Two of my latest posts, culled from the back files of the International UFO Reporter (IUR), have been about memory.
In 1975, two college students saw a UFO that looked like a distant starlike object coming in for a landing. (It turned out to have been an airplane light.) One witness kept his memory of what he’d seen more or less intact. But in his companion that same memory was transformed with stunning rapidity—and without apparent deception on her part—into a domed disk piloted by two shadowy humanoids.
This craft, she was certain, had come within 30 feet of her and her (boy?)friend, badly frightening her in the process.
How could this young lady’s recollection have mutated so drastically after a lapse of only 2-10 days? Why did the mutation affect her memory and not the boy’s, given that he was with her and saw exactly the same things she did?
Then (my second post) how are we to understand the conflicting memories of what a Boston shopkeeper supposedly told a neighborhood audience in 1941 about her soldier son’s involvement with a UFO crash? A woman who was 10 at the time of the incident was later to recall, vividly and with absolute certainty, the older lady’s frustration and despair as she tried to describe her son’s experience and got from her listeners looks of the have-you-gone-nuts variety.
The shopkeeper herself, still alive 50 years later, couldn’t remember having said or done anything of the kind. But she also couldn’t shake the nagging sense that the incident might have happened as the younger woman described it.
Pondering these questions, I found myself thinking of an experience of my own with memory, its superficial falsities and deeper truths. “Anecdotal evidence,” of course. But even anecdotes can be instructive.
The experience happened sometime in the years 2001-05. I know this because it was after I retired from the University of North Carolina (at the end of 2000), and it took place in a gym where I worked out regularly until near the end of 2005. I was tormenting my muscles on one piece of weight machinery or other, when a woman of about 40 approached me and told me she knew me.
I didn’t recognize her, but I saw no reason to doubt her. She introduced herself as “Sandy” (not her real name), and went on to say that I’d been a professor in the Religious Studies Department—perfectly true—and that she had met me several years earlier when she was considering applying to our graduate program. It was because of me, she said, that she’d decided against it.
“You said I had to read Mircea Eliade!”
Mircea Eliade was a very distinguished scholar of religion who taught for many years at the University of Chicago before his death in 1986. I don’t know which of his many books Sandy tried to read after her conversation with me, but whichever it was she hated it. She decided that if this was the kind of stuff she’d have to wade through in a graduate program in Religious Studies, she might as well forget about it.
What Sandy didn’t know was that Eliade has long been a controversial figure in the academy. His many admirers regard him as a creative genius of marvelous erudition. Others are less enthusiastic. I myself have never been able to stand him. It’s not just his flirtations with fascism and anti-Semitism in his native Romania during World War II, although I must admit that hasn’t endeared him to me. His writings on religion strike me as heavy on pompous pronouncement, weak on clear analysis. He’s committed what for me is the cardinal sin of fakery, pretending to know things he doesn’t.
I would never recommend that a student read Mircea Eliade, much less insist on it. I told Sandy that.
She (laughing): “Oh, but you did!”
“I couldn’t have!”
“But you did!”
What can you say to that? I felt myself sliding into the worst stereotype of the absent-minded professor: the one who makes silly demands on his students and then can’t even be bothered to remember them. It’s not an image I much enjoy. I told Sandy it was nice seeing her again, thanked her for introducing herself, and went back to my weights.
But I couldn’t get what she’d said out of my mind. After about twenty minutes I went up to her.
“Look,” I said, “it makes sense that you and I should have spoken when you were considering applying to the program. I was Director of Graduate Studies back then; any prospective student would have been sent to me. It doesn’t make sense I should have told you to read Eliade. So I’m wondering: was there anyone besides me you spoke with when you came to campus?”
Sandy stood thinking. She wasn’t sure … she didn’t quite remember … but yes … maybe, maybe …
Gradually a memory surfaced: of me walking her down the corridor to someone else’s office … introducing her. And she wasn’t sure, but she thought the person I introduced her to might have been a woman.
All of which made sense. That was what I used to do with prospective grad students. First we’d talk in my office about their interests and what the program could offer them. Then I’d lead them to the office of whichever of my colleagues they were likely to work most closely with, make an introduction, and leave them to talk.
And there was a woman in our department—I’ll call her “Professor R.”—who’d studied at Chicago with Mircea Eliade and deeply admired him. This woman was a good friend for whom I’ve always had the highest respect. But there were a few points we couldn’t see eye to eye on, and Eliade was one of them.
I told Sandy the professor’s name, and Sandy nodded. I told her the professor’s area of expertise, and Sandy said, “Yes! Yes!” That was precisely what she’d wanted to study in grad school.
There was no doubt: the person I’d introduced her to had been Professor R. It was Professor R.’s idea that Sandy needed to read Eliade before she made application to the program. It could never have been mine.
And now Sandy remembered it all, and everything was clear. She remembered Professor R., remembered their conversation as distinct from hers with me. I was left to reflect on the manifold fallibilities of the human memory, which had let the two blur into one another.
More recently, though, it’s occurred to me to wonder: was Sandy’s memory really deceiving her? Or, by conflating me with Professor R., was it doing its job with maximum economy and effectiveness?
The splits and disagreements among university faculty, so obvious—sometimes brutally so—when you’re inside a department, are mostly invisible from the outside. Doubly so, when you’re a prospective grad student being interviewed by forbidding graybeards (or the female equivalent thereof), anxious to make a good impression on them all.
Sandy didn’t have the slightest reason to imagine that Professor R. and I would disagree about Mircea Eliade. When Professor R. told her to read Eliade, Sandy must have assumed that this was official department policy, and in a way she was right. If Sandy had gone ahead and applied to the program, and in the discussion of her application Professor R. had said, “We can’t accept her because she hasn’t read Eliade,” I would have supported Professor R. regardless of my personal feelings about Eliade. After all, she was the one who’d have to work with Sandy, not me.
(In fact it’s wildly unlikely any applicant would have been turned down over a triviality like this. But Sandy had no way of knowing that.)
As far as Sandy was concerned, she’d come to the UNC campus and met two professors who spoke with one voice, who would have joined ranks against her if she’d gone against either of us. That there were two of us was a minor detail that could safely be let slip.
I was the one with the impressive-sounding title “Director of Graduate Studies.” Sandy must have taken this to mean that I was the senior figure, the one with the more clout, with Professor R. under my authority. (Wrong again; but how could she have known that?) So Sandy’s memory, wisely selecting those details she’d need to write a successful application, edited Professor R. out.
I was left standing solo. Professor R.’s words were imagined coming out of my mouth.
Historically Sandy’s memory was wrong, as the two of us discovered when we met in the equalizing atmosphere of the weight room. But for practical purposes it was right, worthy of her reliance. The conclusion to which it led her—that if she didn’t enjoy reading Eliade she wouldn’t have much fun in our department—was at least reasonable, and very probably correct.
George Orwell says of one of his characters (in Burmese Days) that “he had a way of being essentially right even when he was wrong in detail.” What this anecdote teaches me is that the same can often be true of our memories.
So is it possible—going back to second of the International UFO Reporter stories with which I began—that the 10-year-old’s memory might have been right in the essentials even though wrong in detail? That in 1941, in the familiar setting of a neighborhood variety store, the little girl came face to face with an older woman’s struggle with some undefined and mysterious alienness?
Just what that “alienness” might have been, I can’t say. Something to do with the woman’s recently drafted son, I imagine, in the shadow of the unspeakable war everyone knew was coming.
The girl had no way to understand what she’d seen, no tools by which she might assimilate it to anything familiar. Yet intuitively she knew it was important. For the next half-century she carried the memory with her, recasting it as a UFO crash—literally false but symbolically true, conveying the essence of the unexpressed and perhaps inexpressible.
And she was right. Which was why the older woman, though unable to remember the story, couldn’t bring herself to dismiss it. She recognized the truth it concealed.
When we ponder “false memories” of abductions and other UFO experiences, we need to do the same.
WISHING ALL OF MY READERS A HAPPY NEW YEAR AND A WONDERFUL 2016 – A YEAR OF JOY, PEACE, AND DREAMS COME TRUE!!!
by David Halperin
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