So the Brian Williams saga (in which the NBC anchor’s recollection of being shot down in Iraq has been discredited, leading to his apology and suspension) has been blowing up my Twitter feed for days now, with almost no one coming to his defense. I won’t either, as I do not know if he deliberately fabricated the story for personal gain or not.
What I DO know, however, is that it is entirely possible to mis-remembered the past. I know this from personal experience: it happened (at least) once to me and once to another person regarding an event I was personally involved in.
I got my first car, a blue Volkswagen Beetle, when I was 18. The car was a rusted wreck when I bought it for $500 but I managed to have some fun times and a few adventures in it before it finally died. One of those adventures happened the first winter I had the car. I was driving with my then-wife Cathy in the passenger seat and her younger brother Philip in the back seat. The day had been above freezing but, as the sun set on the drive homeward, the mercury dipped below 0C and the roads became slippery. I noticed the slippery conditions as we were driving on Blackmarsh Road. Now, I had practiced winter driving a lot in that car and I was well aware of the impact of a rear engine on vehicle dynamics in slippery conditions. So, feeling in control and wanting to have a little fun (not to mention impress my companions), I let the rear end step out a little and brought the car back under control. I did this once, then again, letting the car fishtail further. You can guess where this story (and the car!) is headed. The third time, I let the car fishtail too much and lost control. The car ended up in the ditch, fortunately propped up by a snowbank. However, I was unable to extricate it and we had to flag down a passing car, drive to a nearby store and call for Cathy’s father to come pick us up. I was horribly embarrassed and I did not tell him how the accident happened, only that I had lost control on the unexpectedly-slippery road.
I told that version of the story a number of times over the next few days. I don’t know when it happened exactly, but I began to remember it that way. I completely forgot that I had been the direct cause of that accident. And I probably would have gone on believing that I had been the innocent victim of poor conditions to this day, were it not for a conversation I had with Philip years later. I don’t recall what we were talking about but he said, “Hey, remember the day we were driving in your Beetle and you were making it fishtail and we went off the road?” BOOM! The moment he said that, the memory of what really happened came flooding back. I remember the shock of that feeling to this day. I had REALLY BELIEVED my edited version of the truth. I even remembered details about an (non-existent) oncoming car,
Years after that, I saw the same thing happen to someone else right before my eyes. I was working for a marketing research firm and was on a business trip to Moncton to supervise a mall intercept study. During the course of my visit, I had eaten at a very nice restaurant named Cy’s. At the end of the study, we went out for a celebratory dinner at another restaurant with the local field staff who had worked on the project. During the dinner, my colleague Carole happened to mention to one of the local staff, “Kerry is very impressed with your Cy’s.” Well, the person she said this too happened to be a very large woman. The poor lady looked at me wide-eyed and I quickly said “She means the restaurant Cy’s!” Fortunately, the woman wasn’t offended and we all had a good laugh over it.
Some months later, we were out at an office lunch when Carole told our colleagues the story of that Moncton dinner. However, in her telling, I had made the remark to the woman about being impressed with “your Cy’s” and CAROLE had corrected the woman’s mistaken impression. I couldn’t believe it but said nothing, not wanted to create an argument. I initially thought that Carole was deliberately lying but I came to believe that she honestly remembered it that way. I guess my own experience taught me that it’s easy to change a memory to suppress an embarrassing incident.
And yes, I’m aware that MY recollection of the incident may be faulty. But I don’t think it is. 🙂
A very interesting post over at Slate expands on this phenomenon and cites psychological research into it, including the following:
In another study, researchers Kimberly Wade, Maryanne Garry, Don Read, and Stephen Lindsay showed people a Photoshopped image of themselves as children, standing in the basket of a hot air balloon. Half of the participants later had either complete or partial false memories, sometimes “remembering” additional details from this event—an event that they never experienced.
So, I guess, before we pillory Brian Williams, we should understand that it IS possible that he honestly mis-remembered.
Have you had any instances of this kind of mis-remembering? Feel free to leave examples in the comments below!