Memories are tricky things. Sometimes they’re not around when you want them, only to arrive later, when you don’t; sometimes they surround you, pester you, like wasps at a picnic. And other times you can’t find them at all no matter where you look. But the really tricky ones are those that never happened and yet they stand up and wave at you from the crowd as if they’ve known you for years. Sometimes they convince you…
The idea of false memories –or let’s be kind… mistaken memories- is not a new one, but several well-publicized instances recently have brought it to public attention. In the age of social media, of course, the cases are instant hits. Take the hyper-publicized example of Brian Williams, the popular NBC news anchor who claimed he remembered being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq 12 years ago. When this was disputed by veterans at the scene, he was forced to step down from his job. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-31220600
Because most of feel we can rely on our own memories, the feeling was that he had obviously lied –perhaps to enhance his own role and bravery in the combat, or because of the notorious ‘fog of war’ –that state of confusion that arises in states of extreme stress and chaos on a battlefield.
So which was it? Fog, or lie? Or maybe post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Well, the matter is more complicated than it might seem on the surface. There has been a lot of work done on ‘false memories’ of late –how and why they form. For example: https://blogs.brown.edu/recoveredmemory/files/2015/05/Loftus_Pickrell_PA_95.pdf Memories, as one of the psychologists explained, are not like videos recorded on a DVD –the same pictures, the same information each time you play them. They are more like the material on Wikipedia –able to be modified or even changed completely depending on the need or as a result of any new information that might come along. They are, in a word, mutable. Unreliable.
And yet, unconfronted, the memories seem infallible and in most of our experience it seems counterintuitive that they would be otherwise. After all, why have memories if we can’t rely on them? I suppose the simplest explanation is that if we remembered everything that happened throughout the average day –let alone a lifetime- there would be insufficient storage to say the least. Our brains must pick and choose relevance, perhaps adding or subtracting things for efficiency or continuity as information and situations change… It used to be termed ‘retrospective falsification of memory’. Or, as the authors of the above mentioned paper describe it: ‘Relatively modern research on interference theory has focussed primarily on retroactive interference effects. After receipt of new information that is misleading in some ways, people make errors when they report what they saw. The new post-event information often becomes incorporated into the recollection, supplementing or altering it, sometimes in dramatic ways. New information invades us, like a Trojan horse, precisely because we do not detect its influence.’
This type of situation is certainly not unknown in the medicolegal kingdom. In the course of frightening and unexpected events, there is sometimes a variation of perception –especially if the event is associated with injury or seems to be the result of negligence or incompetance. Totally understandable, obviously, and yet there are often variations of what actually occurred that are remembered.
But the issues are not always of putative malfeasance. Sometimes they have a more personal tone.
I hadn’t seen Joanna for several years, the computer said. I have to admit that nothing about her was familiar. I had no record of seeing her for the pregnancy, but apparently I’d delivered her baby so I must have been on call for consultations that day for my colleagues. She’d not come back for a post partum check, so I assumed she had simply gone back to her regular doctor or midwife. And now, six or seven years later, she was sitting in the waiting room staring at the wall. She didn’t look at all happy to be there. The referral letter said she just wished to talk about a problem. Referral letters are not always helpful…
I smiled at her as I crossed the carpet to where she was sitting and extended my hand. The one that reached out to me was sweating, limp, and tentative –as if, given a choice and not witnessed by the others in the room, it would have stayed rooted in her pocket. Joanna was a small woman with short, tightly curled black hair, held in place by a yellow ribbon so tightly wound around her forehead that the skin in the immediate vicinity seemed blotched and ill. I wondered for a moment if that was why she didn’t return my smile –she couldn’t. It only let her frown.
In the office, she sat in the uncomfortable captain’s chair across from me like a post with knots for eyes. They didn’t move, but instead seemed fixated on something half way across the desk. I tried to put her at ease by asking her how she was but was met with a wooden silence; not so much as a splinter moved. I let the silence lie fallow for what seemed an eternity and then, feeling her anger, asked her as gently as I could, why she’d come back to see me after all these years.
The knots on her face moved upwards a few degrees, and the post shivered. “This is not easy for me, doctor. I didn’t want to come, but my family doctor said I should talk about it with you…”
I leaned my forearms on the desk to show I was listening, and asked her what she wanted to talk about.
She sighed and shifted uneasily in her chair. Suddenly the knots became eyes and they stared at me like the barrels of two guns. Her face tightened and her jaw clenched for a moment. “The delivery!”
I waited, but she remained silent. I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to say. I couldn’t remember it at all, although my secretary had been able to get the delivery note I’d dictated. I skimmed through it quickly, but apart from a ten pound baby and a vaginal tear as she apparently pushed it out before I could control it, I could find nothing else. “Was there something about the delivery you wanted to ask me?” I said when it was clear she was waiting for me to comment on it.
Her eyes grew larger and angrier. “The forceps! I told you I didn’t want forceps! My first baby was large and I didn’t need them for her…” She was almost shouting and little strands of saliva escaped with every word. “I told you..! And then because of the forceps, I got that tear in my vagina that took weeks to heal. We couldn’t have sex for almost 2 months!” Suddenly, tears appeared and ran down her cheeks. “I told you I didn’t want you to use forceps! I told you… But you wouldn’t listen. You kept telling me the baby’s heart was too low and she had to be delivered right away.”
I could see her clenching and unclenching her fists as she talked. “My secretary has managed to find the report I dictated on the delivery. I’m sorry I don’t remember more, but let me read it again…”
“I’ll bet you don’t remember it!” she said between clenched teeth. “The nurses told me about you before my midwife consulted you. Apparently you like forceps and are pretty good at it…” She shook her head sadly and looked at her lap for a moment. “But I told you I didn’t want forceps and yet you went ahead and used them on me!”
I pulled up the delivery report and read it carefully. I’d been exceptionally detailed in my dictation that night, so perhaps I had been concerned that the baby’s condition might have warranted it. I’d been called by her midwife in the middle of the night because she had been pushing for three and a half hours without much progress. The head was not coming down the vaginal canal and the baby’s heart rate was beginning to show signs of distress. I had examined her, explained the situation, and then told her the options: continue to push, although I didn’t recommend this because she hadn’t made any progress after all that time, and the baby’s heart rate was beginning to show decelerations indicative of distress; caesarian section; or trial of forceps (a concept meaning if the forceps weren’t successful after a reasonable try, that caesarian section would be the fall-back option.) She hadn’t wanted a Caesarian, so I’d asked the nurse to get the forceps ready –just in case. Then, when the nurse had entered the room with the forceps, Joanna had become angry and said she would not accept forceps for delivery.
There followed a sudden, profound, and prolonged fetal heart rate deceleration and something had to be done to help the baby right away. The situation demanded an immediate judgment call, and that meant the forceps. But just as I was reaching for them, she gave a mighty push and delivered the baby. Unfortunately I’d been unable to control the head on such unexpectedly short notice, so she’d sustained a vaginal tear. It hadn’t been terribly large, and I’d been able repair it without much difficulty. Baby seemed fine, and there were smiles all around.
As I was finishing reading the report, I could hear her voice repeating again and again “Why did you use the forceps, doctor. I told you not to use them…”
I forced a smile. “I didn’t, Joanna. The baby was in trouble and I needed to get her out quickly, but I didn’t get a chance to use them. You pushed her out as I was turning to get them ready.”
“But I heard them! I heard them clanking…”
Forceps are metal and as the two sides are assembled they often make a metallic clanking noise. (They superficially resemble salad tongs, although unlike tongs, they don’t actually squeeze the head in anything like the same way. They fit more like a helmet over the head and guide it down the vaginal canal like a dilating wedge in front.) I shrugged politely. “It was an emergency for the baby. She needed to be delivered right away, so I was probably getting them ready when you had that really strong push.” I chuckled at something and she stared at me. “Sometimes I think that just the threat of using them is as good as using them. Nothing motivates stronger pushing than clanking the forceps!”
First I saw her teeth and then a smile worked its way slowly into the space around them. “But I distinctly remember you putting them on… I think…” Her eyes wandered to the window behind me for a moment. “Can I see your report?”
I smiled as much in relief as at the dissolution of the tension in the room. “Of course.” I punched a couple of keys and the report chugged its way out of the printer. I handed it to her and sat back while she read it. Actually, she must have read it several times, each time shaking her head in steadily diminishing disbelief. Finally she folded it up and put it in her purse. “All this time…” Her eyes sought mine and I could see they had softened from birds of prey, to… the prey itself. “But I remembered it so differently…”
“Would you like me to see if I can get a hold of the nurses reports as well?”
A large, genuine grin spread across her head dividing her eyes from her chin as she shook her head a final time. “I’m so sorry, doctor… All this time…” Suddenly a thought occurred to her. “Tell me one thing, though.” She tore her eyes away mischievously and they flitted briefly about the room. “Were you wearing an earring that night?”
I must admit I blushed at the question and nodded my head. “It was a phase,” I added quietly.
She giggled and reached for my hand. “Well at least my memory didn’t screw everything up…”