Paul Prather

Paul Prather: How you remember it is likely not exactly what happened

I've been thinking about how malleable our memories are, and the implications of that squishiness for living today in a way that's clear-headed and productive.

Too often, we judge our parents, siblings, present or former friends, employers, you name it, by our recollections of the good or bad deeds they did to us.

The older I get, the more I question all memories — my own and others'.

For instance, in my last column, I wrote about the blissful holiday season I recently enjoyed, and, by contrast, two miserable Christmases I had endured.

One of those awful holidays, I wrote, was in 2005, the year my first wife died. Our son, John, and I threw up a Christmas tree that stood in a corner of the den without a single present beneath it.

After I'd submitted the column to the Herald-Leader, I reread it, and something didn't seem right. I couldn't put my finger on what. I mulled it over. I reread the piece several more times. Then it appeared in the newspaper.

Finally, the light bulb went off over my mushy head. I pulled out my book, A Memory of Firelight, a collection of my older columns — and there it was. I'd written about that same pitiful Christmas tree right after John and I put it up.

Only it wasn't in 2005, the year my first wife died. It was in 2007. The date was in the book, in black and white, on the original column.

Most of the newer version was accurate enough. But my memory had collapsed time. I was about 730 days off, give or take.

That isn't a terribly big deal. As I said, mainly the story was true, if redundant. Still, when I was writing, I would have bet money we erected that tree in 2005.

Not long ago, my wife, Liz, and I saw a terrific documentary that deals with how memories bend, stretch and err.

Stories We Tell, by filmmaker Sarah Polley, is a look at her family's history, particularly that of her mother, Diane, who died of cancer when Polley was 11.

Without ruining it for those who haven't seen it, I'll just say it's a powerful but troubling piece of work; revelations and twists confront Polley throughout.

The stories her large family tells about itself — although well-intended and often gracious — are revealed as half-true, more complex than presented or utterly false. Everybody involved owns his or her own version of each tale, remembered differently, altered with every retelling. Polley herself isn't who she thought she was.

Here's why recognizing this unreliability is important: A lot of us consciously or unconsciously construct our larger reality around our memories.

We recall our parents as perfect — or neglectful. We remember an older sibling as supportive, or bullying. We were the favorite kid, or else the constant cast-off.

We remember a brilliant high school teacher as the person who ignited in us a hunger for reading. A friend was miraculously healed of muscular dystrophy and led us to faith in God. A misanthropic coach benched us unjustly and ruined our athletic career.

We are, in our heads, the starring characters in multiple dramas about ourselves; we were alternately elevated or crushed by supporting players or significant events.

The problem is, who's to say how true any of those memories are?

Try this yourself. Choose a family with, say, four adult siblings.

Ask each of them about their upbringing. Two will tell you it was joyous, a TV-sitcom nirvana in which the parents were wise and loving; the other two will tell you it was bitter and soul killing. One will say the family was financially comfortable. Two will say it was marginally middle-class. The fourth will say they were dirt poor.

Don't get me wrong. I realize other human beings and life-altering events do help shape our lives. Most of what we recall almost certainly has some basis in fact.

My point is that our minds also constantly spin their own internal versions of these outside people and events, reshaping, oversimplifying and massaging our history, trying to create a narrative from chaos. We forget details. We fabricate other details to replace them. We impose morals. We create two-dimensional heroes and villains.

We don't mean to be dishonest. It's how our brains work.

In fact, that coach might have had a valid reason for sitting you on the bench. Your mom's reaction to your misbehavior might have been more benign than you think, or maybe she was struggling under crushing pressures you couldn't comprehend as a 9-year-old. That glorious first love with the girl who got away might not have been all that idyllic, or else you'd still be together.

Who knows? Whose version is the "real" one? It's too late to say with certainty.

That's why when dealing with memories, as when dealing with most matters, we ought to err on the side of humility, generosity and forgiveness.

Memories reside within, and flow from, flawed minds. Our minds.

They're part of us — thus malformed and self-justifying. We ought not take them as the last word concerning the truth.

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