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The Fallibility of Memory

The Fallibility of Memory

Photo by Beverly Nguyen on Unsplash

In light of all of the accusations lodged against powerful men mistreating subordinate women, I've been re-reading Dr. Oliver Sack's  final book The River of Consciousness, and wondering how to evaluate the current male-female working relationship, particularly after reading Sack's thought provoking essay entitled, "The Fallibility of Memory.

In The Fallibility of Memory essay Sacks recounts two highly graphic stories from his experiences as a child in wartime London during The Blitz. 

Neither bomb story are the kinds of events one is likely to forget..ever. 

  • The first was a 1,000 lb bomb crashing into a neighbor's backyard and failing to explode.  Sacks vividly recalls fleeing the neighborhood on a cold winter night barefoot and in his PJs.
  • The second was a story about a Thermite incendiary bomb that fell behind his family's house spewing particles of metal and white hot phosphorous.  Sacks, then a boy of about 7, remembers watching his father and brothers trying to put out the bomb with water (which actually made the fire worse).  
“I was staggered at Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law and had never doubted as real?”
— Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness

The trouble is, despite having vivid recollections burned into his mind of both events, only one of these stories is true.  He and another brother, Michael, had been evacuated from London to a boarding school during one of these two bomb scares. 

In later years Sacks was stunned when his brother reminded him that they'd read the details of the Thermite bomb in a letter from home. 

As Sacks observes, "The second image, of the thermite bomb, was equally clear, it seemed to me—very vivid, detailed, and concrete. I tried to persuade myself that it had a different quality from the first, that it bore evidences of its appropriation from someone else’s experience and its translation from verbal description into image. But although I knew, intellectually, that this memory was false, it still seemed to me as real, as intensely my own, as before...I was staggered at Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law and had never doubted as real?"

Sacks goes on to detail several similar events told by everyone from writers to presidents to holocaust survivors who recalled vivid, exactly detailed and rich personal memories that never happened.  (President Reagan's favorite WWII story was actually discovered to be a plot line from the movie, A Wing and a Prayer.) 

More disturbing than an implanted memory from a vividly told tale is when memory recall does real harm.  Researcher Daniel Schacter analyzed 40 criminal cases where an individual had been convicted on eyewitness identification but where there was also DNA evidence.  In 36 cases of the 40 (90%), the convicted individual was exonerated. 

As a fair-minded person raised on the principles of American justice, I don't know how to evaluate all of the stories coming out now (although there is evidence we're entering Ministry of Silly Walks territory with the latest revelation against Senator Al Franken.  With decades of experience with "Grip & Grin" events with the Navy,  and commands to "squeeze in tighter," there is no doubt we all experienced occasionally awkward hand positions.  And as a husband and photographer, I'm pretty sure I'd notice if someone had his hand on my wife's ass).

I’m saying that I just don’t know what the standard should be, given the demonstrable science of The Fallibility of Memory.

District Attorney's struggle with this "proof" problem all the time.  More and more jurors understand The Fallibility of Memory and increasingly demand physical evidence.  The phenomenon even has a name in legal circles, "The CSI Effect."

I'm not standing up for Roy Moore or Al Franken or President Trump or Harvey Weinstein.  I'm well aware some men can be predatory pigs and the more powerful they are the more porcine they tend to become.  Nor am I saying the women are lying.  I'm saying that I just don't know what the standard should be, given the demonstrable science of The Fallibility of Memory. 

All the stories these women tell have the scent of verisimilitude to them--graphic, creepy, detailed--but so did the two bomb stories Oliver Sacks remembers.  And only one of those was true.

Certainly the weight of so many complaints registered against some of the men on the list tips the scales considerably.  And I totally agree there is a severe imbalance of power in all of the cited relationships.  I do not subscribe to the "war on men" hypothesis, popular in some circles.  And I totally support equality and respect in every aspect of life: regardless of gender, race, legal status, nation of origin, or place in life.  

But in an era when even one compellingly detailed and forcefully told story on the internet can ruin a person's career, what should the standard be in a society that reveres the standards of "innocent until proven guilty," "corroborative evidence," & "the rule of law," in light of the science of The Fallibility of Memory?

Inspiration from Charlottesville

Inspiration from Charlottesville