Forgotten],” the central characters can have their worst memories “overwritten” by mind-movies that seem like memories of real experience and which prevent the subjects from becoming aware of memory gaps (“Why can’t I remember 2013?”) Yet the traumatic memories underneath can still be accessed by means of special software, and some people choose to access them because they value the truth, however painful.

How many of us would make that choice? We like to think our lives are coherent narratives showing a logical process of cause and effect. “Overwriting,” however well-done, would probably throw something off. We would probably want to know, for example, why we dread visits from Uncle Fred , and when we first became aware of our fear of heights. Or why we like certain sexual activities more than others.

Actually, “overwriting” seems like something that human beings tend to do constantly, without need of external software. Most of the people I’ve known for years disagree with me about some of the details of our shared experiences, and this is why I’m reluctant to part with souvenirs that can serve as evidence.

I’m glad to know that one of M. Christian’s obsessions (the nature and value of memory) coincides with one of mine.

One of my worst memories involves someone else’s memory, if you follow this, but the someone else (my husband in the 1970s) is no longer alive. Even if he were, it’s unlikely that he would remember things differently now.

He was newly-arrived in Canada, after I had sponsored him in from England, where we had met. He was a refugee from the Nigerian Civil War. In Canada, I had helped him find a kind of loose community of international university students and Nigerian doctors who had been imported by the local health-care system. A group of people we hardly knew had attended our courthouse wedding, and came to the party someone threw for us later. It was fun.

On one occasion, we were invited to hang out in someone’s apartment with a crowd of people we hardly knew. My husband drank until he fell asleep in a comfortable armchair, which seemed rude to me. When he started snoring, I shook him awake and told him we should find the host, say our goodbyes, and leave. To my relief, he didn’t argue, and he managed to drive us home without crashing the car.

The next day, I launched into a discussion of his drinking. He interrupted to tell me how hurt and humiliated he was when he walked down a hallway to the bathroom and saw me in flagrante. According to him, I was lying on a bed in a bedroom (with the door open, unless he had X-ray vision), and some man he didn’t know was fucking me wildly. My husband said he didn’t understand how I could do that. Neither did I. This was hardly the evening I remembered.

In vain, I asked him how likely it was that I would be that reckless, and that he had walked past, silently, despite feeling wounded to the heart. He accused me of gaslighting him: trying to make him think he was crazy, when he was no such thing, and no loyal wife would suggest it.

In hindsight, I realize that I should have left my husband that day, but I soldiered on for two years longer, trying to convince him that dreams prompted by jealousy and paranoia (or mistaken identity?) are not reality. He persisted in telling me how much I was hurting him, and how real his feelings were. If his feelings were real, how could they be based on illusions?

Since I wrote my first erotic stories in the late 1980s, I’ve wondered how this scenario, or credibility gap, could be turned into an exciting erotic story, purged of the anguish on both sides. How could I describe the mystery man? Could I imagine my husband as a fan of spontaneous threesomes, and to do that, would I have to reimagine him from scratch, with different cultural roots and physical characteristics?

There is a bleakly funny story by Mark Twain (the title escapes me) about an acre of ground that is claimed by two families, who continue the conflict for generations, even though the land is so barren that nothing can be grown on it. Eventually, the man who narrates the story claims to be the only person involved who made any money from that land. In that sense, the land finally produced a paying crop.

Real-life conflicts tend be remain unresolved, and real-life relationships often trail way without satisfying endings. (My ex-husband’s death was definitely an ending for him, and it ended a phase of my life, although I didn’t find it especially satisfying.) The challenge for all writers, including those who write fantasy, is how to make a profit from barren ground by transforming the often frustrating, boring, enraging, or work-in-progress quality of life into narratives that are exciting to read, and also realistic enough. And with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion.

I don’t have a handy formula, but I have plenty of raw material to work with. Maybe I will find a way to turn garbage into gold. Beginning in July 2016, I will have a full-year sabbatical (a break from teaching) to spend on writing. I already have an outline for a book on censorship in various forms, which will draw on my involvement in the stranger-than-fiction cultural politics of the 1980s and 1990s. I will also have enough time to battle my internal censor and squeeze out some fiction.

I hope everyone who reads this is blessed with time and inspiration in 2016.

pressing wine after the harvest, circa 1400s

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Many psychological experiments have demonstrated that memory is a constructive process, based on fragments of recall plus inferences about likelihood. It's not at all like replaying a recording. So it's not that surprising we end up making errors, or having disagreements. In fact both my husband and I have impossibly parallel "memories" of mutually incompatible events that we remember as having occurred during the same period.

    As I think I've written before, I have false memories about places I've used in my books. I "remember" them even though they're partially or completely fictional.

    In any case, I look forward to the fruits of your sabbatical. I hardly think your raw material should be labeled as garbage!

  2. Jean Roberta

    Thanks for commenting, Lisabet! You're right, raw experience is never really garbage, even if some of it felt like a waste of time when it was happening. Luckily, I have some written/printed documentation of the Sex Wars of the 1980s and their continuation into the 1990s, so I won't need to rely on memory alone to write non-fic about the ideological conflicts of the time.

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