I think my memory of forced naps must be my earliest memory. I can also remember standing up on December 5th, 1974 for the first time ever with the aid of a toddler’s workbench (complete with plastic hammer and thick plastic nails) as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer aired on TV for the first time. But I’m pretty sure that’s not an actual memory. It’s a story that impacted me through its repetition and one that was easy to picture since there’s a photo of the scene in an album somewhere.
Most of my students have discovered a similar phenomenon of doubting the veracity of their memories. Did I really see that squirrel in the cab of Uncle Alex’s pick-up truck? Was I actually there when my sister fell in the pool that one Thanksgiving? Did I witness Amy rip the trampoline? Or have these memories been imprinted in my mind simply because the story came to be expertly told at family gatherings?
One girl in class spoke of a memory that she’s sure is not genuine: it’s a story of how she “beat up” a two year-old boy when she was one. She can picture it all — the color of the walls, what she was wearing, the layout of furniture in the room — but she knows her memory is simply a matter of plentiful retelling. The thing is, somebody has a video of the incident. Multiple copies, in fact. So there exists a pretty accurate representation of the entire famous episode. She hasn’t seen it, though. I told her she should write down her memory of it in as much detail as possible and then watch the video.
Imagine, though, if we could watch the videos of our memories as they actually occurred. Where would it leave us? Would it destroy the illusions that have helped define us? Would we refuse the truth? Isn’t the illusion preferable?