Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sorting truth from false memories

While president, Ronald Reagan famously told a story about how he had been at a German concentration camp shortly after the Nazi defeat in World War II, and had helped to make films of the liberation of that camp. He told this story in depth, and more than once. The truth was, however, that although Reagan made training films for the armed forces, he spent the entire war in the United States.

So was Reagan telling a bold-faced lie? Was it an early sign of dementia? Or was he simply telling the truth as he remembered it?

Author Salman Rushdie recalled his own experience of reinventing his past during a recent public conversation at Emory, where he is a writer-in-residence.

“Ever since I was writing ‘Midnight’s Children,’ I’ve gotten very interested in the divergence between memory and the record,” Rushdie said.

As he was writing the novel, which drew from biographical details of his childhood in Bombay, he thought of the panicked atmosphere created by a border dispute between India and China. Rushdie vividly recalled hearing his parents discuss their fears of a Chinese empire replacing the British one as Chinese troops advanced over the Himalayas.

When Rushdie told his mother about it, she replied, “Don’t be stupid, you weren’t here. You were in boarding school in England.”

He checked the dates and realized that his mother was right. “All of this was a memory that I had constructed out of what people had told me,” Rushdie said. “My memory had just put me into the scene, even though the facts insisted that I was actually in England. Even today, knowing that I wasn’t there, my memory tells me that I was. I became very interested in that, in the way that memory rebuilds our lives for us in such a way that even when we are shown categorically that the memory is false, we actually believe the memory more than we believe the facts.”

Digitizing the mind of Salman Rushdie

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