This post is about the failings of memory, and the frailty of humans when they spin fictions they confuse for fact. I’ll recount here a seriously inaccurate anecdote that I almost published as true history in a recent blog post, “What Are Fathers For?” My idea here is to examine the precise way my memory failed me there—why did it lie? And, to the extent that the defects in our recollection are not arbitrary, what greater truths might lie beneath them?
Memory is a tricky thing, even for (perhaps especially for) those who consider themselves to be gifted in recalling their personal history. The title of this post is a play on Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, which was—oddly enough—his second stab at autobiography. He’d originally written, in English, about his Russian years, in a book called Conclusive Evidence. Years later, in the process of translating this autobiography into Russian (by which time he was back in touch with family members who could help him fact-check) he discovered (and fixed) a number of errors. In fact, he found enough errors that he decided to greatly revise the original English version, which he then re-published as Speak, Memory.
Nabokov was very scrupulous about not allowing approximations or embellishments to adorn his own memories ; he declares, “what I still have not been able to rework through want of specific documentation, I have now preferred to delete for the sake of over-all truth.” But of course it is impossible that every image, every pristine detail, of his autobiography could be documented or verified. If it could have, he wouldn’t have needed to rework Conclusive Evidence. It is clear to me that Nabokov had the purest intent in accurately representing his life story, but then don’t we all?
What’s more, when we tell our own stories, there’s a pitfall perhaps greater than the limitations of memory: we also have our imaginations, which embellish and sometimes flat-out fictionalize things, often unconsciously. Perhaps the only autobiography with a really accurate title is Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography.
A better story
As I’ve explored before, in “Unintentional Fiction in Bike Race Stories,” sometimes (intentionally or not) we embellish a supposedly true story simply to improve it. My retelling, in that post, of Bernard Hinault’s victory in Liege-Bastogne-Liege creates a gripping battle of wills between Hinault and his team director that, alas, didn’t really happen. Similarly, my “Team Time Trial” story for dailypeloton has Cal Poly, my UCSB college bike team’s arch nemesis, starting their race right after us, which is a great way of building suspense—but turns out to have been completely wrong. Cal Poly actually started their race right before us (as a photo revealed years after my article ran). I initially remembered the start order correctly, but when I fact-checked my story, all four of my teammates remembered it in the same incorrect way, which improved the story—so I was all too happy to second-guess my own memory and adjust my article accordingly.
But a better story is not the only reason our imaginations compromise the integrity of our memories. For one thing, true stories sometimes get better when misremembered details are corrected. And then there’s the troubling non-useful fiction of mistaking somebody else’s memory for your own.
There’s a scene in my short story “Before the Fall” where a kid, Mick, based closely on my brother Max, pretends to get hit by a car—and not just any car, but my mom’s car with her driving, in front of scores of witnesses. That really happened, and though I labeled it fiction (so I could freely embellish the context of the incident), it sticks very close to the memory Max and I share about it. The funny thing is, our other brothers, Geoff and Bryan, also remember it, almost exactly how we do, and can tell the story in the same great detail—and yet neither of them was actually there. That’s the only glitch in their account: they erroneously speak of it as a first-hand experience. They’ve heard, and told, the story so many times they think it’s their own.
Since the fake-car-accident story isn’t at all improved by the false notion that Geoff and Bryan were witness to it, we can’t chalk this up to artistic embellishment. This type of mnemonic inaccuracy happens, I think, for three reasons:
- Memory doesn’t like gaps and our brains often want to fill them in, rather than admit we’ve forgotten something important. So we may “remember” things we didn’t experience.
- The act of going through a story in your mind is so similar to remembering something, the two acts can merge. In other words, memory tells a story just like a person does and these narratives aren’t terribly different … so we may conflate them.
- When a story illustrates a truth you hold dear, it can start to become your story—so when that story is somebody’s memory, it can become your memory. So it was with the fake-car-accident: more so than most of the people who actually witnessed it, Geoff and Bryan understand Max’s modus operandi and motivation in staging it, and—having witnessed his countless dress rehearsals with our neighbor’s parked car that summer—can picture the whole thing perfectly, perhaps with greater clarity than the actual eyewitnesses. So it was hard for them to believe they only heard about it, and they naturally came to believe they saw it with their own eyes.
Three Saturdays ago I’d finished writing my “What Are Fathers For?” essay and was getting ready to post it. All that was left was to fact-check an anecdote concerning my brother Bryan. I almost didn’t bother since he’s a hard guy to reach and I was pretty sure I had everything right anyway. There were just a couple of details in my account I wanted to confirm. Here’s what I’d written:
Bryan, though not a great student, was unusually resourceful. Once, during a road trip with our mom, when he was 15, we took a family vacation trip, driving to California and camping along the way. That year we took two cars, and my brothers and I fought over who got to ride in Dad’s car, because he drove faster. So one day I was in the car with Bryan and my mom, and we broke down in the middle of the desert somewhere in Utah or Nevada. Our dad was at least a hundred miles ahead and oblivious to our plight. Nobody else came along to help either; I’m pretty sure we were on Highway 50, the so-called Loneliest Road in America.
The problem was, the car, a terribly underpowered 1978 Volkswagen Dasher diesel, kept overheating. Bryan somehow sussed out that the engine fan, which is supposed to automatically turn on when needed, wasn’t. So he selected a dashboard switch—the one for the rear window defogger, which he figured wouldn’t be needed for awhile—and hardwired it to the fan, so my mom could turn the fan on manually. After that, the car ran like a top for the whole rest of the trip. How did Bryan figure this out? Where had he learned about cars and electronics? Beats me. He sure didn’t learn it from our dad (who could have easily done all this himself, but didn’t have time to teach anyone such things).
I recalled the story over the phone to Bryan to make sure I had it right. I thought he might correct a minor detail—e.g., “Dude, we were on I-70, not 50”—but to my surprise he started laughing. What was so funny? Had it actually been Max in the car with Bryan, while I was up ahead with Geoff, and I only heard about the amazing repair?
No, far worse than that. “Dude,” Bryan said, “there’s one very important flaw in your story. I didn’t fix the car. Dad did. He came back and rescued us. There’s no way I was smart enough to do that and besides, Dad had all the tools in his car!”
I was astonished. I protested, “But Dad was way off ahead! I distinctly remember being broken down on the side of the road in complete despair with no way to reach him!” Bryan replied, “Yeah, that’s right, but he finally came back and saved the day.”
Not only was I embarrassed, and deeply disappointed in my faculties of memory, but I now had a problem on my hands: that anecdote was to have played an important part in my blog post. It was supposed to illustrate how a little benign neglect on a father’s part can teach a kid to be resourceful and solve his own problems. The story doesn’t work at all when the kids are helpless and useless and just stand there on the side of the road wringing their hands. (This is the problem with fact-checking too late into a composition.)
I needed a backup anecdote, to replace the false one. My initial candidate was the story of how, on a different camping trip up in Canada with just my mom and Bryan, I managed to lock our keys in the car. I was in a panic until Bryan coolly said, “Let me see your Swiss army knife.” In a jiffy he unscrewed the clear plastic cowling over the car’s turn signal and produced a spare key that had been cleverly stashed there. The only problem with this story, which this time matched Bryan’s recollection perfectly, is that it was our dad who had cleverly stashed this key. Didn’t I have a great story illustrating my brother’s ingenuity? Did all roads really lead to Dad?
The paragraph I finally cobbled together to put in my blog post was probably more useful (though less entertaining, as fact tends to be) than the original car repair story. But long after I finished writing, I had this question lingering in my mind: how had I remembered that so wrong? Should I now distrust my memory, and in doing so reshape my entire impression of my father? Am I just as ungrateful as I accused my daughter of being in that blog post?
A theory of embellished memory
It’s not as bad as it looks. First of all, Bryan really was pretty good with electronics and cars. It’s a fact that he built a keypad ignition for his ’67 Dodge Coronet and that it actually worked, at least a few times (before bursting into flames). And I remember him rebuilding the carburetor for that car. So his own humility notwithstanding, it’s not such a stretch to think he could have wired the engine fan to the defroster switch in our mom’s car.
Meanwhile, it’s kind of remarkable that our dad did come back for us, because his tendency to get way, way ahead of us was totally nonsensical to begin with. (After all, it wasn’t a race to California; we were all camping together each night.) So at what point did Dad realize we had a problem? Did he just have some Spidey-sense, or what? (Interestingly, my mom doesn’t remember anything about him coming back to save us. When I asked her about it, she couldn’t remember who fixed the car that day.)
This instance of defective memory could easily be lumped in with the team time trial start order or Hinault’s battle of wills with his director: obviously it’s a better story if the teenager comes up with the ingenious repair. But I don’t think that’s what skewed my memory, for one reason: long before this was a story, it was just a memory. I don’t think many of us are tempted to embellish private recollections just to make them more exciting; that’s what daydreaming and fantasy are for. I think I tweaked this memory simply to make it happier. Manipulating memory in this way is, arguably, a softer kind of deception that probably happens all the time. It’s a close relative to looking at the bright side of things.
No, there’s nothing particularly unhappy about my brother not being a teen prodigy of the automotive realm. But there’s something unhappy about having to wait around in anguish, stranded in the desert, wondering if our dad will ever come back. By having Bryan fix the car himself, I not only glorified him, but—more importantly—found a way to let my dad off the hook. After all, many cultures have much harsher methods than mere neglect for turning their boys into men. This was a simple case of necessity being the mother of invention! It was time for Bryan to be pushed out of the nest so he could fly! Some have greatness thrust upon them! (Et cetera.) So the feeling of fear and helplessness we’d had, standing there in the road, gets truncated in memory, and upstaged by the happy story of a big brother making good.
Abetting this pain-avoidance technique is a phenomenon that Malcolm Gladwell refers to (in The Tipping Point) as the “fundamental attribution error”—the tendency to ascribe behavior to fundamental character traits rather than to situation and circumstance. Because I was irked at my dad (even before the car problem) for always racing off ahead—and, moreover, for not being around enough in general—I was less inclined to remember him as the one who saved the day. I remembered his absence, not his return, because, well, so often he was absent.
A final thought: perhaps my skewed memory is partly because, as I mentioned in that same post, my dad’s giant intellect could be an obstacle to our relationship, because he was so often too busy off doing great things to pay much attention to me. For him to do something really ingenious doesn’t inspire remembrance, because there’s a whiff of despair in it—just another example of my fear that he was too good for me. How much more tempting it is to elevate my brother in memory, because this was the same guy who wasn’t above occasionally collaborating with me, his kid brother, as he did with my Russian picture book. “Imagine!” my memory says. “This genius kid, who figured out how to rewire a car’s controls at age 15, wasn’t above spending countless hours building me a Cyrillic character set on the computer, all so I could type in Russian for a school assignment!”
Memory, then, can be seen not just as our personal history, but as the history of how we feel about the people in our lives. Even a flawed recollection might represent, if not the Truth about our people, at least a truth about how we perceive them.