Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Truth of the Matter: Week 4

Many of you have asked about what you should do when memories "conflict."

Sharon Lippincott, author of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, has a very practical take on that issue, which she shares in "Stories from My Life, Real or Imagined"on the site, The Collected Stories of Ritergal.

What I aim to do is introduce you to the basic reasons that we are wrong and help you avoid those pitfalls through awareness.  My source for most of this material is Kathryn Schulz's amazing book Being Wrong.

According to Schulz, there are three types of error.  The first two kinds of error--madness and the blatantly-wrong-and-everybody-knows-it--don't really concern us in our journey.  The last type, which Schulz terms as "which quid you take for quo," is the little bugger we deal with so frequently.  Essentially, what she means is that if enough people are also wrong in the case in which you are wrong--either through common illusion, deception, denial, or other circumstance--then society condones the condition, even though it still gives us pause.  What that means for you as a lifestory or memoir writer is that there will be situations in which the reader will understand how you could be wrong.  They won't want you to intentionally lie or ignore the truth, but they will accept the possibility of it.

So how do we avoid it?
  • Understand why we get things wrong.  
  • Take steps to counter those propensities.  
  • Having done all we can to avoid error, use appropriate caveats in our writing to let our reader know that we've done the best we can but that there's still some uncertainty on the point.

So why do we get things wrong?  Once again, I am resorting to Schulz's book on this matter (and I would highly recommend this book to you just for a general read.  It offers great insight not only into writing and memory, but into life in general.  It is available at our library and on Amazon).
  1. Faulty senses
    1. Even though our senses are often correct, they can be amazingly deceived--think optical illusions.  On a more practical level, we see things we expect to see.  I've actually written quite a bit about this as a white woman with an Asian name, I'm not infrequently mistaken as an Asian even though I'm very clearly not.  The most common example of this inattention, though, is this ball game. Go visit and check it out. (There's also a twist on it here.)
    2.  We tune out what we think is unimportant in order to concentrate on something else and sometimes find our priorities have been misplaced--say when we realize the annoying sound in the kitchen is the roast in flames.
  2. Assumptions/conclusions
    1. We think we know.  That's the default.  Most of us think, until proven wrong (and then sometimes even for a while), that we are right.  As Schulz says, "The feeling of knowing something is incredibly convincing and inordinately satisfying, but...[t]hat's the problem with the feeling of knowing:  it fills us with the conviction of rightness whether we're right or not."
    2. As we collect experiences, we develop "intuition" about what most likely happened.  Often, we are correct.  Other times, we are very wrong.
    3. We forget, and we fill in (as in 2).  Consider Schulz (Chapter 4--I am using a Kindle, so I don't have a page number--or I haven't figured out how to get the page number):
      On December 7, 1941, a thirteen-year-old boy named Ulric Neisser was listening to the radio when he learned that the Japanese had just attacked Pearl Harbor.  The experience made a huge impression on the child.  For decades to come, he would carry around the memory of a radio announcer interrupting the baseball game he'd been listening to with a bulletin about the bombing.

      In its vividness, intensity, and longevity, Neisser's recollection was typical of how our minds react to unusually shocking events.  Think about your own memories of a different national tragedy--the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  If you are American, I will bet my bank account that you know what you were doing that day.... I will further bet that those memories are unusually vivid and detailed... and that you have a high degree of confidence in their accuracy. ...I will also bet that, to one degree or another, you're wrong.  Neisser certainly was.  Forty years after the fact, something suddenly dawned on him:  professional baseball isn't played in December.
    4. Culturally, we don't like saying either, "I don't know," or "I'm wrong," so we fill in with our best guess.
  3. Preexisting beliefs
    1. We are so sure that we are right that we not only ignore evidence that indicates we might be wrong but also try to silence those who point to it.  Schulz writes, in Chapter 5, "[E]very one of us confuses our models of the world with the world itself...."  We also tend to think that those who disagree with us do so because they don't know better and if they are just informed of all the information, they too will believe as we do.  When they persist in disagreeing, we think they do so because they are simply bad people ("evil" is the word Schulz uses).
    2. Our beliefs, correct or incorrect, have emotional consequences which then lead to spurs for our own actions. 
    3. Beliefs cause us to theorize.  Schulz, in Chapter 5, writes, "What we aren't capable of doing is not theorizing.  Like breathing, we can ignore the belief-formation process or control it--or even refine it--but whatever we do, it will keep on going for as long as we keep on living."
  4. Misweighing the evidence
    1. We have a tendency to give more credence to evidence that supports what we already believe (confirmation bias).
    2. We will believe things based on very little evidence.  In Chapter 6, Schulz writes, "[B]elieving things on meager evidence is what people do. ... [B]elieving things based on paltry evidence is the engine that drives the entire miraculous machinery of the human cognition."
  5. Peer pressure
    1. With the support of our peers, we are even less likely to reconsider the evidence.  We are bolstered by their certainty--even to a ridiculous level.  Schulz gives the example of women's write to vote in Switzerland, which wasn't achieved until 1971, 78 years after the first women were allowed to vote in New Zealand and at a time when there were "just a tiny handful of nations where women remained disenfranchised; the others included Bangladesh, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Samoa, and Iraq" (Schulz, Chapter 7).
    2. With the complete rejection of our peers, we may also dig in our heels deeper and become more firmly entrenched--and less open to discussion--about our beliefs.
  6. Love of confidence
    1. We believe he who hesitates is lost.
    2. It's reassuring to be decisive and confident--even if we're wrong.
Countering those propensities.  Of course, Countering those propensities for error can be done in many ways, and each has its place.  But I have limited time (and space) to write them all for you.  Let me just say that they fill books!  That said, however, a few basic strategies help you avoid some of the major pitfalls.
  1. Check information from an objective source.  If you think that you broke your leg on the day Kennedy was shot, take a look at your Thanksgiving pictures from that year.  If you're not in a cast, you're probably mistaken.
  2. Ask more than one person about it and, when possible, ask people outside of your group (if you're a woman, ask a man.  If you're a member of the majority (political, racial, or other) ask a member of the minority--and if you catch yourself listening to their criticism and saying, "Oh, he/she's just...," TAKE THEIR INPUT WITH EVEN MORE SERIOUSNESS!  My experience has taught me that "just" is a flag we use to validate things we do without an apparent reason.
  3. Reweigh the evidence.  Look at numbers.  Count it out.  Give the other side the benefit of the doubt.  You may still come to the same conclusion, but this time you can be more certain that you are correct.
  4. Wait and look at it again.  It's funny how after you've written or thought about something, you will begin noting coincidences and references back to it.  Often you will remember more of the story or find links to other pieces.  Time can definitely work on your side as far as fact-checking--even though your memory from long ago may be fuzzy.
Caveats.  So you've tried your best to be accurate.  You've taken steps to verify information, but you're still absolutely not sure about what happened.  Now what?
  1.  You can say straight out that you're uncertain.
    • "Maybe I went home first..."
    • "I'm not sure where I went before the bank..."
    • "I think I must have..."
    Or you can hint at your uncertainty.
    • "I usually..."
    • "Most of the time..."
    • "Sometimes..."
    By using these last phrases, we get the hint that there were repeated patterns but that the pattern may not be completely the same for this particular instance.
  2. Attribute things you don't actually remember but that you are not certain of elsewhere--to the source whenever possible.
    • "I can't remember but I am told that..."
    • "My mom says..."
    • "The newspapers of the day reported..."
  3.  Let people know that what you're reporting is your interpretation of what happened.
    • I'm not sure of her exact words, but my six-year-old brain heard, "...."
    • Her words blurred together, but her intent was clear: ...
    • "Get in the car," she said.  Or maybe it was, "Will you please get in the car?"
    • The conversation went something like this: ....
    • I was too young to understand _____.  I thought ....
  4. If you are uncertain to the point of being uncomfortable, then go ahead and write it, but keep it to yourself or dispose of it.  We all know that sometimes there is value in writing out an experience--even if you burn everything you just wrote.  But if you know what you're writing is very skewed, then stop with your own private consumption of it.

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