Memoir Writing Tip: Recall and Accuracy

by Matilda Butler on April 23, 2012

catnav-alchemy-activePost #43 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

I’m at a Starbucks in Ft. Worth, making my way back to Oregon via a visit with our eldest son and daughter-in-law. While I don’t have access to the Internet at their house (long story), I do have access to The New York Times. Who knew it still was delivered to your door in a paper format!

Today, I read Jonah Lehrer’s article “When Memory Commits an Injustice.” His point is an interesting one because it helps us as memoir writers to understand the different uses of memory. Lehrer has studied the biological processes of memory and turns his consideration to how memory is far from accurate. He begins the article:

“The biggest lie of human memory is that it feels true. Although our recollections seem like literal snapshots of the past, they’re actually deeply flawed reconstructions, a set of stories constantly undergoing rewrites.”

Lehrer isn’t considering memory and memoir. He is examining how faulty memory can send the wrong person to prison. A completely different topic, but one that got me to thinking about the contrasting uses of memory.

Memory at a distance.
How close were we to the original event? Lehrer cites ongoing studies by William Hirst at the New School and Elizabeth Phelps at New York University who have studied what people remember about 9/11. In their research, Hirst and Phelps asked people what they remembered about that major tragedy. Between their first interviews begun shortly after the event and the follow up study a year later, 37 percent of the “remembered” details had changed. In other words, in just 12 months people had already forgotten more than a third of the facts they had originally known. In the most recent study conducted 10 years after the event, the researchers find that the “vast majority” of what people now think to be clearly remembered facts are actually inaccurate.

So what happened? It seems to me that the people interviewed were not directly involved and therefore were more likely to be influenced by the media, by reinterpretations, by new revelations, and by time itself. So does this mean that a memoir writer doesn’t remember? Of course not. The person writing a memoir was directly involved in the events of her life. We didn’t just watch our life on television and read about it in the newspaper or online. No one has written books about the what and the why of our life events to cause us to reconsider the facts. So while we ourselves may soon lose the details of what we read about or see on television, it doesn’t mean that what happened directly to us slips away as quickly or morphs into falsehoods.

Instant memory recall vs. reflection.
Lehrer also discusses how memory of events can be distorted when we pay attention to details. In this example, he is looking at evidence from eye-witness accounts, especially the identification of suspects. Just as on television, it seems that in real life witnesses are instructed to take their time and carefully consider each possible suspect in a lineup. Research now shows that when the witness is forced into a quick decision, it is considerably more reliable. Why? Considering details (are the eyes shifty in one person, does the clothing “look like” a criminal) can lead the witness to misidentify a suspect.

Is this true for memoir writers? I don’t think so. We’ve probably all had the experience of talking about an event from our past and later that evening or the next day remembering more details. For example, a woman in one of my memoir writing courses had been writing about falling in love and her ensuing marriage. She came to class and said that she awoke in the middle of the night with a tune in her head. It was the favorite song that she and her husband considered “their song.” She said she hadn’t thought about that melody and words in more than 30 years.

So while digging deep for details may be dangerous for eye witnesses, memoir writers need to find ways to go deep because our stories are richer for the effort. Will our memoirs contain “flawed reconstructions?” Probably. But we view our past through the lens of today, through our efforts at sensemaking. We may indeed misremember. But our perceptions and remembrances may be closer to our emotional truth than a litany of facts. Assuming there is a single list of facts.

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