Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Memory and the Need to Explain

I’ve been writing my memoirs for a couple of years now, little bits here and little bits there as time allows. I don’t intend to publish them, though I may give them to people who request them. But having researched and meditated on the fluky nature of human memory, I want to record what I remember now, against the strong possibility that the remembering will not get any better.

One of my friends (who knows about my memoir-ing because she’s in my memoirs) asked me if it was a painful process. That’s a good question that I hadn’t considered; after all, I was trying to remember and record as much as I could, the bad along with the good. So was writing about the occasional tragedy in my life painful? Remarkably, no. In fact, the more I write about my life, the better I feel about it. I’ve always attributed this to the value of emotional release (especially of suppressed emotion) as documented by James W. Pennebaker in his book, Opening Up. But earlier today, while reading Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, I came across another possibility: That explaining personal tragedy, even in a purely intellectual way, feels good and is healing in and of itself. There is, however, a bit of intriguing weirdness in it: It appears to work even if your explanation is bogus.

The human mind seems to like a coherent narrative, and when coherence is in short supply will manufacture as much as it needs. This may be one reason that we discover faulty memories of our past, as I’ve documented here: We value continuity over accuracy, and abhor blank spots. So when we’re telling a remembered narrative and come across something we don’t remember or don’t understand, it’s very tempting to guess and then build the guess into the narrative. (This can be and I think often is an unconscious process.)

I noticed this process at work some months back, when I was writing an account of my early relationships. Girlfriends #2 and #3 very clearly and explicitly rejected me because of my eccentricity. (I married Girlfriend #4.) Weirdly, what happened with Girlfriend #1 I simply don’t recall. I remember when the end came (August 1968) and I remember being miserable about it. I just don’t have the slightest idea what the issue was.

When I wrote about it, my first draft was the honest one: “I no longer remember why Judy and I broke up.” I didn’t like admitting that, but further thought brought no new memories to light. I do remember arguing with her and being a jerk about it. I just don’t remember what we were arguing about.

So for my second draft, I added speculation: “I no longer remember precisely why Judy and I broke up, but considering my later experiences with girls, I’m pretty sure my eccentricity had begun to wear on her after ten months of being inseparable.” That sounded a lot better to me, even though there’s not a lick of memory to back it up.

It is, however, a much better story. It ties in with my later experience and clearer memories. It just isn’t true. (I will admit that it’s a reasonably good guess.) Alas, I think that if I told the story often enough, the fact that this was simply a guess would get lost, and the guess would melt into my personal history and absorb credibility from everything else I’ve written. I wonder now how much of this has already happened.

Bottom line: Our memories may not decay naturally. We may unconsciously corrupt them by trying to knit them together into a coherent narrative, inventing or reshaping facts where facts either don’t fit well or don’t exist. That done, we convince ourselves that our guesses are true, at least until we encounter independent evidence that they’re not.

I don’t think it’s an honesty issue. If it were, you’d think it would feel better to just admit ignorance than tell a tall tale, especially when the tall tale puts the teller in a bad light. To the contrary, I think that devising narratives is a basic human need, and even when we don’t have to, some of us do it anyway, simply because it feels good. (This is how novels happen.)

Memoirists: Admit your ignorance. Label guesses honestly. The better a story your memoirs tell, the less likely it is that they really happened. (I’ll do my best to take my own advice here. Corrections gracefully accepted.)


  1. Tom Dison says:

    I think it is similar to how our normal vision works. Our mind is quite capable of filling in all of the “blank” spots to create a unified picture. There are lots of experiments that prove how the mind does this. It doesn’t surprise me that our vision of the past is similar!

  2. Tom says:

    Jeff, I think we all have creative memory as you describe. The older I get the more I tend to remember things a bit differently than they really happened. The only way I know this is true is on those few occasions when it has mattered enough for me to go back through the old steno notebooks with my paper journals that date back to about 1971. The correlation between what I wrote then and what I remember now is not always that good!

    If you are not familiar with it look up the lyrics to the song, “A Semi-True Story” sung by Jimmy Buffett. It cycles through my play list that I have for my exercise bike every few weeks.

  3. Michael says:

    Interesting. A couple of other guesses about Girlfriend #1: (a) she found someone else, and did not reveal this fact to you; (b) she simply wanted to be unattached. (You must have been rather young at the time.)

    On a more serious note, what about the making of history as national self-understanding? Churchill did a good job of this for England and America.

    1. We were 15, and I was the quintessential “callow fellow” of the song, albeit one with beer boxes full of radio tubes. It’s far more likely that I was just getting on her nerves, though considering how much she meant to me at the time, I boggle at how little I remember of our parting.

      History is written by the victors, and the victors are generally eager to be seen as such. I’ll have to think about the national self-understanding thing, but it’s worth a post at some point.

  4. I’ve experienced this myself, and I haven’t had as many years to work on it. 😉 Not sure what that says about me… As far as the memoirs go, my wife has encouraged me to blog about the daily happenings largely so our kids will have a written “record” about their childhoods. (This can be problematic when I take poetic license for the sake of the narrative…)
    And last, I suspect that between your writing style and what little I know of your history and your world-view, your memoirs would probably make a more popular story than you might think! 😉

  5. Paul says:

    A very interesting topic. I picked up a book recently while visiting my grandfather, and thought “I remember reading this when I was in college or so.” I read it again, and though the plot line is similar enough that I know it’s the same book, if asked, I would have described a somewhat different story. I don’t know if this is because our biases over time color our memories, or it had something do with me reading two-three books a week when I was younger, and things just blurred. I think Tom’s comment at the top is probably pretty close to the mark as well.

  6. Rich Rostrom says:

    I was at a presentation earlier tonight by a writer and photographer who have produced a collection of portraits and interviews with WW II veterans.

    (They’re both pretty young, maybe 30.) One thing the writer/interviewer said was that it was often tricky to get the vets to open up about their war experiences. Many of them hadn’t ever talked to anyone about it. But nearly all of these felt a lot better after tellling their stories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *