My mother was eighty-four yesterday. We had afternoon tea in the back garden of her house. Her two brothers and one of her sisters joined us for the occasion.
The stories were plentiful, there is a great oral tradition in the family and a large number of shared stories. Tales from the past are subject to an immediate peer review, corrections are made, mistakes are revised. Suggestions made after the event are not allowed to alter the recollections of those present.
Memories are not always so easily corrected. Reading an account today of the work of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, I encountered a tale of misremembering.
In his 1951 book Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood, Piaget gives an example of what seems to be misremembering based on suggestions made to him in subsequent years. Piaget had a memory of there being an attempt to kidnap him when he was two years old. It is a memory so vivid that it would be hard to imagine it not to be true. Piaget writes,
I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Élysées, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened round me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station. When I was about fifteen my parents received a letter from my former nurse saying that she had been converted to the Salvation Army. She wanted to confess past faults, and in particular to return the watch she had been given on this occasion. She had made up the whole story, faking the scratches. I, therefore, must have heard, as a child, the account of the story, which my parents believed, and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory.
Piaget was led to comment, “Many real memories are doubtless of the same order.”
In times when family members are dispersed, when collective memories are limited, in times when there are no siblings, or others who were present at the moment being recalled, to correct recollections, who is to say what memories are real and what memories have been projected into the past?