Oh yes, I remember that seder well

Generally, disagreements among family members about who remembers most accurately, do not end with serious consequences.

A person kissing the Blarney Stone (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
A person kissing the Blarney Stone
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
‘Do you remember the seder when our father asked you to open the door to let Elijah in and the next door’s cat ran in and joined the party and Auntie Minnie had hysterics because she thought it was some kind of curse’”
‘No, you’ve got that wrong,’ says my sister after she stops laughing. ‘It was our cat not the next door neighbour’s. Don’t you remember? It was our Sherlock who came in and it couldn’t have been Auntie Minnie because she had passed away by then.’
So runs the conversation whenever families get together whether for Pessach, Rosh Ha’shana or any other celebratory or sad occasion. Everybody present will have a memory. Put together, these recollections may add up to something approaching what actually happened, but there is no guarantee of it, for memory is a notoriously unreliable source of information.
Generally, disagreements among family members about who remembers most accurately, do not end with serious consequences. When it comes to historical events, exactly the opposite is true, the reason why historians spend years researching as many records of past events as possible. Even so, many so-called established facts are challenged, either on the basis of new findings of different recorded memories, or by the deliberate distortion of accepted wisdom for political or even sinister reasons.
Leaving aside the serious matter of the search for historical accuracy, we endeavour in every day life to establish what is real and what is fake based on how one observer remembers and another does not. How many newspaper or television reports of events at which one was actually present, accord with one’s memory of them? And how reliable a witness of those events would one be? How big a part do imagination and motivation play in the recording of past events?
Elizabeth Loftus, an American psychologist, has spent decades studying memory, particularly what she calls false memory. She summed up her findings in a recent TED talk [the Technology, Entertainment and Design initiative based on the idea of exploring ideas worth spreading]. ‘Memory is not a recording device,’ she said, ‘though many people believe that it is.’ She gave as an example of false memory the use of eye witnesses in court cases, quoting a study where three quarters of three hundred defendants, who had been convicted on eye witness evidence, were later found to be not guilty following DNA tests.
Professor Loftus’s talk certainly rang a bell with me. I spent many years as a Justice of the Peace in London dealing, among other crimes and misdemeanors, with hundreds of road traffic offences. There were many times when eye witnesses to the same event would give contradictory versions of what happened. One witness would insist that he saw blood on the road while the police evidence clearly stated there had been no injuries; one witness would describe a ‘possibly red’ car while another would be certain that the car was white. It taught me to be cautious when it came to sentencing. This so-called Rashomon Effect was beautifully illustrated in the Kurosawa film in which a murder is described in four contradictory ways by four different eye witnesses.
There is no question that memory is reconstructive. What we recall is affected by all manner of influences, starting with the time lapse factor. What one hears, sees, smells right now is almost certainly not how one will tell it tomorrow, far less in a month’s or a year’s time. Memory absorbs what others tell us. Sometimes it is influenced by dreams. It may be affected by the emotions one is experiencing at the time of an event. And the re-telling of a memory may be motivated by a wish to make the story more amusing or dramatic. All of this contributes to the unreliability of what one thinks one remembers, and the devil of exposure certainly resides in the details. In other words, false or fake memories are more the norm than the utterly reliable species.
However, our memories are precious to us. They are a part of our identity and they are ours and nobody else’s. Whether they are historically accurate or not, they help us to relive the past. There are those among us who have the gift of turning memories into entertainment. My father was one of them. He would keep an audience enthralled with memories he claimed to be based on a series of true stories, ‘true stories’ which varied considerably in their details over the years. The Irish have a name for it. They would say he had kissed the Blarney stone.
Jane Biran
{Footnote: The Blarney stone is a block of stone set in the parapets of Blarney Castle near Cork in the south of Ireland. Legend has it that whoever kisses it will receive the gifts of memory and eloquence and some say the ability to deceive without giving offence. In order to kiss it, one has to lean backwards over the parapet, relatively easy today, extremely hazardous before safety rails were introduced.}