“An acquaintance was murdered and the policeman, when he conveyed the news to me at midnight on the day it happened, said I would be called as a witness. Before going to bed that night I wrote everything down exactly as it happened. Two or three weeks later I was called to give my statement. I was sure I had all the details clear in my head but just to confirm everything before talking to the police I re-read my notes – the first time since the murder day. I was astounded to discover that my memory of the event was quite different from my notes written immediately after hearing of the event. I had been quite prepared to swear in court that my memory was correct but obviously it had been coloured by other people’s ideas about the case and I had woven them into a plausible story. I used the notes.” From A. R. Hopwoods’ False Memory Archive
The trip to the Wellcome Collection yielded a significant amount of research material in respect of the malleability of memory. It would seem that A. R. Hopwood has done a great deal of work in this area and I will also study his work.
The idea that our memories are not only fallible but also intrinsically plastic is quite disturbing and it has brought into question so many of my memories that I used to create “I look for him, I think I always will” – did I make them all up? Are they descriptions that were an attempt to cover up my own culpability in a life poorly exercised?
One abiding ‘non-memory’ I have is a physical fight I, apparently, had with my father. What follows is how I ‘remember it’ after being told about it, and I’m guessing here, about twenty years ago!
It was late evening and for reasons still unkown to me I got into an argument with my father in the kitchen. This situation quickly grew out of hand and became a “full-on fight” progressing into the living room, through the hall – where my siblings were lined up the stairs watching – and into the front room. I have no knowledge about how it ended or any other outcome.
I was told about the event by at least two sisters and firstly it shocked me because I had never, ever, resisted him. If he wanted to hit me I always allowed him a free hit and my practice was to never show any form of reaction/pain at all. I had strategies to deal with the pain and I seemed to enjoy how it made him angrier that I didn’t react. Secondly, I would have thought something so significant as this would have stayed with me; as I say I never retaliated and doing so would have been very unusual.
Thinking about this event made me consider whether I had sub-consciously repressed the memory, and it is true that I can visualize the event as I have described it above. So I thought I might try an experiment and ask at least two of my sisters who would have been there at the time. Jean remembers it as follows:
“The only thing I can remember is that there was a ‘bad’ argument and I believe it was about 5.00 pm, 5.30 pm-ish not sure just before or just after tea/dinner. It was in the kitchen with the doors shut.
I remember being ‘concerned/scared’ but not much more than that.”
She followed up soon after with:
“Another little snippit
I think it must have been winter time too as I think the lights were on ….”
I’m waiting for Helen’s account – if indeed there is one! It seems perfectly clear to me that what I think I have been told has been re-remembered in a completely different way. A false memory.
Postscript: A response from Helen:
“The only reason I know you and dad fought was because its part of our family’s history. I, like you don’t remember an awful lot of when I was young. It’s like my life started at around age 12. I remember going on holiday, I remember going to school, but life in Duchess Road – very little. The only fight I can remember is what I thought was between mum and dad. My vague remembrance are it happened in the front room, though it could have started elsewhere and ended up in the front room, was maybe at the weekend, because there seemed to be a lot of us there. It’s probably the only time I remember mum shouting but I think I remember her crying. I don’t remember what it was about. I remember being very very scared and not knowing what to do. Sorry if it’s not the incident your referring to!!”
I’m now sure it didn’t happen…
I have been continuing to work with my mother’s testimony, and whilst it struck me strange at the time about the way she would re-tell episodes in her life in different ways at different sessions, I’m wondering now about the veracity of it all. Not the facts but the embroidery. The murders surely happened. The abuse. The financial struggle. The emotional turmoils all occurred in one shape or another, I have my own testimony to corroborate a lot of it.
Ellen came to record some of my mother’s memories. She is a young person i.e. a lot less than thirty and whilst she adhered very closely to the process, orating the remembrances (of my mother) it drew out from her own (short) history echoes from her own family history, invoking reactions. I think it is entirely possible that constructing a performative element to the recording will, in itself, alter the respondents conscious reaction to the texts/recording process and I’m not sure what I could do about that, something to consider further.
I now have an awful lot of reading to do and consideration about further work to represent how and what I feel about these ideas. It is always a good day when the questions flood the mind and yesterday was one of those.