Altered Memories or Lying?

When I was in Grade 2, we moved from a house that I loved and a neighbourhood I felt safe in–I loved my school, enjoyed my school, had great friends down the street, loved the beautiful elm trees arching over the street, and loved playing on the stone steps of the grand church nearby. I didn’t want to move…y’know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I remembered that childhood home fondly, and occasionally shared with friends about how fantastic that home was.  Shortly after I graduated from university, I found out that an acquaintance had purchased that very house…and she invited me over for the evening.  I was thrilled to be able to visit this beautiful home that I had idealized for almost 2 decades.

Except it wasn’t so beautiful. And it wasn’t nearly as grand as I remembered it.

And the big beautiful bedroom that I had given up to move into the new home?

Well, it had shrunk to half the size it had been when I was there!

I was shocked.

Brian Williams, a respected and trusted broadcaster, was recently suspended for 6 months for breaking the trust of his viewing audience for embellishing a story about the circumstances of being in a helicopter a decade ago. He has told the story recently that his helicopter was shot by a rocket propelled grenade, when the story was originally related as the helicopter in front of his whirlybird that had been hit.

There is concern over how he broke the trust of those who have listened to the news.

That concerns me…and it seems to me that we have to remember that when we point a finger at someone else, three fingers point back at us.

Surely, we know that the rest of us have also been accused of remembering things wrong, too, right?  How many fishing stories haven’t you heard where the fish was thiiiiiis big…and someone else who was there adjusts the hands to be only half as far apart? This just hasn’t happened to Brian Williams.

Unfortunately for Brian Williams, being in the press, his stories are all captured and recorded so they can be compared over time.

Why blog about Brian Williams? He’s an American broadcaster and most of us don’t watch him!

Because we have all been in Brian Williams’ shoes at one time or another, and related a memory we have to others as fact, in a way other than how it actually happened if we had a movie camera.

So…I don’t have a hot clue about why Brian Williams’ story changed over time.  None of us do…and so I don’t think it’s fair for us to judge or criticize.  We don’t have enough information to be in a position to know.

But I do know why stories are related differently than how they occurred:

1. We are suggestible people

That’s not wrong.  That’s just the facts, Jack.

Our memory is malleable over time.  Everybody’s is.

Folks have spent their lives behind bars with eye witnesses swearing that they were seen at the scene of the crime…and then later it was discovered that with the lighting at the scene at the time of the crime, no one could have seen the shooter’s face.  No one.  The witnesses hadn’t intended to lie…but over time, it was suggested that it was a certain young man…and they came to believe it over the years.

I like the way Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist puts it:

Our memories are constructive. They’re reconstructive. Memory works a little bit more like a Wikipedia page: You can go in there and change it, but so can other people.

She showed a video of car accident to a buncha people.  When the investigators asked, “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” the speed reported was lower than when the investigators asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”

Brian Williams saw footage of himself repeatedly with the helicopter that was hit by the grenade.  His own helicopter may well have been shot at as well. Did the pictures influence his memory?

2. Trauma has us remember things differently

When a person is in a terrifying situation, they are worrying about their own survival…and the ability to pay close attention to what happened and how it happened decreases.  Memory storage is seriously impaired as the brain is doing it’s best to ensure survival.

Again, Elizabeth Loftus, a memory psychologist reports:

The subjects in this study were members of the U.S. military who were undergoing a harrowing training exercise to teach them what it’s going to be like for them if they are ever captured as prisoners of war. And as part of this training exercise, these soldiers are interrogated in an aggressive, hostile, physically abusive fashion for 30 minutes and later on they have to try to identify the person who conducted that interrogation. And when we feed them suggestive information that insinuates it’s a different person, many of them misidentify their interrogator,often identifying someone who doesn’t even remotely resemble the real interrogator.


So…in Brian Williams’ case, he and his crew spent three days in the desert with the military folks in the helicopter awaiting evacuation after their convoy was shot at.  That’s serious stuff.  Wouldn’t it make sense to cut him some slack?

Who amongst us doesn’t remember the teeth of the dog that bit us as bigger than realistic?

I see this happen with couples when they have a massive fight.  They come in and tell me how it happened, each with a story that opposes the other…and now they have another layer of conflict convinced the other is lying. When a person is married, and loves their partner, and has their lives intertwined and invested in the other–when there is a huge conflict…that can feel extremely threatening–which will distort memory.

I think we need to avoid rushing to judgement in situations where the story told is different from how others or the camera remember it.  We need to take the perspective of the other and understand that the memories may be different for a reason.

3.  We embellish to better tell an important emotional truth

Years ago, a Junior Tribe Member often crashed through the door after running home from the school bus, loudly and desperately claiming, “I’M STARVING”.

On the days when I had less reserve to be patient and loving, I would say to him, “You are not starving. I watched you eat breakfast, and I packed a lunch and two snacks.  There is no way you are starving”.

And we would fight because I was basically accusing him of lying.

(Yes, I recognize this story doesn’t do me proud. We all have our moments.)

Other days, I would be able to hear the truth in his words.  The loud telegraphic phrase, “I’m starving” actually was the only way he could transmit to me the depth of his hunger. It was a way to say, “My hunger is so big, that if I simply told you I was hungry, you wouldn’t really get how hungry I really am feeling”.

On those days, I could cheerfully say, “Oh my…that sounds like we better cut up an apple for you right now and get it into your tummy pronto”.

On those days, I could recognize how what he was saying was emotionally true, even if it wasn’t factually true…and hear the truth and address it.

I think that when others say, “You never…” or “I always have to…” they are trying to say to us something that, in that moment, feels emotionally very significant.  That’s often when we start to quibble and say something like, “Well…last summer I did”…which is besides the point.  With listening to the emotional truth of it we can respond to the depth of pain and frustration, rather than defensively nitpick on the factual accuracy.

4. We want to be liked and valued

Who of us hasn’t embellished a story consciously just to make it a little better…and thereby have a better story to tell…so that we can be received better?

We tell ourselves we aren’t lying, we are just telling a better story.

Y’know, y’say you didn’t get ANY sleep that night (when you know you fell asleep about 4 am), or all these women were giving you their phone numbers (because three is a lot, but not nearly as shocking as “all”). Stuff like that.

We all want to be liked.  We all want what we say to be valued and to reflect well on us.  We all want to know that we were memorable to others.

We were made for connection…and for most of us, there can be a small part of us that worries that if we tell the story as it really happened, others won’t be so impressed, and the story will fall flat…and that will mean that we aren’t seen by others favourably.

That’s because of the shame gremlin…where all of us who are capable of empathy fear that we are flawed and therefore not good enough with the story we have…and so we invent better stories.

5. Others expect us to tell a better story.

When a person has been in a challenging situation, others can approach and ask to hear the story.  They are looking for something juicy, something scintillating…something that will have them feel like they themselves have been present with something pretty special.

We all long to be connected with the really cool, outlandish, newsworthy and famous.

And so, either consciously or unconsciously, we put pressure on the storyteller to tell the story we want to hear, rather than what actually happened.

(And inadvertently, possibly suggestively shape the story the teller then tells in ways that even the story teller doesn’t realize).

We want to hear the dress looks good on us.  We want to know that people like our blogs when they read them (OK…I was a little too transparent there, wasn’t I?)

<style=”text-align: center;”>The truth is always an insult or a joke, lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Quote by Katherine Dunn. Poster by Bergen and Associates

I think we need to be a little slower to decide when people are intentionally lying.  Storytelling is a whole lot more complex than simply “telling the truth”.  Memory is complicated. Emotions are powerful.

Compassion and benefit of the doubt is also powerful…and it builds bridges and creates opportunities for understanding and processing…and greater connection.

Whether Brian Williams was lying or not is irrelevant in your life…but I think this raises the issue that it isn’t fair for us to be asking that question, and that question isn’t even a helpful one.

The Brian Williams story does create a helpful opportunity to decide what sort of conversations we can have with loved ones where it does matter…where what we assume, what motives we assign, what questions we ask, and how we dialogue when we remember it differently can ultimately change the course of a relationship.

Write a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *