Memoryless Memoirs

By Max Li | Published: June 13, 2016

I recently finished the book In Order to Live, which is a fantastic, engaging memoir from a North Korean refugee Yeonmi Park. A common criticism of the book is that the story she tells isn’t entirely consistent with what she has presented in interviews and other public presentations. Moreover, some say that since she was just a child/teenager, she wasn’t capable of remembering what happened to her.

It’s quite likely she doesn’t accurately remember every little detail of her harrowing journey. It’s actually quite likely she has some pretty big details wrong. Memory is inherently a reconstructive process; whenever we try to remember something we don’t simply produce some pristine copy from our minds, but rather we rebuild the memory using both cues from our brain but also external influences. For example, one psychological study, conducted by Loftus and Palmer, showed that being asked a leading question could change how you recall things. They showed participants videos of a car accident. They proceeded to ask “How fast were the cars going when they (smashed/bumped/contacted) each other?”. Depending on the word they used to describe the accident, participants would rate the speed of the cars quite differently even though they watched the same video. So it’s quite likely that in being interviewed about her experiences, Yeonmi’s memory of details would have altered.

But you might say: “These were horrific life-changing experiences she had to endure. I remember exactly what I was doing when 9/11 happened. So she should remember clearly too!” The truth is that you likely don’t remember what you were doing clearly. Memories that occur in such situations are called flashbulb memories, which feel extremely vivid and thus you think are extremely accurate representations. However, the psychologists Talarico and Rubin surveyed people immediately after 9/11 happened, and periodically after the initial survey. They found that people weren’t able to accurately recall what happened any more than a normal memory. Not only did their memories of 9/11 deteriorate at the same rate as any other memory, errors made in the recollection of their experience persisted the next time they were asked about it. This is another example of reconstructive memory leading us astray.

So where does that leave us? The absolute largest details in any memoir are likely to be correct, but it’s quite likely the details aren’t quite up to snuff. But knowing this, you can read autobiographies and memoirs with a healthy sense of skepticism and try to piece together the truth yourself.