A Guilty Memory
This is a difficult subject to deal with if it’s done autobiographically. Better perhaps to remove it into a third person character or an narrator who is not you, the writer. You may also want to alter the details of the guilty act.
A guilty memory might be jerked into consciousness by the return of someone to the person’s life, as William Trevor does with Anthony in Folie a Deux. In this story a boyhood friend suddenly appears to the main character, Wilby. Wilby has inherited money and is very well off, holidaying in Paris. In his hotel there he’s suddenly confronted by someone he doesn’t at first recognize, and when he does finds the memory keeping him up at night, going back over the dreadful thing they did as children. He had thought the friend, Anthony, dead, had heard of his mental health difficulties, but had lost contact with him for a very long time. But still what they did gets to him. But less so than to Anthony whose mind seems to have been affected lifelong, though it’s possible he was susceptible to mental illness. Wilby is not, and although he can’t forget the incident he keeps it out of his mind, and although he sees what it seems to have done to Anthony, now a hotel dish washer who cannot communicate properly, he is still able to turn his back on Anthony and, we presume ‘get on with his life’ and forget it. As Anthony can’t.
Trevor treats this guilt in his typically oblique way.
Other kinds of guilt might play on a person’s mind until they feel forced to either make amends if they can, or confess to the wronged person, or beg for forgiveness. You can imagine a deathbed scene, or some business meeting where one of the directors is forced to admit something, or a politician, or of course a wife or husband. Perhaps the person is plagued with guilt and their need to confess becomes self-centred, and in confessing to the wronged person they in fact harm that person the more. Then you have the question as to whether being ‘happy’ in ignorance is preferable to facing up to unwelcome truth which may make you unhappy. Here’s perhaps where character and values come in.
Then the person may not be sure if they are guilty. The woman who gets so drunk at the party she can’t remember if she did or didn’t. It may be important to know. What does she do? Can she believe what she’s told?
The guilt need not be personal. You’re a teacher and you made a mistake with the exam marking, and almost everyone failed. You gave them wrong information in one of your lessons. You’re a pharmacist and put something on the market which kills people. You’re a veteran whose orders led to your unit being wiped out. You’re David Cameron or Tony Blair.
People react to guilt in different ways. They are broken. They deny it and overcompensate in some way. You could be guilty in a trial but get off on a legal technicality, or be legally innocent but not morally so.