I have a complicated relationship with my memory.
Most of us, me included, believe our memories are fairly accurate. That events happened the way we remembered them, like a video camera capturing a scene: hit the play button and you’ll see the same images, the same order of events, unfold before your eyes. The quality as good as it was the first time the scene was captured.
But apparently that isn’t at all how it works.
Like the bike I got when I turned eight, with the rainbow handlebar tassels I’d been coveting, and the tinny bell I insisted on ringing incessantly as I set out on a ride. I remembered waking the morning of my birthday and seeing it at the end of my bed, shiny and begging for me to ride it. But when I later recounted this memory as an adult at a family dinner, my mom told me that while, yes, I did get such a bike for my birthday, it was never in my bedroom. “How would we have sneaked it in there? And how on earth would you have carried it down the stairs, Lucy?” my mom had said, laughing. “It was in the living room, half-hidden by that ficus. Remember that plant? It lived forever...”
Yet no matter how I tried to place that bike behind the mangy ficus tree my mom routinely propped up with bamboo sticks and that lived past when I left home, I could only ever see it at the foot of my bed. The giant yellow bow glittering with the morning light coming through my thin curtains, its white rubber tires pristine, the paint glossy and chip free, the handlebar streamers sparkling rainbows.
At some point my brain chose a different setting for my eighth birthday gift, and every time I had remembered that event since, it solidified the image to the point where I argued with my mom that night about the recollection. She must have remembered it wrong; her brain more aged than mine, her memory less elastic. But when Dad and my older sister, Alexis, reinforced Mom’s version—my sister and I shared a room, so surely she would have remembered a clunky bike at the end of my bed—I was forced to admit I had gotten it wrong. And just like that I began to doubt myself, and the memory. How did I get the bike, nearly as big as I was, down the stairs? That would have been a major feat, like my mom had said. Soon enough I had to admit maybe the bike had never been where I remembered it, even if the memory felt as real to me as any other.
“Honest lying” is what the therapist I have been seeing, Dr. Amanda Kay, called it. The perfect oxymoron if I had ever heard one—how can it be “honest” if I am lying?
Apparently this re-creating of the past happens all the time, to everyone, Dr. Kay explained during our first visit. In fact, each time we recall something, we aren’t actually remembering the original experience; we’re remembering a memory of it. Our memories are fickle things, changing imperceptibly the very next time we recall them. They are not intact the way we imagine them to be but simply a construct of the real thing. Then a construct of the construct. And on and on it goes.
“It’s like putting a new layer of wallpaper over an existing one,” Dr. Kay had explained. “Multiple layers later, all you can see is the pink pastel roses on the top and not the blue and white stripes from a few years back, but the stripes are still there. Even if now you’d swear on your life that blue is actually purple, the white stripes gray. Our memory is not as reliable as we like to believe.”
“So we’re creating a knockoff version of an event and then remembering the knockoff as the real thing?”
“Precisely,” Dr. Kay had replied. “There’s no way to guarantee accuracy in our memories. Our brains pick and choose moments from our past and stitch them together to create something that suits us best at the time.”
I’d stared at her, the reality of my situation settling into me like an unpleasant virus. “So how can we trust the things we remember, the way we remember them?” I had asked.
“Because generally they’re close enough.” She had smiled then, the way she would at moments like these in our future sessions when she knew I was close to shutting down. Moments when I felt like I might never again be sure which memories I could count on and which ones were lying to me. “For the most part we get the highlight reels right and the extraneous details aren’t as important.”
Except when you wake up in a hospital bed believing you’re living a different life than the one you actually have, it tends to be the details that matter most.
Like I said, I have a complicated relationship with my memory.