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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The Entitled Ones

We all start out believing that we are the center of the world.

And then as we grow, our sense of our place in the world shifts.

Until we realize that we are not the center of the world. but a part of the world.

With a responsibility to step and speak with kindness and care.

Except some people never develop the understanding that they are a part of the world.

They persist in their belief that they are the sun and the rest of us are mere satellites.

And rather than stepping with kindness and care, they stomp on boundaries and crush others beneath their unfeeling feet.

And rather than speaking with kindness and care, they use words as weapons to harm and tools to manipulate.

They are the entitled ones. The self-crowned kings and queens of our realm.

Many were raised to be empowered, showered with excess and unearned praise by parents afraid of setting and maintaining boundaries. They held dominance in their families and assumed that their sway extended outside the familial home. They never learned how to hear a “no” or contend with a limit. They asked and they received.

Parents stepped in and cushioned consequences, so cause and effect was never mastered. They never received education in empathy, so they held on to a young child’s lack of understanding. And perhaps worst of all, these infant monarchs learned how to shuffle blame and avoid responsibility.

Some of the entitled ones earned their badge with an assist from genetics, given a biological limit to their abilities to empathize with and understand others.

In school, these entitled children don the label of “bully” as they use power, fear and manipulation to control the other students. In their world, the ends justify any means necessary and they are quite adept at pulling out every mean possible.

As they grow into adults, the entitled ones often find themselves successful. After all, when you’re ruthless on the ladder to success, you can leave quite a pile of bodies behind you. They can be charismatic, hiding their entitlement behind charm and practiced words. They’re just putting on a show for the benefit of their lackeys while they take what they believe they deserve.

And some of us fall for this charade. After all, it can certainly be a great show.

But these are the people that will pledge fidelity while actively pursuing another. They will set a household budget, yet feel entitled to break it. They will tell you what you want to hear while doing what they want to do.

The only reason needed for any action is,”I felt like it.”

But at some point, the curtains part.

And we see the special effects for what they are.

And we become aware of the strings tied around our own wrists.

Making us an unwilling participant in the entitled one’s play.

And for those of us that understand that we are all in this together, the realization that we were perceived as nothing but minions and pawns is a painful one.

But better to endure the pain of having the strings cut.

Than to never see them at all.

Be stronger than your pain.

Build your boundaries with your entitled one and enforce them with everything you have.

Let them be the center of their world.

But refuse to let them be the center of yours.

After the Affair: Are You Focusing in the Wrong Direction?

You discovered your partner is cheating.

Driven by a mixed fuel of rage and pain, you begin a background check on the affair partner that would do the FBI proud.

Who are they? Why was my spouse drawn to them? What do they have to offer that I do not?

We’re looking for information that would protect our bruised and battered egos. That would support the rejection and lessen its agony.

But even if you discover that your partner’s dalliances were with Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt (both seemingly the epitome of good looks, good character and good standing and well out of the realm of mere mortals like the rest of us), you will still feel the dismissal just as strongly.

Because the pain isn’t about the affair partner.

It’s about the rejection by your partner.

You’re focusing in the wrong direction.

I know. I did it too. My situation was different than many in the fact that the other wife didn’t know he has married (although I have to assume that the other “other women” did); she was conned as much as I was. Still, I grew obsessed with dissecting her, trying to understand the pull, as though she was some super magnet that emitted a force too powerful to resist that sucked him out of the marriage.

But that’s not the case, is it? If someone doesn’t want to be pulled from a marriage, nobody can have that power of attraction over them.

I was focusing in the wrong direction.

(For the sake of brevity and fairness (and my personal aversion to the repeated use of the term “affair partner”), I am going to refer to the other man/woman as the mister(ess). Because there isn’t an equivalent male-gendered term. Yet.)

I can hear you already. But in my case, the mister(ess)…

My reply?

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

I’ll prove it to you.

The situation with a spouse and another can be broken down into four main categories based upon the intention for reconciliation between the partners and if the mister(ess) is known to the betrayed spouse.

No Reconciliation; Unknown Mister(ess)

You and/or your spouse have decided that reconciliation isn’t possible. You’re grieving the loss of your marriage and harboring anger over how it collapsed. It’s easy to place the blame of mister(ess). Safe. It means you can avoid the painful realization that your partner was not the person you thought and it keeps you distracted from the very difficult responsibility of healing yourself.

The other person does not matter. The marriage is over. The “how” and “why” can provide some useful learning. But the “who”? The “who” is just noise.

I often compare the drive to know more about the mister(ess) to the obsession with scratching a scab. It can an all-consuming itch. A need that builds until you fill it. And then once scratched, the drive fades until it begins to build again. As long as you keep scratching that itch, the wound remains open. Leave it, and with time it will heal.

So unless you want the affair partner to be a part of your life moving forward, shift your focus to your future.

If you have kids, the situation is obviously more complicated if and when the mister(ess) becomes part of their lives.

It increases the pain for the betrayed spouse because it’s easy to feel usurped as both a partner and a parent. And often, that pain comes out in an attack on the mister(ess), sometimes even using the kids as weapons.

It’s a nuclear warhead of emotions, which makes it nearly impossible to be pragmatic.

So I offer you a litmus test.

Over the years, your kids have had (or will have) a handful of teachers that they do not bond with. If you run crying to the principal every time your child mutters, “The teacher doesn’t like me,” you’re doing your kid a disservice. If, however, the teacher is truly abusive and inappropriate, if you do not step in and protect your child, you’re doing your kid a disservice.

And it’s the same with the mister(ess) (or, in fact, anyone your ex is seeing). If your kids are in emotional or physical danger, do everything you can to save them. Otherwise, back off.

Refrain from badmouthing the mister(ess) to your children. If he/she is a bad person or has selfish motivations, your kids will figure it out on their own and will withdraw from the person (and grow some grit in the process). Good.

And if your kids happen to bond with the mister(ess)?

Well that’s good too.

The more people a kid has in his or her corner, the better. No matter how they came to stand there.

No Reconciliation; Known Mister(ess)

It is a much more difficult situation when you know the mister(ess). In fact, that is one of the criteria for compound-complex infidelity. The affair partner may be a friend of yours, an acquaintance, or even family. You’re betrayal is twofold – from your spouse and from your friend/family member.

They are two distinct betrayals.

Treat them as such.

You’re not reconciling with your spouse, so the advice above still applies.

And as for the other?

That’s up to you.

If you want to try to keep him or her in your life, you will have to move past the anger and work towards forgiveness. If you always see them as the mister(ess), they can never again be your friend.

If you decide the betrayal is too great to maintain the relationship, you will have to move past the anger and work towards forgiveness. If you carry that venom, it will only serve to poison your future.

Either way, releasing the fixation on the mister(ess) is key to your freedom.

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Reconciliation; Unknown Mister(ess)

So you and your partner have decided to try to make the marriage work. Yet you’re still consumed by thoughts and questions about the mister(ess).

You would surely be upset if your partner was focused on the mister(ess) after an intention of reconciliation had been agreed upon (and if that is your case, are you sure they really want reconciliation?). Why is it any different for you to focus on the other person? If you are holding on to the ruminations about the mister(ess), you are holding the marriage back.

Whatever you nurture, grows. If you want to save your marriage, that’s where your focus must lie. Not on what helped tear it apart.

Reconciliation; Known Mister(ess)

Hat’s off to you. You’re in perhaps the most difficult position of all. Remember, you have decided to try to salvage and repair your marriage. Focus on restoration rather than the storm.

It’s natural after an affair to want to blame. It’s natural to want to paint the mister(ess) as a vile, evil homewrecker intentionally alienating your innocent (or at least naive) spouse. It’s natural after an affair to become consumed by the questions, driven to uncover the sordid details of what happened behind our backs.

But all of that energy is focused in the wrong direction.

It’s turned to what hurt us rather than what can help us move forward. 

The mister(ess) only matters if you make them matter.

The Faux Commute

In the book I’m reading right now, the main character continues her weekday commute into London months after she was terminated from her job. Part of her motivation seemed to be habit and a lack of purpose and direction. But the main reason she continued the act is because she was too ashamed to tell her landlord/flatmate that she was no longer employed.

When I drove to work Friday morning, the book fresh on my mind, I peered at my fellow commuters, wondering if any of them were burning fuel and hours on a faux commute to a job that no longer existed. If any of them were keeping up the pretense while using up the savings. I pondered spouses back home, blindly secure in the belief that their partner was gainfully employed and unaware of the daily play-act.

It seems like something meant for fiction.

But it’s not.

My ex husband did it too.

He was too ashamed to concede that he could not find work. So he pretended that he could.
For years, he simulated a job. He invented clients and projects. He manufactured payments from lines of credit. I’m pretty sure he even falsified an award. Apparently, he was the best at his pretend job.

And he’s not the only one.

A friend’s first husband pretended to be enrolled in school full time while spending time in bars.

A coworker’s husband fabricated a start-up business while engaging in an affair.

And there’s a woman in my periphery who spent her time shopping while maintaining the facade of employment.

Here is a related piece I wrote for The Good Men Project that explores how this shame around employment can grow and spread through families.

But the problem isn’t just that the secret is kept from the partners.

Often the person can’t even admit it to themselves.

Continuing the faux commute and maintaining pretense even for themselves.

Now obviously most of us will never hold down a pretend job and engage in a daily trip of make-believe.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t engage in our own faux commutes.

That there aren’t truths we’d rather not face and so we keep us the pretense, even for ourselves.

That we don’t catch a ride going nowhere because we’re afraid to admit that it’s a dead-end run.

That we don’t pretend that something is still working for even when we no longer work for it.

So take an honest look at your life.

And make sure all of your commutes are authentic.

The book is called The Girl on the Train and it is a great thriller, especially for anyone who has experienced gaslighting.

The Part of the Betrayed

You’ve been betrayed.

The one who promised to have and hold instead lied and stole.

Leaving you broken and questioning.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not okay.

But it happens nonetheless.

Why People Cheat

Regardless of your feelings about monogamy or someone’s right to seek attention elsewhere if they are not receiving it at home, an affair is a breach of a contract. And many believe, a breach of character. It is an act of selfishness at best and an act of malice at worst.

But let’s forget for a minute about the betrayer. The act itself. And let us even set aside the pain for a moment or two.

Now that it’s happened, what’s your part?

What can you learn from the experience?

Don’t Internalize the Affair You didn’t cause it. You didn’t make your spouse cheat (even if they try to convince you that you did). Let go of that thought. This was their choice and their choice alone. It shows where they’re lacking, not you.

Take a Look at the Bigger Picture Sometimes an affair happens solely because of a person’s own issues. Other times, it’s a perfect storm of nature and nurture, the marital environment also playing a role. Are there areas where the marriage can be improved or where you can respond differently in a new relationship?

Add a Dash of Understanding to Your Judgment It’s natural to blame your spouse. To lash out in anger. I get it. Try also to find some understanding of why he or she responded the way they did. Just proclaiming it as wrong doesn’t help you. Understanding some of why it happened does.

Watch Your Triggers An affair can trigger earlier memories of abandonment or it can certainly be what future triggers will be about. The affair is not your part; healing its impact on you is.

Consider Alternatives Is your marriage the right fit for both of you at this time? Have you or your partner changed and now need a different option?

Protect Your Children You know how piercing and scary betrayal is for an adult. Imagine it through a child’s eyes. Shelter them from the affair when they’re young. If there are truths they need to discover (like a personality disorder, etc.) let them reveal themselves in time.

Consider the Balance of Comfort and Passion We often ask too much of our partners. We want them to be our best friends, our lovers, our dependable partner, the children’s parent and sometimes even a business partner. And all this for 50+ years til death knocks on the marital home. You can maintain passion, but too much comfort is the death of excitement. Find the balance.

You can address the above despite what your straying partner does or doesn’t do. You can learn from the experience if it ends in divorce or becomes a renewal of your marriage. You can choose how you look at the affair and how you respond.

An affair is a wake-up call. Don’t sleep though it.

I read an interesting interview with Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, which looks at the challenges facing modern marriages. Take a look at the article; it’s thought-provoking.

Oh, and for those of you that set your pain aside for a few moments, it’s okay to let it talk again. Just don’t allow it to filibuster.