In his recent essay, “The Examined Lie: A Meditation on Memory,” which appears in The American Scholar, James McWilliams, Ingram Professor of History at Texas State University, examines the “misremembering” of former NBC news anchor Brian Williams. You may recall that Williams landed in hot water when a number of anecdotes that he related on NBC’s Nightly News proved false. What undid him (and eventually led to the uncovering of a number of other untruths) was his story about how the Chinook helicopter that he was riding in was forced down in Iraq in 2003 after being hit by an RPG. For an interesting take on the way he changed this story, take a look at this New York Times article:
Williams subsequently apologized on the Nightly News:
He also submitted himself to an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today in which he admitted that he had employed “a sloppy choice of words”:
Whether or not we accept Williams’s mea cupla, for McWilliams, the episode raises important issues regarding memory and history.
In a nutshell, McWilliams highlights the “messiness of recollection.” Memory is far more fragile and malleable than colloquialisms like “etched into my brain” suggest, and researchers have found that recollections of combat are particularly prone to inconsistencies and exaggerations. For more information on what science has to say about the messiness of memory, check out the following podcast from Radiolab:
Stories about combat and more mundane events, such as road trips, family reunions, or senior week, change with each telling; storytellers unconsciously embellish their tales for their listeners. We accept such embellishments or “lies” when family and friends tell stories, because nitpicking a good yarn is rude and “good stories” bring people together. McWilliams consequently hesitates to condemn Williams’s fabrication of his helicopter being forced down by enemy fire in Iraq, “given what we now know about the instability of memory, as well as the crucible of war, there’s ample space … [for] a more charitable assessment of Williams’s misremembering episode.” Rather, he uses the Williams incident to meditate on the fragility of collective memory or history.
Collective memory is just as prone to inconsistencies as individual memory. McWilliams writes, “the histories we collectively create and identify with are often similarly abstracted from the truth, driven by motives that may lurk in an unconscious netherland, serving larger, and sometimes darker, motivations.” Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and 9/11 are part of our collective memory. The commemoration of these and other events are the glue holding the United States together. They help define what it means to be an American. However, the stories etched into our collective memory often misconstrue what actually happened. For instance, John Trumbull’s iconic painting, Declaration of Independence, depicts a scene that never happened. For more on that particular story, check out the following opinion piece from the Boston Globe:
Given such inaccuracies, it isn’t surprising that collective memories are unstable, often contested, and regularly misused. Debates over public monuments, most recently discussions of Confederate monuments in the South, for instance, arise over whose collective memories are being commemorated and what is being remembered as the following article from the Boston Globe indicates:
We may want the objective truth about an event (who, what, where, when, and why), but there is no single historical truth. We continually modify and add new information to our collective memories, and with each addition, the stories we tell hopefully become more nuanced and inclusive. With luck, McWilliams suggests, more inclusive stories and more precise reconstructions of familiar stories will help us to relate with one another better and therefore serve a “higher purpose than mere truth.”
So, instead of being aghast at Williams’s misremembering or horrified that we didn’t learn about _____ (reader can fill in the blank) in our high school history course, we might want to consider why people tell the stories that they tell.
History is more than just the recounting of events (what happened); it is also what people thought happened in their own time and in former times. The stories we tell help us to make sense of our world and our place in it. Unfortunately, like all memories, collective memory can be messy. While this is disconcerting for many people, this messiness provides the grist for the historian’s mill. And, if the Brian Williams story helps us to meditate on the nature of memory and history, we might find more to take away from the story than a simple exposé of a “liar.”