I have for years treasured a memory of something precious shared with my father, who died when I was 10. At age seven he told me I was old enough to read “Gone With The Wind,” I can clearly picture him in our home library; he lovingly pulled the book from a lower shelf and handed it to me. I read it night and day for 2 ½ weeks, crying over its pages printed in small type.
Now that I watch the second of my two bright granddaughters master the world, I realize that incident could have never happened. Even if I were a super-reader of words at age 7 (if such a thing exists, I wasn’t it), I could not have cried over the complicated love story set into an historical background I wouldn’t learn about for another 5-6 years. Seven is simply too young to read a 1000 page adult novel.
I invented that memory.
How did I come to recognize the new reality? Last week I finished reading “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me),” by social psychologist Carol Tavris.
She describes a “vivid memory” of her father sharing a favorite children’s book with her–James Thurber’s “The Wonderful O.” She recalls his giving her the book and their laughing together at its main conceit: a band of pirates takes over an island, forbidding anyone there to use any object or word containing the letter “O.” They practiced out loud with Oregon, Orangutan, Ophthalmologist.
As a much older person, Travis found her first edition of “The Wonderful O.” It was published in 1957, one year after her father’s death.
Both Tavris and I had literate dads who shared library love with their daughters. Both of us lost those dads when we were children. The favorite book-loving dad attaches in memory to a favorite childhood book–that makes sense. But the details: the library shelves and the word play?
Maybe you’ll answer that childhood’s memories are inherently unstable. Consider, however, a flashback from science writer Michael D. Lemonick, whose book, “The Perpetual Now: A Story of Amnesia, Memory, and Love,” appears in print today.
“The explosion of the U.S. Space Challenger, which killed its seven astronauts, took place 31 years ago….I was in my cublicle at “Science Digest” magazine…I ran over to the office television,,,, calling my colleagues to join me. I know the TV was tuned to CBS because I remember Dan Rather’s ashen face….”
Like Tavris’s book tale, that story was an anachronism. “Science Digest” had no office TV in 1986. Lemonick likely watched the news when he returned home after work. His self-examination provides the following conclusion: “… if that detail is incorrect, others probably are as well.”
Lemonic refers to vivid memories of world-altering events as “flashbulb memories, the nearly photographic recall of particularly shocking events”–the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Kennedy, the bombing of the Twin Towers. We can see these adult memories as sharply as if they occurred yesterday–“and they are almost always wrong, at least in part.” In spite of research demonstrating that fallibility, people tend to be quite confident that their recollections are completely accurate.
Tavris uses her own false memory to teach 3 lessons:
- It is quite “disorientating to realize that a vivid memory, one full of emotion and detail, is indisputably wrong.”
- “Even being absolutely, positively sure that a memory is accurate does not mean that it is.”
- “Errors in memory support our current feelings and beliefs.”
Memory is “reconstructive,” a tapestry of events that happened to one person interwoven with similar events that may have happened to sibling or friends, and layered with images from snapshots, home movies, TV shows, friends, our own immature diary notes, and dreams. Memories can also be implanted by police interrogators, resulting in false confessions, or psychotherapists, in the false memory scandal of the 1980’s and -90’s.
Once we can accept that our most definitive memories may not have happened at all, we can soften our stance in arguments with spouses, bosses, friends, or family. As a couples coach,* I often mediate intense debates in which the husband clearly remembers, let’s say, an insult from his mother-in-law at his child’s graduation. The wife is certain that the degrading remark came from the husband’s own sister. Each recalls the scene and can tell you the weather, the location of the participants, and the time of day. Some details match up, but the critical component cannot be resolved. The couple passes from frustration to fury at the refusal of the other to acknowledge “reality.”
A sister recalls beatings and verbal abuse heaped upon the youngest brother. Her face reveals the pain of the recalled images. That brother denies the abuse happened. He thinks he ought to know. The elder brother in another family recounts daily dinner table fighting between the parents, yelling, and worse. The other 3 siblings know it didn’t happen. They think the older one is “difficult.” The sibling with the painful memories is alienated, the others feel hurt that their parents are blamed.
What about the benevolent uncle, who bought his very sad niece her first doll house, according to the neice’s clear memory. She can picture the toy store, the sales clerk, and the shelf of doll houses from which she selected her prize. His wife vividly remembers that he took that dollhouse from her basement; it was a treasured object from her own childhood, and she never forgave him. The wife and niece are no longer speaking to each other.
Which one of you lost the tickets to the show that night 4 years ago? Each is certain the fault lies in the other, and can recall vivid details to prove it. Who forgot the carpool in 2009? Your poor 4-year-old was outside crying for over 30 minutes. Although you don’t think of these disputes often anymore, you can still get just as worked up arguing over whose memory is correct. How could your recall be wrong? You remember that you had a hole in one pocket, so you had to put your keys in the other, and that Madonna was on car radio.
Your memory is not a proof.
*While my “Gone With the Wind” memory actually happened, the following details are wholly fabricated.