The brain seems to have a remarkable elasticity – remembering some details, forgetting others, and apparently rewriting whole events to suit itself without our knowledge. This isn’t the same as lying; lying is knowing the truth and deliberately covering it up with falsehood.
When I was 16, my grandfather died, less than a week after I had “bargained with God” to say one last goodbye. I was terrified that I would never see him alive again, and could not remember telling him I loved him – of course I had, but in a blind panic, on an airplane, having just had a very pleasant week’s visit with both my grandparents, I burst into tears, convinced that it was the last time I’d see him alive.
It wasn’t. And I remembered my bargaining, my pleading, my prayer, as the flight attendant went off in search of aspirin for my “migraine” – I sat at the edge of his bed in the hospital and told him I loved him. Thinking he’d be fine, my dad and I left the state, only to have to turn right back around, a few days later. My grandfather had died just before our return. I believed, with all my heart and soul, that I was never meant to see him after he died.
We don’t do “visitations” and “viewings,” normally, and we don’t do “open casket” in our family. But there was a visitation held in Ohio, before we took my grandfather to be buried in Arkansas. And someone had made a mistake; we walked in, and the casket was open.
For years – eight or nine years – I said that I had turned sharply to the right and gone into the family room at the funeral home, not going into the room where my grandfather was until after they had come to close the casket. I was telling a classmate about this, when I was in law school; she was a forensic pathologist, and I told her that the only dead body I had ever seen was that of my great grandmother when I was four. Oddly, this hadn’t bothered me at all, but I vividly remembered a woman brushing and braiding her long, gray hair.
My parents expressed some skepticism that that had ever happened, planting seeds of doubt in my mind, too. Had I “conflated” this with watching someone brush and braid her hair in the nursing home, some time before her death? Did she simply look that old to me? I do remember that when my mother got the news, over the phone, she said something like, “Death comes for us all,” and I hid behind a chair, terrified, thinking that Death was literally coming for us all.
I told my classmate how I had only seen the top of my grandfather’s head as we’d entered the funeral home, that day, and that on realizing the casket was open, I had headed into the room reserved for grieving family. And then I looked up at her, sharply, and said, “That was a bald-faced lie. That was complete and utter bullshit!” I was more astonished at that than she was. “I walked right up to the casket,” I said. “He was wearing glasses with black frames. He never wore them, except when he was working. Someone took them off, because he didn’t look like himself with them on. And my grandmother leaned into the casket to kiss him, but my dad pulled her away. He said something about there being chemicals from the embalming–eww.” I think he’d made it up, mostly to keep my grandmother from climbing into the casket. But still. Ew.
For a while, after that, I questioned every memory I had.
I’m fairly sure most are reasonably accurate. I’m more likely to forget things altogether than to make up things that didn’t happen (unless I’m writing fiction, doing it on purpose). I do worry that I threw out a lot of memories I had doubts about. My mother apparently forgot going to a Beatles concert in the 1960s, and I’m pretty sure there were no drugs or alcohol involved. But how often do two people remember the same distant event in very different ways? It helps, sometimes, if a third person was there and can weave together the frazzled ends of the two tales, but often as not, that just results in a third version. We each remember things that are significant to us, at the time; we’re likely to forget or rewrite the ones that don’t seem to fit with our beliefs or our reality. I wasn’t meant to see my grandfather’s dead body; therefore, my brain rewrote history so that I didn’t.
I’m still not sure about my great grandmother; I can describe the scene in detail, but how likely is it that a four year old child would be sitting in a back room of the funeral parlor while another woman brushed and braided the hair of a dead woman lying in a casket? In my family? Not bloody likely. But it’s still a vivid, visual memory.
I pride myself on honesty. But this is why the tagline on my blog used to be, “This blog is 99.3% truth, .7% blatant lies.” We all see the world through our own, unique lens. Add to that a vivid imagination and the ability to envision – vividly, visually – a world where unicorns frolic. It’s just possible that some of the details in the well of memory combine from time to time into a sort of shorthand that becomes a part of our worldview. Let’s all hope ours is one where we thank a soldier for saving us from a helicopter crash, or remember a moment of grace in which we were able to rescue puppies from a house fire.
Should Brian Williams be fired? Maybe. It’s not my call, though I might be inclined to suggest gently that he find another career. A good journalist takes notes, records audio and video, and verifies facts before speaking of them on the air or presenting them as “what really happened.” I hold journalists to a high standard, but others appear satisfied with the outright and deliberate lies told by so many of them, today, that I have to question the fairness of destroying the man’s career and credibility altogether when it’s quite plausible that he had a little accidental mash-up in the brain. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.