Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Stories We Tell Ourselves about Ourselves

Daniel Mendelsohn on the pitfalls of the memoir, and of memory:

As for Freud’s charge that memoirs are flawed by mendacity, it may be that the culprit here is not really the memoir genre but simply memory itself. The most stimulating section of Yagoda’s book is one in which he considers, albeit superficially, the vast scientific literature about memory and how it works. The gist is that a seemingly inborn desire on the part of Homo sapiens for coherent narratives, for meaning, often warps the way we remember things. The psychologist F. C. Bartlett, whom Yagoda quotes without discussing his work, once conducted an experiment in which people were told fables into which illogical or non-sequitur elements had been introduced; when asked to repeat the tales, they omitted or smoothed over the anomalous bits. More recently, graduate students who were asked to recall what their anxiety level had been before an important examination consistently exaggerated that anxiety. As Yagoda puts it, “That little tale—‘I was really worried, but I passed’—would be memoir-worthy. The ‘truth’—‘I wasn’t that worried, and I passed’—would not.” In other words, we always manage to turn our memories into good stories—even if those stories aren’t quite true.

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