True Stories of False Memories

False MemoriesFalse memories allow us to forgive ourselves and justify our mistakes, but sometimes at a high price: an inability to take responsibility for our lives. An appreciation of the distortions of memory, a realization that even deeply felt memories might be wrong, might encourage people to hold their memories more lightly, to drop the certainty that their memories are always accurate, and to let go of the appealing impulse to use the past to justify problems of the present. If we are to be careful about what we wish for because it might come true, we must also be careful which memories we select to justify our lives, because then we will have to live by them.

Certainly one of the most powerful stories that many people wish to live by is the victim narrative. Nobody has actually been abducted by aliens (though experiencers will argue fiercely with us), but millions have survived cruelties as children: neglect, sexual abuse, parental alcoholism, violence, abandonment, the horrors of war. Many people have come forward to tell their stories: how they coped, how they endured, what they learned, how they moved on. Stories of trauma and transcendence are inspiring examples of an resilience.

It is precisely because these accounts are so emotionally powerful that thousands of people have been drawn to construct “me, too” versions of them. A few have claimed to be Holocaust survivors; thousands have claimed to be survivors of alien abduction; and tens of thousands have claimed to be survivors of incest and other sexual traumas that allegedly were repressed from memory until they entered therapy in adulthood. Why would people claim to remember that they had suffered harrowing experiences if they hadn’t, especially when that belief causes rifts with families or friends? By distorting their memories, these people can “get what they want by revising what they had,” and what they want is to turn their present lives, no matter how bleak or mundane, into a dazzling victory over adversity. Memories of abuse also help them resolve the dissonance between “I am a smart, capable person” and “My life sure is a mess right now” with an explanation that makes them feel good and removes responsibility: “It’s not my fault my life is a mess. Look at the horrible things they did to me.” Ellen Bass and Laura Davis made this reasoning explicit in The Courage to Heal. They tell readers who have no memory of childhood sexual abuse that “when you first remember your abuse or acknowledge its effects, you may feel tremendous relief. Finally there is a reason for your problems. There is someone, and something, to blame.”

It is no wonder, then, that most of the people who have created false memories of early suffering, like those who believe they were abducted by aliens, go to great lengths to justify and preserve their new explanations. Consider the story of a young woman named Holly Ramona, who, after a year in college, went into therapy for treatment of depression and bulimia. The therapist told her that these common problems were usually symptoms of child sexual abuse, which Holly denied had ever happened to her. Yet over time, at the urging of the therapist and then at the hands of a psychiatrist who administered sodium amytal (popularly and mistakenly called “truth serum”), Holly came to remember that between the ages of five and sixteen she had been repeatedly raped by her father, who even forced her to have sex with the family dog. Holly’s outraged father sued both therapists for malpractice, for “implanting or reinforcing false memories that [he] had molested her as a child.” The jury agreed, exonerating the father and finding the therapists guilty.

This ruling put Holly in a state of dissonance that she could resolve in one of two ways: She could accept the verdict, realize that her memories were false, beg her father’s forgiveness, and attempt to reconcile the family that had been torn apart over her accusations. Or she could reject the verdict as a travesty of justice, become more convinced than ever that her father had abused her, and renew her commitment to recovered-memory therapy. By far, the latter was the easier choice because of her need to justify the harm she had caused father and the rest of her family. To change her mind now would have been like turning a steamship around in a narrow river — not much room to maneuver and hazards in every direction; much easier to stay the course. Indeed, Holly Ramona not only vehemently rejected the verdict; she bolstered that decision by going to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. The last we heard, she was encouraging some of her own clients to recover memories of their childhood sexual abuse.

Yet every once in a while someone steps forward to speak up for truth, even when the truth gets in the way of a good, self-justifying story. It’s not easy, because it means taking a fresh, skeptical look at the comforting memory we have lived by, scrutinizing it from every angle for its plausibility, and, no matter how great the ensuing dissonance, letting go of it. For her entire adult life, for example, writer Mary Karr had harbored the memory of how, as an innocent teenager, she had been abandoned by her father. That memory allowed her to feel like a heroic survivor of her father’s neglect. But when she sat down to write her memoirs, she faced the realization that the story could not have been true.

Copyright © 2007 by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson from Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me); Published by Harcourt, Inc. May 2007; 978-0-15-101098-1

Book Description

Why do people dodge responsibility when things fall apart? Why the parade of public figures unable to own up when they screw up? Why the endless marital quarrels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in ourselves? Are we all liars? Or do we really believe the stories we tell?

Renowned social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson take a compelling look into how the brain is wired for self-justification. When we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that jars our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right-a belief that often keeps us on a course that is dumb, immoral, and wrong.

Backed by years of research and delivered in lively, energetic prose, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) offers a fascinating explanation of self-deception-how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.


• Warren Bennis:

“This book casts a bright and penetrating light on how and why nation-states, organizations, and individuals get into malignant messes. But it also shows how they (NOT us) cluelessly keep repeating these offensive, sometimes criminal acts. Tavris and Aronson don’t let any of us off the hook but they do teach us how to avoid hanging ourselves on that hook again and again. One of the most needed and important books for our time.”

• David Callahan:

“To err is human, to rationalize even more so. Now, thanks to this brilliant book, we can finally see how and why even the best meaning people may justify terrible behavior. Mistakes Were Made will not turn us into angels, but it is hard to think of a better — or more readable — guide to the mind’s most devilish tricks.”

• Michael Shermer:

“Please, somebody, get a copy of this book to the President and his cabinet right away. Read it aloud into the Congressional Record. If this book doesn’t change the way.”

• Daniel Gilbert:

“This book is charming and delightful. But mainly, it’s just damn smart. Armed with reams of scientific data and loads of real-world anecdotes, Tavris and Aronson explain how politicians, pundits, doctors, lawyers, psychotherapists–and oh yes, the rest of us–come to believe that we are right and reasonable… and why we maintain that dangerous self-deception in the face of glaring evidence to the contrary. Every page sparkles with sharp insight and keen observation. Mistakes were made–but not in this book!”

• David Myers:

“Tavris and Aronson-a dream team of two of psychology’s greatest communicators-investigate our self-serving explanations and malleable memories, explaining how well-meaning people stay the course when pursuing ill-fated ventures, then shuck responsibility when failure arrives. This is a fascinating exploration of our astonishing powers of self-justification.”

• Judith Rich Harris:

“This eye-opener of a book is essential reading, not because we’ve all made mistakes – certainly not! – but because we’ve all been victims of mistakes made by others. Why do these people behave so badly? Tavris and Aronson’s explanation is illuminating, entertaining, based on solid science, and highly relevant to our public and private lives.”

• Robert B. Cialdiani:

“Tavris and Aronson have combined their formidable skills to produce a gleaming model of social insight and scientific engagement. Make no mistake, you need to read this book.”

• Elizabeth Loftus:

“Combining far-ranging scholarship with lucid, witty prose, Tavris and Aronson illuminate many of the mysteries of human behavior — why hypocrites never see their own hypocrisy, why couples so often misremember their shared history, why many people persist in courses of action that lead straight into quicksand. A delight to read, with surprising revelations in every chapter.”

• Burt Nanus:

“A pathbreaking book that could change forever how leaders think about the decisions they make . Crackles with new insights and understanding. A must read!”

• The General Psychologist:

“Written with the perfect combination of science and snap, this is a book that will change the way you think about self-deception–how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.”

Article by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, authors of the book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”,
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