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Russell Frank: Recognizing the Unreliability of Memory Matters a Great Deal

by on May 04, 2012 7:36 AM

An older woman is getting on the subway in New York. She sits, takes a newspaper out of her shopping bag and begins reading. As soon as the doors close, a pair of hands reaches in the open window above her head, lifts the wig straight up and pulls it out the window.

The train leaves the station.

The woman pats her close-cropped hair to confirm that the wig is no longer there, extracts a silk scarf from her shopping bag, sets it on her head, ties it under her chin and resumes reading.

When my sister told this story recently, I did not express indignation at the crumb bum who would steal a wig off a lady’s head. Nor did I express admiration for the unflappability of the lady.

I did not wonder if this was a prank or if there was a market for hot wigs. Nor did I wonder if the lady had had her wig stolen before, perhaps several times, to the point where it had become routine.

I simply asked, “Was I with you?”

My sister was surprised by this question. She was quite sure I was not with her because she remembers where she was going that day and she’s quite sure that I would not have been going with her.

The reason I asked was because I have been telling the stolen wig story for years – as a personal experience narrative. That is, I tell it as an incident I witnessed.

And indeed, though it happened 40 years ago, I can picture the scene quite clearly: the hands coming in the window, the way the woman felt her head to confirm the disappearance of the wig, the aplomb with which she replaced the wig with the scarf and went back to her newspaper.

So what gives here?

One possibility is that my sister told me the story and I began telling it to others, perhaps lying, at first, about having witnessed the stolen wig incident, perhaps telling it as a secondhand story, at first, and then forgetting, after a while, that I hadn’t witnessed it.

Another possibility is that I told the story to my sister and she’s the one who has been telling a secondhand story as a firsthand story all these years.

A third possibility is that my sister misremembers where she was going that day and has forgotten that I was with her, just as I have forgotten that she was with me.

I quickly ruled out the last scenario on the grounds that it seemed unlikely that neither of us would remember that we were together that day.

And I began thinking my sister was a likelier witness than I on the grounds that (a) she remembers where she was going; I don’t remember where I was going and (b) I’m more interested in stories than most people – I’m a folklorist, after all – so I think I’m more likely to remember my sister’s story than she is to remember my story. 

But then a memory floated to the surface from the murky depths. My sister once dated a guy who worked for the New York Giants. He got us tickets to a game at Yankee Stadium. Maybe that’s when we would have been on the subway together and co-witnessed the stolen wig incident.

Maybe not, though. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter in the least who saw the stolen wig incident. But recognizing the unreliability of memory matters a great deal.

Until my sister told the stolen wig story, I had great confidence in my memory and very little confidence in the memories of some of my nearest and dearest. Their versions of long-ago events often differed so substantially from the way I remembered them that I assumed that they were confused; I remembered the way it really was.

Now, though, it occurs to me that everyone must think their friends have bad memories because your friends are the only people with whom you have shared experiences that you remember differently.

Memory seems to work something like this: We have an experience. Some of it stays in our heads as a collage of sensory impressions. Telling what happened to someone else is like applying a fixative to those impressions. From then on, we remember the story more than we remember the experience itself. Each subsequent telling is a variation on that first account.

And it is because stories are our primary means of re-experiencing the past that we remember stories and think we are remembering experiences – and thus can remember other people’s experiences as our own.

This is what’s scary about regarding memory as a kind of evidence. Whether we’re on the witness stand, the subject of an oral history interview or chatting about the old days with loved ones, we think we’re offering testimony when all we’re really doing is telling stories based loosely on the past.

Recent Columns:

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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