I have the honour of being the single worst witness in the history of the British legal system. I was present at the scene of a minor car crash and six months later I was called to give evidence. Before taking the stand I was given my written statement to refresh my memory. It didn’t refresh my memory. It appeared to be my memory turned inside out and upside down. The car had been on the other side of the road, I’d been travelling in the opposite direction. It was so at odds with my own clear recollection of the event that I couldn’t really process it.
‘Funny. It’s all mixed up.’ I thought, without really appreciating the implications of that. My husband seemed alarmed. ‘But you signed it.’ ‘No,’ I said unconcerned, ‘that’s not what happened.’
I can’t really bear to think about my time in the witness box. The prosecution lawyer’s mounting perplexion. The defendant’s mounting relief. The magistrate’s patient interventions. My husband’s expression of horror. You’ve seen the scene in countless gangster films – the intimidated witness who completely changes their testimony. That was me. Except it wasn’t a mobster trial in Miami, it was a minor collision in Hall Green and I hadn’t been intimidated, I was just an idiot.
One of the unsung advantages of having siblings is the early discovery of the memory’s unreliability. In fact the more siblings you have the quicker and more brutally any faith in your memory is destroyed. If one sibling’s version of a past event differs from your own, you can blithely assume that they’re wrong. If all five of your siblings each have conflicting recollections of the same episode, you might start to question your own idea of the truth.
Elvis Presley was an only child. Maybe he went to his grave believing his mother’s favourite scent was rose water not lavender; that the name of his first dog was Beaker not Bingo; that he’d wanted a bike not a guitar for his eleventh birthday.
But of course, siblings aren’t necessary to make the point. I recently found a journal I kept during 2006. It was a record mainly of anecdotes I’d heard and conversations I’d had whilst at work. It was funny and made me laugh and I wondered who had written it. It was my handwriting, I remembered the job and the people, it all seemed quite plausible but I had no recollection of any of the details. I had to conclude that I probably was the author, that being more likely than the idea of some mysterious agency fabricating and planting false memories in my loft.
False memories – as if there were any other kind.
I suppose it’s easy to imagine that we can forget quotidian details and exchanges (though really, all of them? For a year?) But it’s harder to accept that the big momentous events are just as fogged and unfamiliar. I wonder how many of the people who remember exactly what they were doing when they heard Diana had died, or the first tower fell, have instead conjured up vivid fictions for and of themselves.
My brother and I both think we discovered our father dying. You think we’d be clear on something like that.
I wrote a piece recently for the New York Times. It concerned a childhood incident in which my dad inadvertently boarded up all my favourite toys in the kitchen wall. I’ve always seen it as a funny story. Funny because of my dad’s abysmal DIY skills. Funny because of the entirely separate worlds occupied by children and adults. Funny because of the one time popularity of plastic fake wood panelling.
After if appeared online it started to attract comments. I braced myself. On British news sites, even the least contentious articles provoke quite staggering levels of fury and indignation in the comments section. As I read through them though, I found that there was no loathing, no snark, nobody appeared to have found the article offensive but more puzzlingly nobody appeared to have found it remotely humorous. Everyone was sad. Or sympathetic. Or horrified.
‘That is a very sad story. Did your parents ever acknowledge what they did to you that day?’
Some really had it in for my mom and dad.
‘Boy, that’s sadistic. I hope that they still aren’t around to terrorize you or others. Horrible.’
For some it brought back past traumas.
‘My parents drowned every puppy or kitten I ever had in the lake behind our house, and on the Halloween I was 9, threw all my dolls in the same lake.’
So now I wonder:
Was the loss of my toys funny or tragic?
If my parents were alive what would their versions be?
Did it even happen?
Is there a definitive version?
I mean is anybody REALLY paying attention?
Has somebody pressed RECORD?