Embrace the Healing Power of “I Remember…”

Two stories jumped out at me from my RSS reader this morning. No, seriously, they literally leaped out of the monitor and attempted to claw their way past my eyelids, scurry up my optic nerves, and wrap themselves around my brain stem or some vital portion of my parietal lobe. You would not believe the struggle that raged around my face this morning as I managed to wrestle the vicious stories into the confines of their own browser tabs, where they sit this very minute, growling and pacing and searching for their best opportunity to escape.

You’re lucky to have me here right now.

At least I think that’s how it happened. Was a long time ago. Hours. Memory is a funny thing.

Which is the point of the two stories. In one, Hillary Clinton isn’t exactly the grandchild of immigrants as she’s been selling herself as on the campaign trail. In the other, Sarah Silverman wasn’t the victim of a sexist comedy club owner who underpaid her because of her gender. In each case, the storyteller made themselves the hero of the story, in order to gain sympathy from the listener. In each case, the storyteller probably don’t pay any sort of price for their intentional dishonesty–

Wait, I can almost hear some of you saying right now. Don’t you think you’re being a bit harsh? You just said memory is a funny thing. How can you blame Hillary or Sarah for not getting all the details of the story right? 

You have a point. I don’t blame them for getting the details wrong. I don’t blame them for telling a story that puts them in the best possible light. We all do that. Our memories tend to feature us as the hero, or at least the central figure, and they’re all shaded not only by our emotions and perceptions when the event happened but by all our emotions and perceptions from then until now.

Here’s why I blame them. At some point, either of them could have qualified their memories, but they didn’t. Hillary could have said, “All my life I remember stories about my immigrant grandparents and how hard they worked to make a good life here in America”. Sarah could have said, “I remember working this comedy club early in my career and getting paid very little money. I’ve always thought that was because I was a woman because another comic there, who was a guy, got paid more.”

Public figures have a horrible time saying “You know, I remember a story back in the day that happened like this…”. They have no trouble telling the story as if they remembered every detail perfectly, as if it was “seared–seared” into their memories. For some reason, we (and when I say “we” in this case I generally mean “the journalists to whom these stories are told”) accept these stories as ground truth and do not dig into them any further.

But we should. Memory is faulty, especially those memories we later polish and embellish to use as sales pitches. Hillary used her incorrect story of immigrant grandparents to sell her as friendly to illegal immigrants. Sarah used her completely false “wage gap” story to position herself as an honest social policy authority. The people to whom they told those stories should have approached them skeptically, dug into them a bit more, ascertained whether they were accurate before passing them along, verbatim, to the rest of us. We should nail them when they tell us tall tales so that, in time, they’ll learn to add those important words “I remember” that separate documentary from normal human experience. The memory of a celebrity or politician isn’t the former.

Of course, we should be skeptical, too. If a celebrity hits us with a hard-luck story, we ought to take it with a rather large grain of salt. We’ll be a lot better off, and we’ll get a far more pleasant public discourse out of it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I just remembered I have a couple eyelid-rending browser tabs to subdue.

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