Telling Stories: The Lesson in the Brian Williams’ Scandal

I never watch television news.

So I had no idea who Brian Williams was until the news about his false claims about his time in Iraq. All of the tidbits I read online or heard on the radio took the position that he intentionally and willfully fabricated these stories.

Until I came across this one.

It explores the universal truth of fallible and malleable memory, citing studies where false memories have been intentionally implanted and summarizing the results of interviews with memory scientists.

The data is unambiguous – our memories are not.

The article doesn’t absolve Brian Williams of any guilt. It simply asks us to consider the alternative – that perhaps what we are interpreting as an intentional manipulation of truth may in fact be a distortion of memory.

The problem is that from an outside perspective, they are indistinguishable. And according to a study a referenced in the article, people overwhelmingly assume that someone’s twisted truth has been purposely shaped for their gain (while also assuming that their own memory is somehow immune to the errors that may influence others). And the comments in the article support that research; they alternate between people claiming that they have infallible memories and people (often aggressively) concluding that Brian Williams set out to deceive.

And maybe he was. I certainly have no idea. But I do find it strange that somebody in a prominent position in media would choose to publicly tell falsehoods that could easily be disproved. It seems not only irresponsible, but dumb.

It certainly seems plausible that he believed his stories and failed to fact-check before sharing them with the world.

Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time in a digital world, but we seem to have this idea that memory acts like a recorder, filing away experiences as they happen so that they can be retrieved later with a neural click and replayed like a video on a screen.

But it’s not that simple.

If our memories are computer files, then they are filled with encoding errors, corrupt files and sketchy rewrites. Tidbits of original code may remain and the brain borrows from other memories to fill in the gaps.

Many errors in memory happen without us ever knowing. These are the unintentional changes in memory:

Fading

I no longer remember what my ex husband really looked like. The primary image I have of him is more a caricature of the facial hair he had the past few years of our marriage rather than any true visage. Time has softened the memories, faded the edges. I could probably still pick him out of a line up, but a police artist’s rendering based upon my description would probably contain some inaccuracies.

Our memories are more like cassette tapes than digital imprints; time and use damage the recordings. They’re still there, but faded and under a layer of static.

Rewriting

The Brian William’s article compares the way memories change with the retelling of a story to the childhood game of “telephone.” When we have a major event in our lives, we assume that the intensity of the memory leads to its preservation. Yet, the frequent retelling of the story often changes the memory over time. It mutates.

Another way we rewrite our memories reminds me of a documentary I saw about the making of the first season of The Real World. They collected countless hours of authentic and raw footage. Then, the show’s writers were tasked with watching the tapes, sketching out the storylines and editing the footage to match the story.

Our brains do that too. We naturally create “stories” out of our experiences. And then we select the memories that fit and discard the ones that don’t. And just like with reality television, all of that happens behind the scenes.

I’ve seen this happen with my own divorce story. As it is repeated, small errors in memory replicate and carry through. I have to edit and summarize to get the gist across and so some details are left out. It all “feels” true because it’s been repeated, but it’s not quite right. I make a habit of returning to my primary documents – texts, emails, journal entries – of that time period to refresh my memory before any interview or post which requires details from that episode.

And I’m always a bit surprised at what I read.

Because I am no longer the same woman that had those experiences.

Change in Perspective

There was a hill in my childhood neighborhood that was enormous. Until I went back after several years away. I have to assume that the neighborhood pooled their resources to have that mountain shaved down to a molehill. It’s the only reasonable explanation:)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and revisited it 5, 10 or 20 years later? Was it the same as you remembered? Probably not. Because you’re not the same person either. We see the world through the filter of our own perceptions and we see our memories in the same way.

No memory can ever completely reflect the moment it happened because you see it through the knowledge of today. That hill in my old neighborhood is both huge and daunting (according to my early memories) and insignificant (as I see it now). Neither recollection is necessarily wrong. My perspective has shifted.

Not all manipulations of memory are unintentional. Here are the ways that memories are deliberately changed:

To Deceive

This is your standard lie. Deliberate. Intentional. Twisting the truth for your own gain or protection. In this post, I dig down into the different types and motivations for deceptions.

Now here’s where things can get interesting. A “fact” can begin as a lie, but as it is repeated, that falsehood becomes the truth to the person reciting it. This is how researchers, therapists or others in trusted positions can either intentionally or unintentionally “plant” a false memory that grows into “truth” for the subject.

My ex stated in a text to my mother that he “started to believe his own bullshit.” It seems like he may have planted and nurtured false memories in his own mind.

To Find Peace

I stumbled across this application of deliberately changing memories accidentally. I changed the names of the people and places involved in my story to protect the identities of the innocent and not-so-innocent. Over time, I found that the fake names felt more real to me than the real ones. The shaped memories slowly suffocating the actual ones.

Once I realized the power of taking ownership of my story, I deliberately shaped other memories. These have no impact on anyone else, so their rewriting was not intended to mislead or deceive. Rather, I deliberately chose to reframe certain moments, delete others and filter some of the most painful experiences through a lens of compassion, even if it’s not fully accurate, because it brings peace to my current life and has no bearing on anyone or anything else.

When I do revisit the primary documents, this intentional rewriting is temporarily stripped away as I face the brutal reality of that period. Yet even though that is the “real” memory captured in those texts and emails, I don’t allow it to take up permanent residence in my mind. Read more about how to separate your memories from your suffering. 

As for Brian Williams, we may never know if his stories originated from an intent to deceive or if his memories mutated over time. He certainly was irresponsible for widely sharing stories that impact others without verifying the facts from other sources.

Because, as science has shown, our memories may be true to us even when they are not true.

We are not mere recorders of our experiences. We are storytellers.

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