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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.