In Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson discuss the expanded possibilities for collective memory and the creation of “’imagined communities’” with the advent and widespread use of technologies such as television, film, and the Internet (26). The sense of identification with memories, emotions, and experiences which have not necessarily been experienced firsthand available to those with access to these technologies “produces collective memories that are individually felt and may evoke empathy and reorient people politically,” according to Smith and Watson (27).
Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely echoes Smith and Watson’s concept of collective memory through her emotional interaction with events and people through their portrayal in the media. As Rankine explores her connection to people that she has never met, she experiences a hopelessness tied to such collective memory: “It felt wasteful to cry at the television set as Amadou Diallo’s death was announced. Sometimes I think it is sentimental, or excessive, certainly not intellectual, or perhaps too naïve, too self-wounded to value each life like that, to feel loss to the point of being bent over each time” (57). Reflecting on the impossibility of fully conceiving the importance of each individual life, and the pain brought by the realization that so many peoples’ lives are treated as worthless, Rankine finds that she cannot dismiss other people’s experiences because they are brought to her through television news.
Although she claims to avoid identifying with the people shown on TV by changing the channel, flipping through the static, perhaps, Rankine cannot get away from the collective memory of anxiety and worry brought by the media. Her interest in nighttime pharmaceutical commercials advertising antidepressants further reveals the mental state of the nation: “[At night] people are less distracted and capable of tuning in more and more and most precisely to their fearful bodies and their accompanying anxieties” (29). As Rankine generalizes her experience to the experiences of countless people across the nation and the world, feeling the worry that permeates her own mind and watching these commercials for antidepressants, she identifies the strange interconnectedness of media interaction and the effects that such messages have on individual understanding and memory. Ultimately, television brings to Rankine a picture of the world outside of herself; however, it simultaneously represents many of the anxieties pertaining to death and destruction that she has experienced in other forms in her own life, tying her personal life to a collective memory.