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"I'm Telling"

Kids aren’t born knowing how to tell stories, least of all stories about themselves. Most of us remember having to tell someone, recounting a sequence of events, or a disjointed set of dream images, “but that’s not a story.” Stories are about someone trying to do something, and what they have to go through to do it, whether overcoming obstacles or being defeated by them. Mostly kids learn how to tell stories about themselves by being told stories about themselves by other people, particularly their parents. The stories that are at the very roots of our identity, the first stories we learn about ourselves, are ones told to us by others. Now, no memory is a recording, but a construction, and they can change a lot in the telling, especially for those emotionally compelling stories we retell ourselves, and tell others as a way for them to get to know us. But at their roots, they will include stories told to us by others about ourselves.

There is an easy way to see this. Sit down sometime and just write a paragraph about each of some of your earliest memories. Do it. It’s kind of fun. When I used to ask students to write “naïve autobiographies,” it was an assignment few students could limit to ten pages. You have to do it first, or the punch line might interfere with how you think about it. So do it, and this all is going to make a lot more sense.

I made the mistake one time, after watching Apollo 13 with my kids, of telling them how much fun it might be if I started to tell them something that they might subsequently remember as actually happening. Neisser and Harsch did a study in 1992 in which they collected accounts from college students of where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the Challenger explosion (these days we might use seeing the towers fall on 9/11/2001). They then asked them years later to provide accounts, the latter were often completely different than the former, but their subjects insisted that they were completely confident in the latter, though they might remember when shown the former. Anyhow, you might remember in Apollo 13, the movie starring Tom Hanks as one of the astronauts, from which most of us remember the line “Houston, we have a problem.” Ed Harris was in Houston, and what you may not remember is, when he was having some of his people figure out how to save enough oxygen, he said: “Do the math, people, do the math!” Now, my daughter was a math whiz. She’s now a post-doc astronomer. I remember once in college, when she had filled a page with arcane symbols getting a leg up for her course on partial differential equations, and was planning on taking organic chemistry, and experimental quantum mechanics on top of it: “Honey, you sure what you are doing? You’re gonna be competing with Pre-Meds in Organic.” She said “Oh, daddy, I blew away the pre-meds in Calc III.” Why was this physics major president of the Math Club? “Because most of the Math majors are guys who aren’t organized or focused enough to do it.” She thought her college needed a Pi Day. “What day is that?” I’d ask, and she’d just stare at me. Anyhow, I was suggesting to the kids, after Apollo 13, when they did the math, and the astronauts were saved, that what they should remember is that Johanna said, after the movie “Daddy, I want to be one of the people that can do the math.” Of course, their memory now includes my suggestion, and Johanna saying “But I never said that!” Give them time.

So, if you ask yourself, having now written down several of your earliest memories, “what’s the camera angle?” is the memory looking through your eyes (which doesn’t preclude it being constructed) or looking at am image of yourself in the scene from an outside point of view, you may have some pretty clear evidence that it is a construction. Unless you were having an out-of-body experience, how could you be seeing yourself in the scene?

One of my earliest memories is of my holding my mother’s hand on Nicolette Street in Minneapolis, in the 1950s saying “Big car make Johnny go boom.” My mother used to love telling this story, I don’t know, maybe as an example of one of my earliest sentences. But in my memory, I can see the little boy, wearing a little black coat and a little black hat, looking up at his mother. From about ten feet behind. And over the years, the little boy has come to look more and more like little John-John Kennedy, at his father’s funeral cortege, in 1963. Wearing the same outfit. Except that if you actually track down pictures of that funeral, John-John’s little outfit is baby blue. Memory can be tricky. How is yours doing?

Elizabeth Loftus and her students did a lot of work on memory construction in the early 80’s. In the iconic story, she shows a group of people a videotaped car accident. Immediately afterwards, different people are asked either “How fast were the cars going when they came into contact?” or “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” That the latter gave higher estimates of the speed should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the legal “Objection, leading the witness.” Not that sustaining the objection will change the jury’s memory much. But a week later, the latter group, in a free recall task, are more likely to report the sound of grinding metal, and the presence of broken glass on the scene, and to feel just as confident in their memory as in the group asked the former question. Loftus’ work revolutionized eyewitness testimony, which use to be the gold standard of evidence. But she was also able to weigh in on the question of “recovered memories” of childhood abuse. It turns out that if you take normal kids and have them read a “family account” of their being lost in a mall, they will come to believe it actually happened, filling in lots of details. Even Jean Piaget remembers a story of his nurse being kidnapped, which turns out to never have been true.

I’m afraid I may have brainwashed my little brother. We were playing in the basement, naturally doing things we weren’t supposed to be doing, but, being the older brother, I felt a bit responsible for my brothers. The story I told my mother is that I told Jeff not to climb up the railing, and was just going to try to stop him, when he fell, hit his shoulder on the radiator below, and broke his collar bone. What I think I remember is that I was really angry with Jeff for some reason. It might have been for the climbing, but I doubt it. I remember it being one of those rages when you really feel like killing an annoying little brother. It seems to me that I didn’t want to hit him in the chest, because that might hurt his heart, nor in the face as that could mess up his face, and would certainly be obvious, and probably make him bleed. So I took my tightly clenched balled up fist, and hit him squarely in the middle of his shoulder. I can vividly remember the sound of the snap, like a twig, when his collar bone broke. I told him that I would kill him if he told Mom, and then told him what “really happened.” Funny, but to this day my brother has no recollection whatsoever of this event. The problem is that I now wonder myself. Did he really break it on the radiator? Maybe I constructed the story of my breaking it because I was there, and felt responsible, and hence felt a guilt that was expressed by the story. That I actually did it. Part of me wonders whether he actually broke it at all, though I’m pretty sure he had a nasty fall off the railing. The one I told him not to climb. Maybe my other brother remembers.

Jerome Bruner distinguishes between paradigmatic and narrative modes of understanding. The paradigmatic, more characteristic of science, involves the kind of reasoning most kids can’t do until they are adolescents, involving logical argument and evidence. It is interesting that this stage of reasoning, proposed by Jean Piaget, called Formal Operations involves, something called “counterfactual reason,” which is the ability to imagine how things might be otherwise. There’s a wonderful cartoon, showing a person who presses a button on a podium, and a bolt of lightning strikes down; then it divides into two panels, the average person who say’s “I’m not gonna do that again, and the scientist who says “I wonder if that would happen again.” The latter is imagining that it could be otherwise. Not only do most of us not operate that way most of the time, but we learn, understand, and remember in terms of narratives, of storied accounts of the “vicissitudes of human intentions” of people striving to do things over time. The majority of students in a college seminar, when asked why they hold the religious beliefs they do, respond “that’s what I was always told,” Only a subset have actually questioned or had those beliefs tested, and this group either has strengthened, or changed their beliefs.

There is plenty of evidence that our ability to voluntarily retrieve memories, most of the memories we can recall at will, depends on them being our put into narrative form, the form of stories. The inability to remember dreams that we haven’t put into the form of a story, the ease by which we remember stories of our own lives and those of others, and the difficulty children have bringing to mind almost any of the episodes of their lives suggests that while events of our lives may not occur in the form of stories, most of what is remembered, is remembered because we have told it in the form of a story.

The funny thing about stories is that, according to MacIntyre, they always represent some kind of movement in moral space. Things get better or worse, and there are agents that play roles in making things that way. So any story, including children’s stories are going to have this character. “I’m telling” means you are going to give a version of what happened in which the person you are telling on has brought about some evil. Maybe Peter Pan’s innocence, like Adam’s, was in his inability to tell stories, so it took Wendy, like Eve, to tell the stories, and do the necessary consciousness raising. It also means that parents that regularly tell stories about the trouble their children produce may well raise children that think of themselves as troublemakers. Maybe that’s why “I’m telling” never worked very well in my family. With three boys, there were certainly fights, but Mom would always say “It takes two to tango,” and punish both. Of course, what this meant is that there were many things left untold, and mostly they did not become secret stories, but were just forgotten. To have a secret story, you have to have someone to whom you tell it.


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