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Speak, Memory

sacks_1-022113.jpg
Private Collection/Peter Ertl/Albertina, Vienna
Heinrich Kühn: Hans with Bureau, 1905; from Heinrich Kühn: The Perfect Photograph, the catalog of a recent exhibition organized by the Albertina, Vienna. Now out of print, it was edited by Monika Faber and Astrid Mahler and published by Hatje Cantz.

In 1993, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories that had lain dormant for upward of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them—memories, especially, of my boyhood in London before World War II. Moved by these, I wrote two short memoirs, one about the grand science museums in South Kensington, which were so much more important than school to me when I was growing up; the other about Humphry Davy, an early-nineteenth-century chemist who had been a hero of mine in those far-off days, and whose vividly described experiments excited me and inspired me to emulation. I think a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated, rather than sated, by these brief writings, and late in 1997, I launched on a three-year project of writing a memoir of my boyhood, which I published in 2001 as Uncle Tungsten.1

I expected some deficiencies of memory—partly because the events I was writing about had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared their memories, or checked my facts, were now dead; and partly because, in writing about the first fifteen years of my life, I could not call on the letters and notebooks that I started to keep, assiduously, from the age of eighteen or so.

I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal, but assumed that the memories I did have—especially those that were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial—were essentially valid and reliable; and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.

A striking example of this, the first that came to my notice, arose in relation to the two bomb incidents that I described in Uncle Tungsten, both of which occurred in the winter of 1940–1941, when London was bombarded in the Blitz:

One night, a thousand-pound bomb fell into the garden next to ours, but fortunately it failed to explode. All of us, the entire street, it seemed, crept away that night (my family to a cousin’s flat)—many of us in our pajamas—walking as softly as we could (might vibration set the thing off?). The streets were pitch dark, for the blackout was in force, and we all carried electric torches dimmed with red crêpe paper. We had no idea if our houses would still be standing in the morning.
On another occasion, an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire—indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.

A few months after the book was published, I spoke of these bombing incidents to my brother Michael. Michael is five years my senior, and had been with me at Braefield, the boarding school to which we had been evacuated at the beginning of the war (and in which I was to spend four miserable years, beset by bullying schoolmates and a sadistic headmaster). My brother immediately confirmed the first bombing incident, saying, “I remember it exactly as you described it.” But regarding the second bombing, he said, “You never saw it. You weren’t there.”

I was staggered by Michael’s words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law, and had never doubted as real? “What do you mean?” I objected. “I can see the bomb in my mind’s eye now, Pa with his pump, and Marcus and David with their buckets of water. How could I see it so clearly if I wasn’t there?”

“You never saw it,” Michael repeated. “We were both away at Braefield at the time. But David [our older brother] wrote us a letter about it. A very vivid, dramatic letter. You were enthralled by it.” Clearly, I had not only been enthralled, but must have constructed the scene in my mind, from David’s words, and then appropriated it, and taken it for a memory of my own.

After Michael said this, I tried to compare the two memories—the primary one, on which the direct stamp of experience was not in doubt, with the constructed, or secondary, one. With the first incident, I could feel myself into the body of the little boy, shivering in his thin pajamas—it was December, and I was terrified—and because of my shortness compared to the big adults all around me, I had to crane my head upward to see their faces.

The second image, of the thermite bomb, was equally clear, it seemed to me—very vivid, detailed, and concrete. I tried to persuade myself that it had a different quality from the first, that it bore evidence of its appropriation from someone else’s experience, and its translation from verbal description into image. But although I now know, intellectually, that this memory was “false,” it still seems to me as real, as intensely my own, as before. Had it, I wondered, become as real, as personal, as strongly embedded in my psyche (and, presumably, my nervous system) as if it had been a genuine primary memory? Would psychoanalysis, or, for that matter, brain imaging, be able to tell the difference?

My “false” bomb experience was closely akin to the true one, and it could easily have been my own experience too. It was plausible that I might have been there; had it not been so, perhaps the description of it in my brother’s letter would not have affected me so. All of us “transfer” experiences to some extent, and at times we are not sure whether an experience was something we were told or read about, even dreamed about, or something that actually happened to us.

This is especially apt to happen with very early experiences, with one’s so-called “earliest memories.” I have a vivid memory from about the age of two of pulling the tail of our chow, Peter, while he was gnawing a bone under the hall table, of Peter leaping up and biting me in the cheek, and of my being carried, howling, into my father’s surgery in the house, where a couple of stitches were put in my cheek.

There is an objective reality here: I was bitten on the cheek by Peter when I was two, and still bear the scar of this. But do I actually remember it, or was I told about it, subsequently constructing a “memory” that became more and more firmly fixed in my mind by repetition? The memory seems intensely real to me, and the fear associated with it is certainly real, for I developed a fear of large animals after this incident—Peter was almost as large as I was at two—a fear that they would suddenly attack or bite me.

Daniel Schacter has written extensively on distortions of memory and the “source confusions” that go with them, and in his book Searching for Memory recounts a well-known story about Ronald Reagan:

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot’s heroic response: “Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.” The press soon realized that this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer. Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source.

Reagan was a vigorous sixty-nine-year-old at the time, was to be president for eight years, and only developed unmistakable dementia in the 1990s. But he had been given to acting and make-believe throughout his life, and he had displayed a vein of romantic fantasy and histrionism since he was young. Reagan was not simulating emotion when he recounted this story—his story, his reality, as he believed it to be—and had he taken a lie detector test (functional brain imaging had not yet been invented at the time), there would have been none of the telltale reactions that go with conscious falsehood.

It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.

Sometimes these forgettings extend to autoplagiarism, where I find myself reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if new, and this may be compounded, sometimes, by a genuine forgetfulness. Looking back through my old notebooks, I find that many of the thoughts sketched in them are forgotten for years, and then revived and reworked as new. I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.

Webster’s defines “plagiarize” as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source …to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.” There is a considerable overlap between this definition and that of “cryptomnesia.” The essential difference is that plagiarism, as commonly understood and reprobated, is conscious and intentional, whereas cryptomnesia is neither. Perhaps the term “cryptomnesia” needs to be better known, for though one may speak of “unconscious plagiarism,” the very word “plagiarism” is so morally charged, so suggestive of crime and deceit, that it retains a sting even if it is “unconscious.”

In 1970, George Harrison composed an enormously successful song, “My Sweet Lord,” which turned out to have great similarities to a song by Ronald Mack (“He’s So Fine”), recorded eight years earlier. When the matter went to trial, the judge found Harrison guilty of plagiarism, but showed psychological insight and sympathy in his summary of the case. He concluded:

Did Harrison deliberately use the music of “He’s So Fine”? I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless…this is, under the law, infringement of copyright, and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished.
  1. 1

    See Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Vintage, 2001). 

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