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False Memory Syndrome is False (and How to Grow a Tale)

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In my professional capacities of writing consultant and therapist, people often bring their memories to me, and we frequently explore these memories together. In so doing, the question arises: How much does it really matter whether the events that formed the memory actually happened just as they’re remembered?

I’m not concerned about false memory syndrome, because the memory contains a meaningful story, and to me as a therapist, it’s the story that matters. I work with the stories people carry within them because it’s these stories that direct behaviors and choices. Even if you try to leave the past behind, it presents itself in how you live today. As Neil Gaiman says in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, “Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me.” We are who we are as a result of the stories we believe about ourselves. Charles Baxter puts it this way in Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction: “We understand our lives, or try to, by the stories we tell.”

We are often reminded that we can’t change the past. But we can change the stories we carry around with us about our past. We can change our stories. It can be worthwhile to sift out the story from the memory as best we can—as long as we trust our memory.

We all have an abundance of memory snapshots — those random images that reappear throughout our lives. These memory snapshots are doorways to remembering the story of our lives. And they are closed. To open them, one has to follow those particular images, knock on their doors, and be willing to freely engage in whatever emerges from behind them. A snapshots can be a simple object, like a pair of boots or an image of wallpaper in a room. Or it can be a snapshot of a scene.

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To retrieve more of one’s own personal narrative and to make meaning from it, we will want to open these doors. Opening the door enables us to explore the image. This process can be aided by using creative prompts. I give clients writing prompts, personal rituals to undertake, and suggest explorations out into nature. I also encourage them to go within through the practice of meditation and journaling, shared storytelling, and—for some—through the process of narrative therapy. (In the Zero Point circles that I conduct and facilitate, all of the participants share their stories by telling them aloud to others.)

For most of my life I had a snapshot scene of my mother killing someone. At one point I travelled to the neighborhood where I grew up and found the apartment complex where I remembered this event taking place. There sat the dark, red-brick building with the inside stairs where the incident occurred. I explored this memory by the methods described above and walked into the metaphorical room that held the memory. The snapshot opened up to a full memory and a greater understanding of my life’s narrative, and it no longer haunts me as it once did.

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I recently read The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, which I quote from above (it’s currently one of my top 10 favorite books). For me, the entire book is about our memories—about how we remember, and the stories each of us weaves around our memories. It is worth exploring our memories and the surrounding stories to find what feels true, because what feels true to each of us holds a unique truth about ourselves.

What memories beckon you like a repeated dream?

What memories come to you in your dreams?

What or whose version of a memory do you carry within you?

Are there any memories and stories that have not yet been shared, and thus with your death will be forgotten? A shared memory passes on the story for others and becomes part of their memories and stories. (I was once told that memories need a tribe to be remembered.)

A lot of arguments would be averted if we could just listen to one another’s stories. We tend to force our memories (our ideas and agendas) on others. I don’t recommend that those whose story includes violence confront the perpetrator of that violence. I recommend that they work with the story and the effects it has on them first. I recommend that they tell their stories to others who will listen. At some point, their process may include some form of confrontation with others involved with that story, but inner work done on the emotional level is often the best retribution.

Sometimes we don’t even have our own memory or version of an event but are carrying someone else’s repeated recall of a time gone by. Is what you remember yours?

All stories are memories. Everything is a memory. And no two people remember things exactly the same way. There can be as many versions and truths of an event as there were people present during any given experience. If we can live with the diversity of remembrances, life will be a richer experience for it. I’m not saying there is never a right or a wrong. I am saying that it’s far more valuable and productive to focus on the story rather than the judgment or spin we may bring to it. Parker J. Palmer in Healing the Heart of Democracy reminds us, “There is no right or wrong here, nothing to defend, this is just a sharing of story.” Each conversation is a story within a bigger story.

There are also memory deniers, such as Holocaust deniers. I once participated in a group that included girls who had been abused by their fathers. The fathers were released from jail to attend a couple of the groups where the children shared their stories with others present. In all cases the father denied the memory, even with the child in the room. My main response to the child was to affirm my belief in her memory and story.

The story part of memory comes in part from what we have forgotten or lost. Then in our stumblings through life we come upon something that brings a memory out of the depths like some mythical creature rising out of the fire. Opening the door to this snapshot or memory, and sharing this memory, puts a tail on the tale. The claimed story becomes like a valued treasure to protect—a way to stay balanced on rocky ground. Our memories and their surrounding stories are all we really have; they are ours to claim. Parents, people in authority and power, (bad) therapists, religious zealots, politicians, historians and (too many) teachers attempt to control or even steal our memories. This is so because our memories are where our power is derived.

“Everybody walks in the street, more or less straight down the middle, and if a car comes while somebody’s having a good conversation or telling a good story, the car has to wait till the story finishes before people will move out of the way. Stories are important here, and cars aren’t.”  – Ann Cameron, The Most Beautiful Place in the World

If your mother tells you that you were a sad child even though she says she gave you everything you wanted, and you take this false story as your own, you come to build your life on this stolen memory. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the man returns to a place where his story (and memory) is held hostage. Or, in my estimation, it is being kept until he is willing and able to claim it as his own. (Interestingly, this novel by Gaiman is biographical.)

With the current boom in self-publishing, many parents are writing collections of stories to pass down to their children. In these they often claim that their children’s stories are their stories. But in growing your own tail (tale) you claim your stories as your own. A parent’s version of his or her children’s stories is from the outside looking in, whereas our own personal memories are held and then told from the inside out.

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“And that’s how I saved the circus. And now I am famous. Then one time my dad took me sailing. The End.”

“Was that true?” Olivia’s teacher asked.

“Pretty true,” says Olivia.

“All true?”

“Pretty all true.”

“Are you sure, Olivia?”

“To the best of my recollection.”

– Ian Falconer, Olivia Saves the Circus

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About Julie Tallard Johnson

Julie Tallard Johnson is a psychotherapist, creative writing consultant and concept manager for individuals and businesses. She has been studying the scientific basis of thought transformation, inspiration, and creativity for 35 years. She is the author of several books, her latest, The Zero Point Agreement: How To Be Who You Already Are is available now in paperback and Kindle. She is a writing instructor at the UW-Madison, Continuing Studies. She enjoys being a writer for Blogcritics and is in search of her next article. She lives in rural Wisconsin on 40 acres of restored prairie and woods.
  • PT

    I remember reading in Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul about a young man who thought he was Jesus. Moore’s colleagues wanted to have the boy committed, but Moore saw the thread of truth in the boy’s story. How was the boy really here as a redeemer of humanity’s sins? How might that be a little bit true for all of us?

    In the book The Last Temptation of Christ, Matthew is given the task of recording the life of Jesus. The angels are dictating to him, and he protests, “But that’s not the way it happened.” The angels shush him with (paraphrased), “You speak of man’s truth. We are giving you Heaven’s truth, which is much too big for you to understand.”

    I read both of these books in my twenties, and the examples still stick with me because they help me understand why poems speak so much more truth to me than news articles; why metaphor and image spark a kind of recognition in my soul.

    Thank you for helping us untangle this mystery, Julie. It feels like such an important part of our journey to compassion and non-attachment.

    • Julie Tallard

      Thank you Prudence for your shared story and wisdom!

  • Rob Knaggs

    It’s all very well to say that it doesn’t matter whether a person’s memories are true, but there is the potential for great damage with that approach. We saw this with the satanic abuse hysteria of the 90s, in which dozens, possibly hundreds, of innocent people were investigated, charged, tried and in some cases convicted of horrific crimes they did not commit and that any halfway sensible person could have seen they could not possibly have committed.

    Conversely, you would be grossly negligent as a therapist if you were to ignore obvious physical signs of abuse accompanying a memory because “it didn’t matter” if the memory were true or not.

  • Rob Knaggs

    It’s all very well to say that it doesn’t matter whether a person’s memories are true, but there is the potential for great damage with that approach. We saw this with the satanic abuse hysteria of the 90s, in which dozens, possibly hundreds, of innocent people were investigated, charged, tried and in some cases convicted of horrific crimes they did not commit and that any halfway sensible person could have seen they could not possibly have committed.

    Conversely, you would be grossly negligent as a therapist if you were to ignore obvious physical signs of abuse accompanying a memory because “it didn’t matter” if the memory were true or not.