Like most people past early childhood on September 11, 2001, I remember exactly where I was when I heard: in the car. The news was too bizarre and my brain went straight to disbelief, assuming an oddly timed War of the Worlds sort of broadcast. I pumped gas and, when I went inside to pay, the small television behind the clerk was showing images. I said to him, “Oh, I didn’t think it was real.”
I was only minutes from my sister’s house and I drove there, finding her kneeling on the floor, laid over an ottoman, watching the news with the sound off with her toddler playing nearby. Soon, I left for class and found a note on the classroom door saying it was cancelled for the day. I probably returned to my sister after that but I can’t remember.
I also can’t trust the above memories.
Studies of flashbulb memories – defined by R. Brown and J. Kulik as “circumstances in which one first learned of a very surprising and consequential (or emotionally arousing) event” – have shown that our trust in our memories is often misplaced. That flashbulb moments are so jarring only heightens that misplaced trust.
This happens in our intimate lives as well. Until I heard the 911 recording of the morning I was attacked, I was positive that neither of us spoke or made any noise at all for the duration of the attack. Until I compared stories with my older siblings, I was positive I remembered the day we learned our parents were separating though I was only three or four years old.
Not even that much drama is required, though, for us to glom onto a memory as Truth. In the month between when Katelyn Martin and I recorded our StoryCorps One Small Step conversation and I received the recording, I focused in on a few tiny details that weren’t untrue, exactly, but carried a far different weight in my mind than in the recording – different enough to change the shape of the conversation in meaningful ways that, I’m uncomfortable admitting, put the Katelyn of my memory in a far less flattering light than the Katelyn I hear in the recording.
These distortions of our memories aren’t just curious, though, they’re potentially damaging, even life-threatening. Read Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness, and the Expert Who Puts Memory on Trial by forensic psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Loftis for a chilling array of examples.
Or just think about the last time you had a bout of interpersonal discord based on a difference of perspective.
None of this is to say we can’t trust our memories at all. Despite the mistaken details, 9-11 did, indeed, happen and I was aware of it as it happened. I was, in fact, attacked; my parents did separate; Katelyn and I did have significant disagreements.
Instead, what I’m suggesting is that we back off our attachment to having certainty in details. Many a sexual assault victim has been impaled on her shaky memory when others assume flashbulb memories to be airtight; many an argument has been exacerbated by the assumption that we each have perfect memory of what was said or done.
We might instead practice accepting that our human imperfection extends to our memories and work from there.
Embracing not only the existence of our imperfection but also the benefits of us has been a long and continual journey for me, and one I walk with my clients just about every week. If you’re curious how your life might change if you could embrace imperfection, shoot me a line.