News & Politics

Don't Believe All Women

Please, for the love of everything you hold dear, I must ask you not to believe all women. In the age of #metoo, it is important to remember that human memory is fallible.

Your memory, in fact, lies to you.

I don’t remember if I wrote about memory during the Kavanaugh flap. Yes, you do see what I did there. But it is important because some of my female acquaintances are still going around screaming, “Believe all women” and citing the emotion or affect of someone telling a story as proof it happened, when it is at best proof the person believes it happened.

I’m not old enough to have real memory problems, at least not permanent ones, though, yes, when I write a daily blog and posts for here, sometimes what I covered – particularly what I covered at each place – gets confused.

I was, however, very ill from about five years ago to (with some improvement) early this year. The conditions are being treated and recovery proceeds apace. However, one of the side effects of two of the conditions is a memory issue. As in, when looking back at that time, there are things that get confused, conflated, and I suspect at least one vivid dream that became a memory.

Now, most of the things I remember are still absolutely true, but if, on top of the illnesses, you added stress and a time of different illness, things get fuzzy.

Most of the errors are my not remembering things that have happened. And it’s truly disturbing. You find evidence that you did something, like wrote a novel (no, you can’t see it. As though to clinch it, it’s something I’d never write while myself), or met someone, but you not only have no memory of having done so, but even being confronted with evidence doesn’t change that. You have to accept it happened and you did this thing, but you really have no memory. In your personal movie, those frames have been cut.

Worse, of course, is to vividly remember something that you know didn’t happen. I only know of one of those, and in the circumstances, I think I know the two things I conflated and why I did it. Those circumstances are rare, and it’s probably the only thing I remember that didn’t happen. At least no one has brought another to my attention.

Yes, someone claimed I remembered something that hadn’t happened, but since I still had documentary evidence it had, I’ll go on believing my lying eyes, okay?

Which brings us to the point: we think memory is set in stone, but it’s not. Not only is memory a slippery thing, it’s more slippery than you can possibly imagine.

I know how difficult it is to accept this because so much of our memories are tied to the sense of who we are. You know, “I’m this person, I’ve done this, I’ve lived through this.”

Yet, time after time we have evidence that those things just ain’t so.

Remember the satanic daycare panic of the ’80s? After interviews, those kids believed those things. They really believed them, as though they’d lived through them. And psychiatrists and psychologists also, inadvertently, convinced a lot of middle-aged women with problems that they’d been sexually abused by their parents or another close adult. Some of the things they were convinced had happened were at best improbable and most of the time outright impossible, but they believed them. Yes, this was probably born of “if I were that messed up, something must have happened” and sexual abuse was fashionable then.

It reaches beyond that though. Memories are amazingly plastic and easy to fabricate.

Consider that if someone makes you tell an elaborate, made-up story you will two weeks later think it’s yours. I wonder if a competent novelist does his competent best, you will remember parts of the book you read as though it had happened to you. Usually, this is filtered for things that could have happened to you and/or are similar to your experiences. But I’m sure it does slip in. (And then I wonder how much of the current male-hatred and the certainty that all men are predators comes from the fiction of the nineties, which for a while fell into a sickly “abused woman” mode.)

The one thing we do know is that memory is far, far more plastic than we think and that most of the time what we think we remember is actually a memory of remembering. (Yes, I do feel I’m in a Philip K. Dick story, thank you so much.)

Something even stranger is that people – even groups of people – can completely forget someone or something, without having more or less continuous exposure to it. For instance, the last time I went to Portugal (about 30 years after moving away) I found I’d been largely erased from memories over there.

Mind you, these aren’t family or people who were particularly close. They were people who knew me over the years as my mother’s daughter, someone who lived in such and such house, and whom they saw walk by, and whom they might say hello to if they passed me on the street. Neighbors, people I bought from, etc. These people now remember my mother as having – only – one son. There are reasons for this, as there usually are in this kind of situation. My aunt, who lived next door to us, had only one son, and it’s easy to transpose the pattern to the (related, same last name) house next door. For people who don’t have much occasion to remember I exist, I could see one memory overlaying the other until they simply don’t remember I exist.

In fact, the more you call a memory to mind – in this case, for instance, going by the house or seeing mom – the more it becomes contaminated with the times in which you’re remembering it.

Which in turn leads them to have absolutely no idea who I am when I visit, and to act shocked when mom says I’m her daughter.

It was still unsettling, as it led to my feeling as though I’d disappeared. Yes, memory really is that plastic. Yes, without any kind of attempt to influence it consciously.

In fact, I’m sort of glad we live in a time where our lives leave lots of traces and I can verify at all times that almost everything I remember is true.

The reason for keeping this plastic quality of memory in mind is important because no, we can’t trust all women, or for that matter all children, or all men. If you’re human – we don’t know much about other species’ memories, for sure – your memory is fallible.

This thing you might be absolutely sure happened might have happened only in your mind, or might have happened to someone else, but you heard it with such intensity that you remember it happening to you if enough time has passed – say a few years.

We actually cannot tell by any means whether a memory is true or a confabulation.

You can’t say, “I believe her. She acts as though she really suffered.” Or, “I believe him because he’s really angry.”

That’s meaningless. Even eliminating great actors and people with an agenda (which almost surely was the case in Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation) people might be convinced of things that never happened.

This is why we don’t arrest anyone, indict anyone, or try to destroy anyone’s reputation because of one accusation, or two, or even ten. It is important to remember that in the time of #metoo.

Memories are plastic, and even if the accusers couldn’t possibly have heard about each other, there’s a possibility that many accusers mean it’s true (particularly if the accusations are substantially similar). It’s still slippery. You don’t know if they might not all have listened to someone else describe an incident involving this person or someone who looked like him/was in the same position.

Also, honestly, at this time, it’s almost impossible not to hear about accusations, as the slightest pointing of fingers of someone even vaguely prominent brings on the hounds of the press to pile on and convict on hearsay.

This is why our code of justice demands proof. This is why any accusation not corroborated by external evidence, particularly those that are on the face of it impossible, or keep changing places because the first couldn’t be true, or are particularly fuzzy about when and where they happened, should not be believed.

We’re not asking you to disbelieve it, as such. Sexual assault, in particular, being a private crime, usually conducted by one person against one person and with no or few witnesses, is a difficult thing to prove and almost the last thing we want to do is ignore true victims and let a predator go free.

Almost the last thing, because the last thing we want to do is convict an innocent man (or woman). Even if the accuser thinks he or she is being absolutely truthful, if there are no solid facts, no evidence surrounding the accusation, particularly if the pattern of the behavior of the accused does not support the accusation, we cannot and should not convict, either in law or in public opinion.

Please, I beg of you, don’t believe any unsupported accusation from any woman, or really any human. Don’t start talking about women being suppressed and oppressed because their veracity isn’t immediately unquestionable.

No one’s veracity is unquestionable.

Even without the intent to deceive, we’re all fallible and undeniably confused on something or other.

When your own memory lies to you, why would you trust someone else’s?