My earliest memory is of the time I put a key into an electrical socket. Fine, cue the jokes, I shocked myself. And such a vivid memory that makes.
I can remember the keys, which were the color of an old penny, and how I slipped them off the bright yellow Formica of our kitchen island. I remember, too, the black Bakelite of the electrical socket. I remember noticing how neatly the one would fit in the other. And then I remember lying in our foyer while my mother, apparently on the phone with my pediatrician, shouted from the kitchen to my father: “The doctor says give her a glass of water!”
None of which happened the way I remember it.
I really did nearly electrocute myself, but at 18 months, I was far too young to form durable memories. And how could I recall looking down at the top of our island when I was a toddler? It’s what psychologists call “confabulation,” the inadvertent construction of false memories. In my case, I probably heard the story more than once and, over time, created a memory to match, built from fragments of real memories; for example, how that island looked when I was 11.
Inadvertent confabulation is surprisingly easy, and common. At age 44, Elizabeth Loftus, one of the leading researchers on the fallibility of memory, “remembered” that as a teenager she had found her mother’s body in the family pool. As with my false memory, the event was real; her mother had drowned when Loftus was 14. But Loftus didn’t discover the body. An uncle had mistakenly planted the idea.
Nonetheless, Loftus almost immediately conjured up vivid details — her mother’s nightgown, a fireman giving Loftus oxygen to calm her down — that only went away after she spoke with relatives who said it was her aunt who found the body, and her uncle admitted he was wrong.
Loftus’ work, and her own experience, confront us with a difficult realization: False memories feel as real as true ones, even the really important ones. Neither joy nor trauma chisel indelible recollections into the bedrock of our consciousness. They’re still just chalked on the pavement, prone to erasure or alteration by the rains of time. Which is why the Innocence Project keeps winning the freedom of prisoners who were misidentified by eyewitnesses, often traumatized victims who believed absolutely in their misidentification.
As you’ve probably guessed, this isn’t a random jaunt down memory lane. A year after the Senate fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly have published “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh.” The book aspires to provide better corroboration of the allegations against Kavanaugh than was available last year: Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that he tried to rape her when they were both teenagers and Deborah Ramirez’s accusation that he exposed himself to her when they were students at Yale.
Yet as the renewed fighting over Kavanaugh this week suggests, we will never know which of these stories is true, or how much of them is true, because by now everyone’s memories are just too impaired; maybe by alcohol, maybe by trauma, certainly by time.
It’s not enough to find the accusers (or the defenders) sincere. Loftus honestly believed she found her mother’s body. No one has produced clear, first-hand, contemporaneous — ideally written down — corroboration of the allegations against Kavanaugh. Instead, we have second-hand reconstructions of stories heard years ago.
Worse still, many of the people involved seem to have conferred with each other before the allegations went public, particularly in the Yale case; according to the New Yorker article that broke the story, Ramirez herself was initially unsure that Kavanaugh was the man who had exposed himself to her and took six days to conclude that he was.
Trying to firm up fuzzy memories about decades-old events is an invitation to confabulation. The media circus surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation further muddled things; any witness who comes forward today must be presumed to have gathered significant details from the earlier coverage.
All of which means that we will never have any more certainty about the Kavanaugh story than we have right now; which is to say, none at all. We can either find a way to live with that fact, and each other, or partisans on both sides can keep tearing the country apart by insisting that they know the one clear truth about an irretrievably murky past.
Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter @asymmetricinfo.