Memory sucks. I don’t just mean the fact that we forget things that we want to remember or that our memory gets frustratingly worse as we get older. I mean that memory is unbelievably fallible. It’s fallible way beyond what most people want to believe.
I first learned about how faulty our mechanism of memory can be when I studied the topic of “recovered memories” in the context of child sexual abuse. Recovered memories refers to events that are forgotten and then remembered at a later point in time. That is, they are memories that an individual was not consciously aware of for some period of time—generally years—and are then brought back to consciousness. Such memories rarely enter the conscious mind all at once and often remain fragmented and impressionistic. Great controversy has arisen in this area both because there are many who believe memory simply does not work that way—that it can’t come back gradually and in fragments—but also because research has shown very clearly that memories can, with not too much effort, be both altered and created. We can be absolutely convinced that something happened in a particular way—we can see it in our mind’s eye, remember the sights and sounds—and we can be completely and utterly wrong. Just reading something can alter the way we remember an event. Or we can actually think something happened to us that didn’t because of a story we read. It can be that simple. So while I absolutely believe that many recovered memories are real—even when they are incomplete—I am also fairly certain that there are individuals who have been accused unfairly because the memories of their so-called victims have been altered by poor therapy practices or other means–that is their recollections were, essentially, false memories. These cases are tragedies on every level. Those who are accused are forever branded and have lost loved ones and those who believe they are victims are turned into actual victims because they believe themselves to be so.
I bring all this up because of a far less tragic and serious recent news story: Brian Williams’ supposed lie. The truth is, I’m biased. I really like Brian Williams. I don’t watch TV news, so I’ve very rarely seen him as an anchor. However, I always found him quite entertaining on talk shows, particular on The Daily Show. I loved the banter between Williams and Jon Stewart. It may be that Williams lied. I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis and look back at all the times he mentioned the story and when he started to alter it. But it is my understanding that when he originally reported it, the version he told was correct. It was only much later that he told the alternate version, in which the helicopter he was in was hit by enemy fire. My tendency is to think that when he told that latter version he had, for whatever reason, come to believe it. Maybe I just want to believe that he couldn’t possibly think he could get away with such a lie in an age when virtually any fact can be checked—something his apparent friends at The Daily Show have made quite clear. That being said, I am terrible at discerning truth from lies.
I guess I just wish he had been given a fair shot to explain himself. I wish Tara Parker-Pope of the NY Times wasn’t the only one to consider the idea that he wasn’t lying at all. He was simply telling the truth as he had come to know it—a truth based on a false memory. I think one of the reasons he has been ridiculed and skewered by almost everyone is that we hate to contemplate the idea that something we rely so heavily on is so deeply flawed. We don’t want to think about the idea that while our so-called lies may not play out as publicly as Brian Williams’ has, we, too, may on occasion propagate mistaken truths.