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The Fiction of Memory

fiction_of_memory_post_small320image_320x215One of my favorite stories by Alice Munro is Friend of My Youth.

The narrator tells us about a story her dying mother told her: the tale of Flora Grieves and the double betrayal that, if we are to believe the narrator and her mother, is the key theme of Flora’s life. While Flora’s tale is fascinating in itself (she is an industrious, stoic woman who spent years caring for her sister (one of her betrayers), never growing embittered) it is the hand-me-down quality of the story that interests me. The narrator’s mother gathered the bits and pieces of Flora’s life first-hand when she lived on Grieves Farm as a young schoolteacher working and saving for her wedding. Later, after she was married and had moved away, she hears accounts of Flora’s life from acquaintances she and Flora had in common. The narrator herself tells us what she remembers of what her mother related to her about Flora.

Knowing how faulty memory is I wonder how much of Flora’s story is true and how much of it is “fill in the blanks.”

A Recreation of Things Past

Most definitions of memory talk about retaining, recalling or remembering past experiences. None speak of recreating past experiences. Yet, that’s what we do when we remember.

Scientific studies prove that memory can be wildly inaccurate, so inaccurate that numerous phrases exist to describe different types of memory errors.

Have you noticed that each time you hear someone retell the same story, it’s a little different? That’s because with each remembrance and retelling, we misremember the event or experience. In his article Memory is Fiction, science journalist Jonah Lehrer states, “A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes. Memory is a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information.”

That’s not to say that I misremember every aspect of my grandparent’s sixty-first anniversary party. I did in fact travel from Cleveland, Ohio to Huntington, West Virginia with my mother, aunt and uncle. I was in fact seventeen years old at the time. My oldest cousin did in fact present my grandparents with a beautiful clock to commemorate the time they’d spent together. But so many other details of that weekend are made real in my mind because I’ve often looked at photographs and heard stories from others who were there, not because I have a solid and complete memory of the events. And yet, it all feels like my own memory.

Fabricating Memories

Some memories are true memories. Some are created. Some involve source confusion, meaning an event that we believe we remember is actually someone else’s memory that we’ve taken as our own. Neuroscientist Kadim Nader “believes that the very act of remembering can change our memories.”

The thought that my memories are or could be distorted in this way used to bother me. Now I wonder, outside of times of life and death or love and loss, does it matter?

Maybe the important thing is not whether or not our experiences produce accurate memories. What’s important is what types of stories we craft based on our life experiences. It’s those stories that we tell again and again, after all, that reflect and inform our perception of life and help us understand our world, past and present. They add shape and structure to our existence.

The Power of Storytelling

If Jonah Lehrer is right, memory is fiction. And fiction is storytelling. So memory is storytelling.

Storytelling is healthy. It helps us connect, engage and share. In Friend of My Youth, the narrator’s mother shares her memories of Flora to connect with the narrator. The narrator, who is young and desperate to forge her own identity, is afraid of being “crippled and choked” by her mother. She keeps her emotional distance and, in the narrator’s own words, is “no comfort and poor company to her when she had almost nowhere else to turn.” The mother wants to bridge that great divide by switching the focus from her own failing body to the tale of Flora, a creature who, jilted twice by the same man, seems somehow less fortunate.

At one point, the narrator’s mother says that if she had been a writer, she would have written the tale of Flora’s life and called it The Maiden Lady. The narrator believes her mother would have made Flora into “a noble figure, one who accepts defection, treachery, who forgives and stands aside, not once but twice.” The narrator says if she had written the story of Flora’s life, Flora would be “rejoicing in the bad turns done to her and in her own forgiveness, spying on the shambles of her sister’s life.”

Flora’s experiences take on a life of their own in these second and third hand memories. By retelling and embellishing Flora’s life story, the narrator’s mother and the narrator reveal certain aspects of their own hearts and minds. And that’s where the truth lies. Not in the actual memories, but in the stories derived from the memories.

Memory is faulty and will fail us. Stories are always true in that they are revelatory. Dig deeper into the stories told by your loved ones, coworkers, and even the stories you tell most often, and you will find the real person.

Literature Cited: Friend of My Youth
Author: Alice Munro
Year Published: 1990

Additional Sources: How Our Brains Make Memories, Greg Miller, Smithsonian.com, 2010
photo credit: __MaRiNa__ via photopin

More on Memory
From the TED Radio Hour episode Memory Games:
Daniel Kahneman: How Do Experiences Become Memories?

Do you believe your memories are always accurate? Have you ever discovered that you misremembered an event for years?


2 comments on “The Fiction of Memory

  1. audrey
    December 31, 2013

    I really like this. Food for thought. Never thought of misremembering an event.
    Think I’ll read one of your sources.

    • Johanna Chambers
      January 2, 2014

      Thank you for your comment. Yes, please do, the articles written on memory are really interesting!

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