Memory Disabled, the Limited Details of an Inescapable Experience of Cabeza de Vaca

Smith and Watson explain that memory and trauma are often “the problem of recalling and re-creating a past life [that] involves organizing the inescapable but often disabling force of memory and negotiating its fragmentary intrusions with increasing, if partial, understanding” in their guide, Reading Autobiography (RA 27-28). The idea of a “disabling force of memory” that victims experience after going through a trauma could explain the brief recollection Cabeza de Vaca gives after a storm has destroyed his ship in The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca (RA 27). Cabeza de Vaca dedicates less than a paragraph to the destruction of his ship. Cabeza de Vaca recalls that when he did not see his ship in port he went to the woods to search “and walking through them a quarter of a league from the water, we found the rowboat of one of the ships on the top of some trees, and ten leagues from there along the coast two men from my ship were found and certain lids of crates, and the bodies were so disfigured from the blows of the rocks that they could not be recognized” (NC 51-52). Cabeza de Vaca concludes his recollection with the bland summary “[s]ixty men and twenty horses perished in the ships” (NC 52). In terms of Smith and Watson, de Vaca’s limited description of the ship wreck could be due to his inability to find the language to capture the horrors (RA 28). Instead of trying to recreate the scene vividly and with his own emotions and capture it incorrectly, de Vaca states facts in a “what is done is done” mentality. Perhaps de Vaca does not go into much detail because it would be too much for him and he would not be able to control his emotions. One also has to keep in mind that de Vaca is writing this for Charles V and not his personal man diary, to whom he may not be so willing share his feelings with.

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