Stick Up For Your Truth

Shortly after the last post about Truth, a reader, we’ll call her Jackie, sent me an e-mail about a memory. The way she remembers things, she paid for half the cost of her first bicycle, a blue Schwinn. In a conversation with her mother some years ago, she mentioned this memory.

“I don’t know why you think that!” snapped her mom. “Your father and I bought you that bicycle for your birthday, and you certainly didn’t help pay for it! What on earth gave you that idea?” For the sake of peace, and because Jackie suddenly doubted her own memory, she deferred to her mother’s version — as usual.

“I still remember it the original way. I don’t know why I let her talk me out of believing in my own memory,” she wrote.

This story has several implications. First, Jackie’s original memory persists in spite of the challenge. That’s a sign it’s probably valid. In any case, it’s her memory, and it’s important to honor your memories, and not allow anyone to talk you out of them against your sense of truth. She doesn’t have to mind-wrestle her mother to reclaim her memory. All she has to do is give herself permission to believe in her own truth.

Assuming Jackie is correct, and that she did pay for part of the bike, how could her mother’s account be so different?

The answer may lie in a phenomenon psychologists call cognitive dissonance. According to Changing, cognitive dissonance is “the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.” The need to resolve this tension often affects the way memories are formed or stored, and the way they are eventually recalled.

Let’s assume Jackie’s mom had a deep-seated need to be recognized as a “Good Mother.” The memory of that bicycle gift may have lain dormant for years — such gifts are usually more poignant to the child than the parent. When Jackie reminded her of it, cognitive dissonance may have shaped the emerging memory on the fly to support her Good Mother self-image. (Do Good Mothers make their kids chip in on their own birthday gifts?)

Why would she insist Jackie was wrong and had to change her own memory instead of just letting it go? This would be a good question for Jackie to pose to herself in her journal, listening closely to what her "inner voice" tells her. If Jackie scans her memory for other evidence of Mom’s attempts at mind control, she may gain deeper insight into her mother’s way of dealing with life and people, their relationship, and her own way of dealing with conflict.

Rather than further armchair analysis and speculation, I’ll leave you with a suggestion that you put on your detective hat and look for possible sources of discrepant memories. I cover other possible causes in my essay, Mayhem at Camp RYLA that may help you uncover clues. You may discover that your memory has evolved over time, or you may find fascinating insights into other people’s minds. Whatever the outcome, let your curiosity drive you to greater insight and understanding rather than anger.

And then write your story, your way. Gently and respectfully suggest that she write her own version.

Write now: about a memory that has evolved over time. How and why did it change? Or write about conflict with a parent and how you responded.


marilyn said...

When I was nine, my father took my brothers and me on a camping trip out West. For years I thought that trip lasted six weeks. When I was in my mid-thirties, I mentioned that trip to Dad. He said that it took him years to pay off the credit card bill for that two week trip.

How could that be? Why did I think that trip was six weeks long instead of two?

I've come to believe that in this case my father's memory is correct for the following reasons:

1. He's the one who took time off from work to make the trip.
2. He paid for it.
3. In my mind it was a wonderful time spent with a father I rarely saw, (my mother had moved my brothers and me 1500 miles away from him.) I didn't want it to end.
I relived that precious time spent with Dad in my mind to the extent that I believed we were gone much longer than we were.

Ritergal said...

Marilyn, your reasoning makes sense, and is based on firm evidence. Sometimes parents are right. Jackie's situation was different. She did not believe her mother was right and allowed herself to be guilted into supporting Mom. Thanks for the example of a situation "on the other side of the street."

Pat's Place said...

My sister and I laugh often at our different memories of the same childhood events. And our brother doesn't even remember those same events. We laughingly decided that we each have our own ways of remembering our childhood depending on the different inner filters we have developed to process those long past memories.

Amber said...

I have often mulled over the differences in memory we have with others. I have four children, and we been known to each remember a particular event completely differently - almost as though we were thinking of different events. And whose to say we weren't?

My mother and I often disagreed about the past. I would usually concede to her publicly, but privately trusted my own memory.

I've come to the conclusion that memories, no matter how truthful we think they are, may not be truth — in any objective sense, if there is such a thing — at all. And I'm not sure that's important. Memories are how we create our personal story as we're growing up. It is our memories, and the emotional responses attached to those memories, that help to create who we become. To some extent, perhaps, what and how we remember are choices that we make along the way. And perhaps those choices reveal more about us and our perceptions of the world, than they do about the actual events.

I am lucky, because in writing my memoir (I'm loosely titling it "I am NOT my Mother!", I have the legacy of owning all of my mother's journals and letters for the past 50 years. (She was a writer, too.)

I been writing my memories during a particular time in my life and then finding her journals and letters during that same time to see what she wrote.

What I have found so far is that we were living on two entirely different planets. I had no idea who my mother was. And she probably never knew me, either.

It's a fascinating and heartbreaking project. At any rate, this conversation is a topic that has certainly been on my mind lately.

Ritergal said...

Pat, sounds like you and your sister grew up in different families as my sister and I did. Funny how that happens!

Amber, in my opinion you nail it with

Memories are how we create our personal story as we're growing up. It is our memories, and the emotional responses attached to those memories, that help to create who we become...


Your observation that you and your mother were strangers to one another is profound too. And sad to say, distressingly typical from what I gather from friends and students.

Best wishes for that memoir you are writing!

Lee said...

The value is knowing that there are memories about events--even if they are exactly opposite! Capturing (which I am just starting) is the key!

JoJo said...

Jackie and I must have grown up in the same house! Much like her story, my mother used to insist on having her way regarding how I wore my hair, how I dressed, how I behaved. One of those memories was her showing me two dresses and saying, "Which one do you want to wear?"

I'd pick blue - my favorite color and she would continue, "Don't you THINK you'd rather wear the red one?"

"No, I'm sure I'd rather wear the blue one."

(In actuality, I'd rather wear nearly anything but a dress so I can run faster.)

"But red is such a good color on you," the urging would continue until I learned to give in easily and not suffer the consequences of not conforming to her pre-determined decisions.

The comment above about not wanting to appear the bad mother, I believe now that it was not correct for her to order me to do something, but if she could get me to agree with her, then somehow it WAS what I wanted and she could believe that somehow I just didn't understand until she was so firm with me.

How much simpler it would have been, if she had already chosen, to just lay out the red dress. I could have been out climbing trees so much faster!

You have to only view the look on my face for the school picture that year, to know my true blue feelings. And as I recall pics were only in black & white anyway with shades of gray.

Even today I struggle with believing in my own choices - and worry what I may have done to handicap my own kiddos.

Good column! To this day, the words, "Don't you think," trigger a special reaction within me. I don't lose as often, however, as I once did.

Ritergal said...

Heavens, that is contorted logic, about her believing your really did want what she wanted, but she had to help you realize it ... but I do understand. People are funny, parents are people, and funny is often not humorous. Glad you survived to write about it, and life is going on.