Saturday, March 16, 2013


The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened. ~ Mark Twain

Last week I had a close encounter with false memory. I was in the process of working on a new essay. One morning I opened the file and was shocked to see there was only one page. Yet I remembered several sections, and the order in which they followed! My first assumption was that I accidentally deleted the rest. Gradually I realized that I wrote the whole complex post only in my mind, so vividly that my brain had assumed the work had already been done.

Writers understand that they must not talk about work in progress: the risk is that they will lose the motivation to put it on paper, the brain somehow assuming the work has already been completed. So you don’t “talk out” the piece. “If I tell you, I will never write it down.” Bars are full of people who tell fascinating life stories full of colorful details. “You must write a book about it,” the listeners invariably say. But the book never gets written. It got “talked out.” As far as the brain is concerned, the work has already been done.

Now I see that even thinking out a story or an essay vividly enough can lead to the same illusion. If you are a writer, you may even come to believe that you did write the piece -- but where is it? It’s part of the larger phenomenon that includes the false memory syndrome, false confessions, dubious childhood stories told in therapy, confusion of something experienced in a dream with reality (I experienced this myself a couple of times; fortunately there were others to correct me), or being so affected by something you read or saw in a movie that you incorporate it as part of the story of your life. When Hillary Clinton told the story of running under gunfire after she landed in Sarajevo, she sincerely believed it -- but others revealed it to be a false memory.

One time I made several conspicuous notes to remind myself to refill a prescription from a mail-in pharmacy. Two weeks later, the order still had not arrived. I called the pharmacy, only to be told that the order had never been received. My guess is that every time I wrote one of my several reminder notes, I performed the action of ordering a refill in my mind, until eventually I was convinced that I had already done so. Instead of writing all those notes I should have gone straight to the phone.

I remember reading an article that warned about using “creative visualization.” It can lead the brain to assume that the action has already been done when in fact nothing has been done except in imagination, and now the motivation to do it is weak at best. I experienced something related  to this drain of motivation when I wrote a lot of poetry. If I knew exactly what I wanted to say, the poem already fully born in my mind, I had to force myself to write it down. It seemed just so much tedious scribbling, the adventure of creation already over.

And I remember endless times during readings or in poetry workshops when the poet’s introduction -- or afterword -- was more riveting by far than the poem. “Oh, you must include that,” we’d urge the poet. Nothing came of it; the telling pre-empted the writing.

We all know people who “only talk about it, but never do it.” We accuse them of laziness and other “character defects.” But their lack of action may simply be the effect of talking about something too much. My principle (alas, I don't always stick to it) is to “talk on the page.” Now I see I must even “think on the page” -- “writing in my head” may lead me to believe the actual writing has already been done.


I posted my recent “close encounter with false memory” on Facebook, and John Minczeski sent me this story:

Once, while working with a class of Kindergartners, I asked how many of them remember being born. One or two raised their hands. Then others, the more they thought about it, could remember. Soon, almost the entire class “remembered” being born. What was it like, I asked. Weird, one of them answered. There were all these babies there.

Gwyn Henry responded with this wonderful story:

My younger brother, as a 3-4 year old, always said he remembered being in a big pen in heaven, where God kept all the babies. When it was his turn to leave, he was "let out" and came to us. In my brother's story, it is interesting to remember that in our small town, surrounded by rural communities with crops & farm animals, it was common to see animals in a “pen”... chickens, horses, cattle, pigs, etc.

This reminded me how one time in fourth grade I swayed not only the whole class but even the teacher by passionately claiming to have seen something -- I no longer remember what :) After a few minutes, once my excitement passed, I realized that it never happened; I only wished it had happened. This was also the first time when I realized I had what I call my "voice of power"; it carries great conviction. I only hope I didn't tell too many falsehoods, of course never intending to lie. 

And think of the people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. They appear extremely sincere.
(By the way, where have all the UFO abduction stories gone? Nowadays, it’s the near-death experiences. Again, I am not saying that people who relate those experiences are lying. They did see those things in their mind, just as drug users really do go on a “trip.”)

And of course there are the notorious cases of people who tell a deliberate lie and over the course of time come to believe it. It’s a rare prison inmate who admits to having committed the crime for which he was convicted. I conducted some writing workshops in prisons and met only one such man; the rest claimed to be the victims of a judicial error. I could not help but be struck by what appeared to be passionate sincerity of those pleas of innocence. After all, it’s only normal that we start believing our lies (the well-tested theory of cognitive dissonance is one way to explain the phenomenon). It’s normal to believe our false memories.

There is also the phenomenon of “source amnesia.” Deborah Digges, one of six daughters, wrote somewhere that when it came to childhood memories, she could never be quite sure if something really happened to her, or to one of her sisters. 

John Minczeski concluded: Memory is so damned interesting -- false memories, elaborated memories, siblings remembering the same event with wholly different details. I can completely understand how people with active imaginations can “invent” a memory without meaning to, or even appropriate someone else’s memory.


The stories about babies kept in a pen in heaven are charming. But back in the eighties I had a friend who told me, with great conviction, that when she was a toddler her parents sexually abused her as part of the “ritual child abuse” practiced during the Satanic “black mass.” I was skeptical. Her grandparents were Orthodox Jews; her parents went to the temple now and then to honor tradition. “You actually remember that they did those things to you?” I asked. “I repressed those memories,” she said, “but I am slowly recovering more and more details.”

She seemed completely convinced that even though she didn’t quite remember it (“I repressed the memories”), her parents were Satanists who had taken part in rites that included violating children. I continued to be skeptical,  which angered her. This wasn’t the main reason why we eventually parted ways, but it did bother me that she would make this horrific accusation against her parents. Why would a middle-class, middle-aged, educated Jewish woman suddenly want to believe that her parents were sadistic Satanists? Why would anyone?

(The reason I bring up the Jewish angle is that for many centuries the Jews were accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Christian children as part of their religious practices -- the so-called “blood libel.” The sudden cropping up of “Satanists” practicing “ritual child abuse” was a strong echo of that.)

The following year, while visiting Cambridge, MA, I more or less stumbled into a lecture on “ritual child abuse.” The large auditorium was packed. The woman lecturer had a PhD in psychology, and there were probably many PhD’s in the audience (this was close to Harvard Square). The lecturer said that only now do we realize the extent of the problem: thousands of children raped as part of Satanic rites. She presented case after case in explicit detail. Sickened by this pornography of bizarre sexual violence, I left, but kept wondering. It just did not seem probable. 


An 1895 etching purporting to show a Satanic "black mass," complete with child sacrifice.

Later it turned out that some people “remembered” those Satanic rites -- and other kinds of abuse -- only when their therapists used leading questions, hypnosis, and visualization techniques designed to “retrieve repressed memories.” Legal suits and counter-suits resulted. The idea of false memory implanted by the therapist prevailed. Not very long ago I read an article about a woman who falsely accused her father, and how she later asked for his forgiveness. Realizing the monstrous nature of her previous accusations and the suffering they caused, she wasn’t sure if her father would forgive her. The loving man that he was, he did. She was left with the searing question, “Why was I so ready to believe that my father had abused me, and dismiss all the evidence I had over the years that he loved me?”

This reminded me of another article I read, about a rape victim who mistakenly accused a man she picked out with complete certainty from the police line-up. The man was later released due to DNA evidence, and the woman felt horrible. She tearfully begged the man to forgive her. He did, but she knew she would have to live with the knowledge of having caused so much suffering -- all because human memory is far from being a videotape, and the brain is not a computer. (By the way, the stories of ritual child abuse became mostly discredited during the nineties; Elizabeth Loftus is credited with having done ground-breaking research on false memory.)

And what about memoirs filled with false Holocaust memories? We have at least two cases on record where the author was found to have invented the whole saga. I too met a woman who told me how she spent the war years in hiding (in a city park, of all places). What didn’t fit is that she looked much too young to have been born before the WWII. Still, maybe her plastic surgeon was a genius . . . 


We have always known that young children are very suggestible and easily confuse fantasy and reality; that’s why the legal system tries to avoid using child witnesses. But adult witnesses have also proved to be unreliable; that’s why the need for corroboration and physical evidence. Now that we have DNA testing, some of those convicted on the basis of witness testimony have been freed (as for those got exonerated only after their execution . . . I don’t have the strength to finish this thought).

Yet those witnesses were not deliberately lying; they were convinced that they were telling the truth and testified to it under oath. True, we’ve always known that human memory is fallible, but as fallible as that?

Mark Twain famously said, “The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened.” We nod and chuckle. But I wonder, with some apprehension, how many times tribes or nations went to war because someone had a convincing-sounding false memory (or simply a dream, for that matter).

I've also met intelligent-sounding adults who entirely believe that we remember our birth in every detail, but later repress those “traumatic birth memories” (think of the New Age "re-birthing movement" that started in the seventies; adults sitting in a tub of water meant to simulate the womb until the “memory” of how they were born, everything they experienced during the process, came to them; in fact they had pre-natal memories as well, down to remembering being a just-fertilized egg cell. Simply hyperventilating for a sufficient length of time is also said to lead to those “memories.”) If you google it, most entries are from “true believers” in the validity of birth and pre-natal memories.

Oh well . . . back when I was in the pen with all the babies, I said, “I want my parents to be scientists. I want my mommy to be in brain research, so she can explain all about the brain to me.” And that wish was granted . . . but that didn't protect me from forming some false memories, since apparently the problem is universal.


John Guzlowski:

I had a friend in grad school who had a terrible accident. He was in a coma for two months. When he finally got out of it, he asked his wife for his dissertation.  She said, "You haven't started writing it yet. You just had the topic approved before the accident." He had written the whole thing out in his coma.


I think Freud was typical of intellectual geniuses: he was either terribly wrong or luminously correct and a century ahead of his time. He turned out to be right in postulating (my spell-checker just suggested "postal") that all cognitive activity is unconscious; some of it is then communicated to the consciousness (what I call "email from the other self"). How often do we say, "Writing comes from the unconscious" without pondering what it means? Yes, you may say, but in a coma? Isn't cortical activity absolutely necessary? We don't really know. Dreams apparently originate in subcortical structures. And there are various degrees of coma, with different types of brain function still present. I know a ghoulish-sounding story of a man coming out of coma while already in the hospital morgue! (google “waking up in the morgue,” and you will be amazed.)

Back to the starting point: what I find fascinating is that if you “visualize” and/or otherwise have a lot of mental activity about something, you may create a false memory of having done it. I love what Mark Twain said: The secret of getting started is getting started. It's not “visualizing getting started.” Or, as Zig Ziglar said, “Do it, and you will feel motivated to do it.” Tush to the cush, fingers on the keyboard. A real writer is one who really writes. ~ Marge Piercy.

You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great. ~ Zig Ziglar


For a post on cryptomnesia, a related phenomenon, please see

For more on the work of Elizabeth Loftus on false memory, click on this dramatic talk:


Interesting post, Oriana.

I've found the notion of the seven sins of memory helpful. Here's an introduction to the idea.


Thank you for the link. I am planning a sequel on “creative memory.” Among other things, I will discuss encoding, storage, and retrieval. 


My favorite and most  thought-provoking sentence is this, “I wonder, with some apprehension, how many times tribes or nations went to war because someone had a convincing-sounding false memory (or simply a dream, for that matter).”

Picasso said, "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth." This beautiful essay is composed of the lies of memory that makes us realize the truth.


Thanks for commenting. Yes, false memories can have terrible consequences. I only speculate about the possible wars, but we do know that some people were imprisoned and even executed mainly because of the false memory of a witness who was fully convinced s/he was telling the truth. (Imagine someone imprisoned merely on the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness!)

I wonder how many times we don’t even begin to suspect that our memory of a particular event may be false, especially in our age, when we are bombarded with an excess of stories and images. No wonder the brain sometimes appropriates those stories as our own. No wonder, either, that whole mythologies spring into being and then evolve according to the new meaning people see in those ancient legends.

In the upcoming blog, I will use the idea of the “ground of meaning” that Joseph Campbell introduces in relation to mythology:


I had to smile when I saw the picture of the sheep that accompanied my brother's story in your blog. It brought so sweetly to mind the concept of babies as “lambs,” and there they were, the "lambs" in the pen, waiting to be born!

Interesting too, that since my bro inherited our family's "farm," he has begun to keep sheep to keep the pasture "mowed," and they are multiplying like rabbits. So his association with sheep has survived into his 50's to become a great pleasure for him, much of his time spent with their care, feeding, birthing, building pens to keep them out of his garden & his wife's flowers, etc. Perhaps that early myth that he created for himself was a self-fulfilling prophecy. :)


This is a wonderful story -- thanks for making us smile. Yes, he obviously had an affinity for lambs already in his early childhood. Lambs and calves look so totally innocent and non-aggressive, how can we not love them. Now, if we learned to “grant innocence” to humans as well . . . I think we’re slowly progressing in that direction. I don’t hear much anymore about “being born in sin” and being such dreadful sinners we require a blood sacrifice (indeed “being rinsed in the blood of the Lamb) to “make us clean.” Let’s hope that in the future lambs will be enjoyed just for their “gamboling.” 

Hyacinth sends us a comment in the form of a poem:

Sunday Mornings

The vast sadness of my family
falls with a sigh as if I threw the fabric
of our lives into the air, and as it’s falling
each of us catches a different corner.

Over pancakes with blueberries, scraps
of memory are sorted and pieced
to fit a quilt of truths. No agreement,
no confrontation, each astonished
that no one remembers the way they do.

My mother said I couldn’t have remembered
the day my father put his fists through
all the windows of the house. She said
I wasn’t home from school so why do I see
his white shirt sleeves rolled above the elbows,
bloodied hands, hear his primal howl.



“So why do I see . . .”  Why indeed? Where did that “memory” come from? The speaker probably heard an account of that day of father’s rage. She may have read a novel that described a similar incident. And finally, it’s not so difficult simply to imagine this emotion-charged scene. Everyone agrees that young children can’t quite tell fantasy from reality. But older children and even adults can still easily confuse the two. Something vividly imagined becomes quite real. It can be encoded (encoding is the first crucial step in memory formation) just as strongly as an actual event. It’s not just liars who come to believe their own lies; we all come to believe our confabulations.

Memory constantly evolves, is constructed with each telling or revery. But the really wonderful thing is that it has no past tense -- it arises like a resurrection or a dream, and we may well ask, “Did that really happen?” No, not the way we remember it, since the present constantly changes the past according to what is important to us now. New images and new meanings are superimposed, the blanks filled in. As Una’s poem hints at, collective memory enters into it too -- and that includes literature.

Some of you know that my "second mother" was my grandmother Veronika, a survivor of Auschwitz. She and I slept in the same room. Didn't I hear her gasp and moan and scream in a nightmare at least once -- maybe several times? Don't I remember her waking, crossing herself, and putting some valerian drops in a glass? Didn't she sigh an enormous sigh, the collective sigh of all inmates, before settling down to sleep again, her head on the pale pillow already funereal?

I can't be sure. I've read too many books, seen too many movies. It may be a false memory. But it seems so real . . . And false memory, too, can profoundly affect our lives.


You bring up an interesting topic; as an old sailor I recall sea stories of adventures in ports and seas where perhaps my memory is foggier or I incorporate others's stories into mine. My last year in the Navy I kept a journal of my cruise to the Mediterranean and looking through it I am amazed at what events I forgot and what events I recall vividly but did not write down; and I kept this log daily updated. Some details I left totally out of the log; either I have embellished them in my mind and they did not happen as I recall or maybe they did and I just didn't record them. There's a great story about the English poet and novelist Malcolm Lowry who also was a terrible alcoholic. He flew into New York City once and a customs officer asked him what was in the large suitcase he had, he is reported to have said, 'I don't know, let's find out.' Upon opening, all it contained was a lone football boot...and a copy of Moby Dick. I don't know if it's true but I would like it to be!


That’s my own experience reading my own journals -- of sorts, since I never kept a journal in the classic sense of the word. All those details I entirely forgot! And things I never wrote down, that turned out to be the most vivid memory. Up close, we don’t even know what’s important -- or which detail will keep haunting us.

Thanks for that precious story about Malcolm Lowry. Alcoholics and memory -- that’s another topic that should be explored, since you never know what they’ll encode and remember. But to some extent, that’s true of all of us -- we just can’t know. I remember having said, “I’ll remember this all my life” -- and years later, all I remembered is that I said I would always remember. Never underestimate the power of forgetting. 

And of unexpected recall: Lowry, who took up drinking at 14, reminded me of someone I knew who also began drinking at 14 -- something I'd rather forget. But we don't get to choose. Well, to some extent: we can choose to go over pleasant memories, which then become stronger -- never mind the inaccuracy . . .  And that reminds me that during depression the access to positive memories is blocked. Memory is so amazing . . .


  1. That’s my own experience reading my own journals -- of sorts, since I never kept a journal in the classic sense of the word. All those details I entirely forgot! And things I never wrote down, that turned out to be the most vivid memory. Up close, we don’t even know what’s important -- or which detail will keep haunting us.
    Best website read poems online

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting. YES! Up close, only ten thousand details that will be forgotten. A year or two later, just one event that has meaning, and we didn't bother to write it down. You've just inspired me to write another blog about this "you are too close to see" phenomenon.