On Memory and Fiction

Ian McEwanIn part four of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, aging author Briony Tallis is revealed to be the author of the novel that comprises the previous three sections of the book.  She is dying of vascular dementia, and that this, her last novel, is her final act of atonement for an unforgivable sin that she committed when she was just a young girl.  As her mind and her memory are leaving her, she has written this novel while she still can. Although much of her novel is entirely the product of her imagination, it is the impending loss of her memory that drives her to complete her work. The loss of memory is death for a writer.

At the very end of his life, Ernest Hemingway was convinced that the electroconvulsive therapy that had be used to treat his depression had destroyed his memory and, therefore, his ability to write.  Whether or not shock therapy can actually do that and whether or not it was true in Ernest HemingwayHemingway’s case has been argued ever since then, but Hemingway believed it and it was perhaps the final blow that pushed him into the despair from which he could find no escape.  About a year earlier, he had completed the manuscript for A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early days in Paris when he was on the threshold of literary stardom.  While one might imagine that memories of true events are crucial ingredients for a memoir, they are not the only ingredients.  In the years since A Moveable Feast was first published it has been extensively fact-checked several times. Major parts of it cannot be verified, including an infamous anecdote involving F. Scott Fitzgerald, a ruler, and a men’s room, that I will forever refuse to believe ever happened. So really, what purpose did memory serve him in creating his memoir, especially since even though much of it may be fiction, it is still vivid and poignant, and a prime example of a literary genre?  For Hemingway, memory was everything and he couldn’t live without it.

So what is it about this fragile and mysterious thing called memory that sustains us, that inspires us, that tricks us, and sometimes horrifyingly eludes us, that makes it so essential to the creation of fiction?  And what is it about memory that is essential to the reading of fiction?

William Saleton’s recent profile of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus at Slate.com provides insight into the fragile nature of memory.  Loftus is a researcher who has studied, through experimentation on human subjects, the mechanisms of human memory.  In the course of her career, she has been a controversial figure.  She has shown how so-called eyewitness testimony in criminal cases can be unknowingly be shaped by police and prosecutors, helping defense lawyers obtain acquittals for their clients, and helping to overturn convictions based on eyewitness testimony.  Along the way she has stirred controversy in her own profession by  taking on proponents of recovered memory therapy in the early 1990’s, by arguing that the therapy itself created false memories of childhood abuse.  It’s still controversial today, but her efforts have resulted in tighter legal and professional guidelines.  Her shift in focus from proving eyewitness testimony to be flawed to proving recovered memories to be equally questionable had to have been motivated, at least in part, by her own experience.  Saleton writes:

Not even Loftus was immune to suggestion. In 1988, after 13 years of testifying about memory’s fallibility, she was told by her uncle that she was the one who had found her dead mother in the swimming pool. The sights and sounds of that awful morning came back to her—the corpse face down, the nightgown, the screaming, the stretcher, the police cars. But within three days, her uncle recanted the story, and other relatives confirmed that her aunt, not Loftus, had found the body. The memories of the memory expert were false.

Elizabeth LoftusHer false memory must have been so real and so vivid to her that when confronted with the truth she realized that memory was more fragile, and truth more elusive, then she had already established.

In 1990, Loftus testified in a murder trial for a murder that had happened twenty-one years earlier.  The defendant had been charged by his own daughter, who had suddenly recovered a repressed memory.  Loftus’ previous research had proved that eyewitness testimony could be altered, but she had not proved that entire memories could be made up.  The defendant was convicted.  And yet, from her own personal experience, she knew it was possible and set out to prove it.  Saleton writes:

Loftus began to read popular books that told women and therapists how to recover memories of sexual abuse. The books urged therapists to ask their clients about childhood incest. They listed symptoms that supposedly indicated abuse even if it wasn’t remembered. They invited women to search for memories by imagining the abuse. They encouraged group therapy in which women could hear one another’s stories of being victimized.

These ideas sounded fishy. Suggestion, indoctrination, authority, inference, imagination, and immersion were known to alter memories in police interrogations and experiments. But could they create a whole memory? Could the recent surge of incest recollections be the product of recovered-memory therapy?

Loftus conducted a number of experiments to see if it were possible, through careful manipulation, subjects could be induced into recalling vivid memories of things that never happened.  What she discovered is that it is possible to create a false memory in at least some of her subjects if certain conditions are met.  Interestingly, the conditions were met in her own very personal experience with false memories:

  • The memory is suggested or verified by someone whom the subject trusts.  In her test subjects’ case, like her own experience, the facilitator is a relative.  In the books she read, the trusted facilitator was the therapist.
  • The false memory contains true elements that trigger real sense or affective memories that become conflated with the false elements.

The rest is done by the subject’s own mind, unconsciously weaving true and the false together to form a convincing narrative that although false, might as well have happened because it is now part of the subjects self-identity. Loftus was able to create a recipe for a false memory.  It wasn’t always successful, but that it was successful at all shows how fragile our perceptions of reality can be.  Her most common recipe was the “lost in the mall experiment”:

Each subject was given summaries of four incidents from his childhood. Three stories were true; one was false. The false story followed a formula: You got lost in a mall or department store, you cried, you were found by an old person. The summaries were written with the help of older relatives who knew the true incidents and the family.

The subjects were told that their relatives had recalled all four incidents. They were asked to fill in the details of each incident or, if they couldn’t remember it, to write, “I do not remember this.” In follow-up interviews, they were asked to think more about each incident and to retrieve any additional details they could recall. Of the 24 people subjected to this procedure, six came to remember the fake story as true.

Because the stories were individualized by relatives who knew the subject, they contained enough specific details that evoke sense memories that were true and would validate the false part of the story:

You, your mom, Tien, and Tuan all went to the Bremerton K-Mart. You must have been 5 years old at the time. Your mom gave each of you some money to get a blueberry Icee. You ran ahead to get into the line first, and somehow lost your way in the store. Tien found you crying to an elderly Chinese woman. You three then went together to get an Icee.

There’s not a lot of vivid detail in this version of the story, but there’s just enough to bring the subject back to her child sensations and perceptions: going to a department store with her mother and her siblings as a very small child, a blueberry Icee, an elderly Chinese woman.  The subject who was told this story remembers going the Bremerton K-Mart with her family as a sensual experience: the immensity of the space, the aisles, the shelves of merchandize (brightly colored toys, gleaming appliances), the crowds of people all much taller than a five-year old, the sounds of people talking, the PA announcements (possibly for lost children), and finally, the taste of a blueberry Icee.

Loftus’ critics, and there are many of them, point out that a benign story with a happy ending is a far cry from a traumatic and scarring one of sexual abuse.  Additionally, as the Slate article describes, Loftus has used her research as a basis for therapists to implant false memories on purpose in order to alter their patients’ behavior in some desirable way.  To many of her peers, and to me, she has crossed over an ethical line in a very frightening way.  Her little recipe has become a cookbook for brainwashing.

Ethical concerns about what trusted professionals do with this knowledge aside, Loftus’s research into the delicate nature of memory has a lot to say about how we read and experience fiction and how we write it.  The conflation of sense memory and affective memory, which we bring as readers and writers, with fictional characters and experiences creates vivid false memories.

What ties us all together is the fundamental fact that all of us feel sensations and experience emotions in the same way.  One of the finest examples of a writer connecting with his reader through the five basic senses can be found in the opening paragraphs of Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point.”  This story is about a fourteen year-old boy desperately trying to escort a drunken middle aged women home from a party.  It’s not necessarily an experience that many of us have had, but D’Ambrosio makes it real for us from the very beginning by communicating with us through our senses:

I had been lying awake after my nightmare, a nightmare in which Father and I bought helium balloons at circus.  I tied mine around my finger and Father tied his around a stringbean and lost it.  After that, I lay in the dark, tossing and turning, sleepless from all the sand in my sheets and all the uproar in the living room.  Then the door opened, and for a moment the blade of bright light blinded me.  The party was still going full blast, and now with the door ajar and my eyes adjusting I glimpsed the silver smoke swirling in the light and all the people suspended in it, hovering around as if they were angels in Heaven—some kind of Heaven where the host serves highballs and the men smoke cigars and the women all smell like rotting fruit.  Everything was hysterical out there—the men laughing, the ice clinking, the women shrieking.  A woman crossed over and sat on the edge of my bed, bending over me.  It was Mother.  She was backlit, a vague looming silhouette, but I could smell lily of the valley and something else—lemon rind from the bitter twist she always chewed when she reached the watery bottom of her vodka-and-tonic.  When Father was alive, she rarely drank, but after he shot himself you could say she really let herself go.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then any one of the other senses – smell, touch, sound, taste — is worth a thousand pictures, and they transcend age, gender, and sometimes even culture.  From the sensation of the sand in the sheets, to sounds of the party in the next room, to the bitter twist and the watery vodka-and-tonic (combining both smell and taste), we are experiencing what young Kurt is experiencing and he is reaching us on a very visceral, non-verbal level.  He has no need to explain to us how he feels.  The sensations unconsciously evoke  our own sense memories and we simply feel what Kurt feels.  Having so firmly established this sensual connection with us, D’Ambrosio can now take us wherever he wants to go, just like Loftus’s test subject fondly remembering the taste of her  blueberry Icee.

This conflation of vivid sense memory and imagined narrative is how writers approach their craft and how, as readers, we experience books and stories rather than just merely read them.  We may have nothing at all in common with the author except for the simple fact that we inhabit human bodies and experience sensations and emotions in the same way.  In their simplest and most basic form, they pierce through everything that might separate us from one another: culture, time, place, language, and gender.


Sense memories, Rockaway Playland, 1969: the sting of sunburned cheeks, the roar of the rollercoaster overhead, the taste of hot dogs and cotton candy, the smell of the Atlantic Ocean and English Leather.

Books referenced:

© 2010 – 2011, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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