Miracles and False Memories

It was 1932 in a small farming town in West Tennessee and the mid-summer Sunday was typically hot and humid.  The after-church crowd gathered at the creek behind the church cemetery to chat in the shade of several ancient oak trees.  Eight-year-old Melba had gotten permission from her parents to shed the frock that she wore to church and join the other children for a dip in the creek. Ever eager for a swim, she was one of the first children poised on the bank ready to plunge into the cool, inviting water.  As her playmate, Joan, came up beside her, they held hands and jumped as far out as they could over the placid surface before splashing down into the welcoming embrace of the stream.  Landing hard, they splashed the other children on the bank who were still struggling to divest themselves of their church raiment.

The water was so refreshing, and so invigorating, that Melba felt that she would never want to come out again.  But it was just at that moment that the cramp hit; a strong cramp, in her right leg.  As she tried to fight the pain and struggle to the surface, it seemed to her that she was a hundred feet down; instead of the 3-4 feet that she really was.

Finally, after a seeming eternity, she broke the surface and felt air enter her lungs, but she could not maintain her position on the surface for more than a second or two before she slipped back under water again.  Struggling to the surface again she got a glimpse of the creek bank, but it was still much farther away than she thought it was, and she lost hope of reaching it without the use of her right leg.

She slipped under again, but this time in her flailing, her left foot happened to brush against something; something firm and solid.  She touched it again and this time her foot managed to settle strongly onto it. And as she pushed, she found that her mouth and nose broke the surface an stayed there above water.

Others had come by this time and threw her a piece of clothing that she could grasp and pull herself to shore with.

When finally, she was out of the water and safe, she found enough air to relate the story of the underwater branch, and how lucky it was that her foot had hit against it.   Her preacher told her that that was no accident; and that there were no accidents.  It was obvious that Jesus had guided her foot to that branch.  It only made sense; and of course it made sense to everybody there.  In no time Melba was relating that story just so.  It was no accident that her foot found that branch.  It was Jesus intervening and saving her to do His work.

Later in life, Melba, would claim adamantly that she witnessed, nay participated in, a miracle; a real life-changing miracle.  But did she really?  Melba was my mother, and I am an atheist. I have thought of this story many times in my life (I’m 71 now) and have had to reconcile it with my belief that gods aren’t real, and Jesus died 2000 years ago, never to live again.

I found that this type of modified memory was supported by modern psychological discoveries and many actual cases detailed in our legal system.  So let’s go into that now.

My mother was raised in a religious family.  Her father was a prominent member of the Southern Baptist church in that small town.  She was raised to believe that an invisible, omnipotent guardian angel, Jesus, was watching over her every moment. Her entire childhood was filled with the images and stories of this supernatural guardian angel helping people, both in the bible and from personal stories (like this one), told to her by every person of authority in her life.

Then, when her subconscious mind was idle, and in her dreams, she must have re-played this scene a thousand times, and each time Jesus was more real, and more vivid until at last she totally forgot that it was the preacher who had suggested it to her at all.  It was her memory that confirmed it in every detail.  She would go on to relate it to everyone who asked her about it.  She was now a “witness” for Christ.  She (with a critically-timed suggestion from the preacher) had constructed a false memory that was even more real and vivid than the real memories of her childhood.

My mother’s story always used to give me such a strong emotional tug as a child.  But now I realize what it actually was.  It was society, embedding supernatural beliefs into a small mind; so strongly so that with a little prodding, it would become as real as any memory.  It actually did become a memory; and a miracle, to her.

In the Time Magazine article Remember that?  No you don’t.  Tara Thean says that “Even people with extraordinary memories sometime make things up without realizing it. “  She goes on to say:

“The phenomenon of false memories is common to everybody — the party you’re certain you attended in high school, say, when you were actually home with the flu, but so many people have told you about it over the years that it’s made its way into your own memory cache. False memories can sometimes be a mere curiosity, but other times they have awful real-world implications. Innocent people have gone to jail when well-intentioned eyewitnesses testify to events that actually unfolded an entirely different way.”

In her book “My Lie”, Meredith Maran writes about the McMartin preschool trial where she, and many other children, underwent similar false-memory constructions with much less benign results than my mother’s. In this trial many parents had to defend themselves against false memories that had been unintentionally implanted into many preschooler’s minds by well-meaning psychologists who were simply asking questions about the possibility of  sexual abuse at home.

On the dust jacket, her publisher writes:

“Meredith Maran lived a daughter’s nightmare: she accused her father of sexual abuse, then realized, nearly too late, that he was innocent.  During the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of Americans became convinced that they had repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, and then, decades later, recovered those memories in therapy.  Journalist, mother, and daughter Meredith Maran was one of them. Her accusation and estrangement from her father caused her sons to grow up without their only grandfather, divided her family into those who believed her and those who didn’t, and led her to isolate herself on “Planet Incest,” where “survivors” devoted their lives, and life savings, to recovering memories of events that had never occurred.“

To learn more about False Memories, please read the Scientific American article: “Creating False Memories” by Elizabeth F. Loftus.

So, the next time you hear someone swear to have experienced a miracle.  Ask yourself, which is more likely:  That the laws of the universe were broken or circumvented; or that this person misinterpreted an event, and then wishful-thinking and false-memories allowed them to create a story that they love to tell in support of their preexisting beliefs?