Nearly two decades of research on memory distortion leaves no doubt that memory can be altered via suggestion. People can be led to remember their past in different ways, and they can even be led to remember entire events that never actually happened to them. When these sorts of distortions occur people are sometimes confident in their distorted or false memories and often go on to describe the pseudomemories in substantial detail. These findings shed light on cases in which false memories are fervently held – as in when people remember things that are biological or geographically impossible. The findings do not, however, give us the ability or reliably distinguish between real and false memories, for without independent corroboration such distinctions are generally not possible.
Loftus and Pickrell, 1995, Psychiatric Annals.
When I was 9 years old I was convinced for the space of an August afternoon that my dad had died in an explosion. Memory became tangled up in a strange way with ongoing events producing a dramatic but incorrect version of reality. What had happened was a major electrical fault at a local power station had caused an explosion, killing two workers, and leaving another to die of his injuries. Some time before, my dad had told me dramatic stories about working in the town's steel foundry: the deafening noise; the light and heat given off from the forging process; the indifference of the workers to being so near, and coming into contact with, molten metal. My dad hadn't worked at the foundry for many years, and I knew this, but somehow this information was scrambled into a narrative where my dad was one of the workers killed that day at the power station. Reality asserted itself when my dad came home from work that night alive. I can't really remember how I reacted to this, and its such a trivial incident my dad probably won't remember it at all. I don't even remember if I said anything; but I do remember that build-up of dread on the afternoon after I came home from school.
((Interlude – One of my first concrete cultural/political memories is the death of Princess Diana. I can remember it well for the simple, selfish reason that her death meant her funeral took up an entire day's worth of the television schedule and had to get my parents to program several videotapes worth of stuff (I can't concretely remember what, but variously, an early learning programme, a lot of clunkily produced daytime children's factual programming that seems to have been wiped from present scheduling, a deep sea nature documentary (I had/have an obsession), cartoons, something about dinosaurs, and curiously an American-imported Biblical cartoon series – eclectic stuff for daytime children's television). We sat down and watched the funeral. Partly I remember I spent some time playing with Legos and recreating the funeral procession out of hapzard brightly-coloured bricks; as was my way I likely proceeded to then smash it all up. Recounting this memory a few nights ago I stumbled on the adjacent on of visiting the town's war memorial with a friend and his family and laying a wreath or flowers with the many others commemorating Diana. Going further into the memory, I suddenly realised it was false: I hadn't placed a flowers/wreath at all but had instead waited while my friend and his family placed on annoyed that I didn't have one of my own. The Diana images completely obliterate what are now only traces of what must have then been a stronger memory: my parents elation at the election of Blair and New Labour.))
More than one month later. The television has been turned off since I came in, but there's been a strange sort of general disquiet. A lot of the teachers at school were rushing around but I’m not sure about what: this being just another day I can't pick out many specifics from the general blur of school-days. My dad comes home from work, into the room, and says:
“Turn it on, something’s happened in America.”
Days after this, the company that owned the power station where I imagined my dad to have died, and where three workers really were killed in an industrial accident, implodes in one of the most costly scandals in history. Enron, United Airlines, Bin Laden, Bush, Blair, Osama, Tora Bora, Afghanistan, CEO, KSM, Taliban, Saddam. Nursery rhymes. Night-vision footage. The Millennium and walking to the front gate to "see in the new year" and tear-arsing back into the house when everything suddenly exploded.
In the playground, we played a game. We would pretend to be planes and run around making plane noises. I think, although I'm sure everyone's memory is as faulty as mine and can't be sure what did and didn't happen, that we would pretend we were planes hurtling into the World Trade Center, and every 'crash' would be accompanied by a dramatic "whoosh" and a flinging out of arms.
We all fall down.