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When Memory Divides

By Daniel Hubbard | April 19, 2010

Have you ever been happily reading along, learning about a family you’re researching and then you start to get a queasy feeling. A few pages back you read something that you really think might lead you to a breakthrough. Now, after reading just a bit more, inside your head a little voice starts to object. “Didn’t the author write something totally opposed to what I’m reading now?” “Didn’t I read something else a few pages ago?” “What exactly is it that is supposed to be true?” “If I think about this earlier statement and that other earlier statement don’t they together imply that what I am reading now is wrong?”

Besides the main point of an article or book, one of the most interesting things to look at in a written genealogy is its internal consistency. That is, whether or not one part of the book or article agrees or disagrees with another part. It can be one way to gauge how trustworthy what you are reading actually is.

Criteria for deciding the trustworthiness of a written source might be a later post. This time though, I’d like to write about why the way we remember leads to one special kind of inconsistency. Usually, internal inconsistencies are a bad sign. You don’t want them to be in the writings that you really hope will teach you something. Yet in one case, it turns out they are not so bad; they are an opportunity to learn more. That one case can occur in books and articles that represent memories of experiences, works like autobiographies and oral histories.

Many times I’ve read someone’s recollections and wondered how they can write that life was one way on page 7 and then write something totally opposed to that on page 57. It’s frustrating to read works like that because it can be difficult to figure out what, if anything, can be believed. Perhaps the whole work unreliable. Now, I’ve realized something and another way to look at those inconsistencies has crystallized for me. People remember general things very differently from how they remember specific occurrences. The trick for a reader is to notice which type of memory it is and be conscious of it. Oh, how I wish I could go back and read quite a few things with that firmly in mind, books that seemed to live on the boarder between useful and useless. On occasion I might have made sense of these general-versus-specific inconsistencies without really realizing what is happening. You probably have as well. Really understanding what is happening means being able to spot these inconsistencies and learn something extra from them.

It turns out that in the long term we don’t just remember what happens to us personally but also the way things were supposed to be and the way things were supposed to have been.  That is, beyond what we experience for ourselves, we also remember the way our culture and society tell us that things are. Later, looking back at that same time, we are told about how things were. Often we remember our experiences and the opinions of the world at large in disconnected ways. We don’t see the disagreements because we don’t remember the one together with the other. We don’t compare them, the memories don’t even seem to belong to the same categories.

Some people may see some of these contradictions in their own memories but often the disconnect survives. An interviewee may say that when he was a child, people were not at all violent. Later the same interviewee might tell about all the fights at school, about how he was thrashed regularly on the way home and how he had the tar beaten from him by his father over and over again.

What do inconsistencies like that have to say? They don’t say that an author or interviewee is unreliable. They say that sometimes he was remembering how people of the day thought of themselves, the combined self image of a culture, even something of their ideals and values. At other times what is remembered is personal experience that might or might not support those broader views. Instead of being inconsistent, it gives us a window into how people thought of themselves or at least how they were later told that they were and at the same time we get the little details of one life embedded in that world.

Perhaps the key when reading an oral history or autobiography is to think of everything that is written as information waiting to be interpreted. Instead of wondering how Aunt Minnie could have said things that just don’t make sense, wonder why it might be that she would say it that way and why she seemed to say something so different later. Maybe instead of canceling each other out, those statements might both be meaningful, each one trying to tell you something different.

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