False Memory - By Richard Marraccini
Updated: Feb 26
5 May 2020
The human mind can be fragile and easily suggestible, and literature offers a unique experience for readers to analyze a text and place their own opinions and views into the context of the material. Literature also invites the reader to escape from stress or discomfort by allowing the reader to become encompassed by the story being told. The story “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison explores the theme of false memory and illustrates how details of a memory can change due to external influence. Morrison provides the reader a first-hand view of how false memories can affect an individual or how memories can be affected by life’s circumstances. Kristen E. Lyons et al. conducted research into how false memories are formed using children ages six to eighteen. Their research centered on showing the children cause and effect photos and testing the formation of cause memories when only effect photos were shown, as well as testing the formation of memories of viewing an event that were consistent with other photos shown but never actually seen (Lyons et al. 355). Nathalie Brackmann et al. conducted research, with a focus on witnesses of a crime, into the efficacy of immediate testing on the retention of information and the inoculation against the formation of false memories (785). The problem of false memory as illustrated in “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison through the literary elements of dynamic character and first person narrator, is still a problem because it can affect anyone and it can greatly influence an individual’s life and circumstances.
False memory has garnered much attention from professionals in the fields of psychology and criminal justice, as it is an issue that holds major implications in courtroom proceedings, and has the potential to damage the lives of the individuals affected by these proceedings.
In the opening statements of their research, Lyons et al. assert the claim, “Individuals frequently form false memories” (355). While everyone is susceptible to the formation of false memories, the implications of these memories can vary widely, as can the process of formation. The issue of false memory has become increasingly prevalent in the criminal justice system due to how one individual’s false memories can affect another individual’s circumstances. Brackmann et al. describe two different processes of the formation of false memory. The first is Fuzzy-Trace Theory: “FTT postulates that when witnessing an event, at least two memory traces are stored in parallel. One trace captures the underlying meaning and understanding of an event, the gist information, and the other trace stores item-specific details, the verbatim information” (786). In this theory, the human brain relies on the so-called “gist” information memory trace to fill in gaps that may be present in the “verbatim” memory trace (Brackmann et al.786). The second process of formation discussed by Brackmann et al. is Associative-Activation Theory: “AAT links the production of false memories to an automatic association of neighboring information in one’s knowledge base” (786). This research is important because these processes describe how easily an individual can falsely remember the details of a memory or create false details within that memory. In settings such as a courtroom, false memories presented by a witness have the potential to both ruin an innocent individual’s life and damage the lives of countless others.
Researchers are attempting to find ways to introduce false memories in an individual to change the way the individual may interact with their surroundings.
In a TED talk given by psychological scientist Elizabeth Loftus, Loftus describes research previously conducted: “Our first study planted a false memory that you got sick as a child eating certain foods: hard-boiled eggs, dill pickles, strawberry ice cream. And we found that once we planted this false memory, people didn't want to eat the foods as much at an outdoor picnic” (Loftus 00:14:12-00:14:30). In “Recitatif,” Morrison uses circumstances in Roberta’s life that interact with the details of her memory of what happened to Maggie in the orchard. Morrison uses these circumstances to successfully illustrate the malleability of the human memory. Researchers have now begun to move one step further, proving that the malleability of memory can influence the way individuals act and thus exemplifying just how powerful and influential false memories can be.
Toni Morrison uses the element of dynamic character with the character Roberta in the story “Recitatif” to illustrate the malleability of memory. One example can be found when Roberta says, “No, Twyla. They knocked [Maggie] down. Those girls pushed her down and tore her clothes. In the orchard” (Morrison 238). When the two characters meet next during a protest for the re-integration of black children into white schools, the character comments, “Maybe I am different now Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was down on the ground” (Morrison 241). When Roberta discusses Maggie’s clothes being torn in the orchard in the first example, she has just finished talking about her husband and children and is in a calm state of mind. Then, when speaking during the protest in front of the school, Roberta is agitated, and her emotions are seemingly driven by the racial tension present in the environment of the protest. These emotions and surroundings can be interpreted as influencing Roberta’s accusations of Twyla kicking Maggie while she was down and her statement that Maggie had been a black woman. As Roberta’s circumstances change and the environment around her changes, so too does the memory of what happened to Maggie that day in the orchard. The use of dynamic character with Roberta illustrates the suggestibility of human memory by using current circumstances in Roberta’s life that relate directly to the changing details surrounding the memory of Maggie falling in the orchard.
Toni Morrison also uses a first person narrator in “Recitatif” to illustrate the suggestibility of memory. When the narrator, Twyla, first describes Maggie, she states, “She was old and sandy-colored and worked in the kitchen” (Morrison 232). However, after Roberta tells Twyla that Maggie was a black lady, Twyla thinks to herself, “When I thought about it I actually couldn’t be certain. [Maggie] wasn’t pitch-black, I knew, or I would have remembered that” (Morrison 242). The use of first person narrator gives the reader an example of the suggestibility of memory when Twyla is told that Maggie was black and is accused of kicking her. Since the reader is not given any understanding of Roberta’s memory or point of view, the reader must rely on Twyla’s narration of the incident. It is only after Roberta says that Maggie was a black woman that Twyla is unable to recall in memory if this information is, in fact, true. In the story, Twyla first provides details of what happened to Maggie in the orchard in a clear and confident manner. When Twyla begins to doubt her memory of the incident in the orchard, the reader is given reason to question what happened to Maggie and who Maggie is as a person. By using Twyla as the first person narrator of the story, Morrison gives the reader only Twyla’s opinion of what happened to Maggie in the orchard, yet Roberta’s memory of the incident contains details which continually change due to her current circumstances. This gives the reader reason to cast doubt on Twyla’s own memory, thus illustrating how fragile and suggestible human memory can be.
Just as the details of Roberta’s memory change in “Recitatif,” as individuals grow older they are more likely to falsely remember viewing the cause of an event that they did not witness.
When discussing the role of an individual’s age in the formation of false memories, Lyons et al. note, “Backward causal-inference errors increased with age, while gap-filling errors were age-invariant” (360). Backward causal-inference errors refer to an individual falsely remembering viewing the cause of a viewed effect (Lyons et al. 355). In “Recitatif,” the event that does not change is that Maggie did indeed fall in the orchard, which is the effect of the situation. However, throughout the story Roberta’s details on how Maggie fell, the cause of the event, continue to change. This is a false memory which is consistent with an increase in age as in the story. It is made apparent throughout the story “Recitatif” that the details of what happened to Maggie play a large role in the emotional stability of the characters. Each time the event is discussed and details of the event change, each character is noticeably affected emotionally by the discussion of the events. For example, after Roberta tells Twyla that Maggie was intentionally pushed down in the orchard, Twyla thinks to herself, “Roberta had messed up my past somehow with that business about Maggie” (Morrison 239). In this instance, Twyla begins to feel that her past is somehow being altered by the new details present in Roberta’s memory of what happened to Maggie. When giving a TED talk, Loftus issues the statement, “We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories” (Loftus 00:16:34-00:16:40). As individuals grow older, the likelihood of false-memory formation increases and can lead to serious emotional implications, as illustrated in the story “Recitatif”.
The issue of false memory is one that carries a great power as false memories can have major negative implications in an individual’s life. Mark L. Howe and Lauren M. Knott conducted research into the effect of false-memories within the criminal justice system: “An eyewitness report published by the Innocence Project stated that over 230 people, serving an average of 12 years in prison have been exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in the USA alone. Of those wrongfully convicted over 75% involved eyewitness misidentification (179 people)” (650). In eyewitness testimony, the witness is required to recall specific details of a witnessed event and provide a description of the event in the courtroom. As illustrated in “Recitatif,” there is the potential for life’s circumstances to influence the details of a memory, thus calling into question the reliability of witness testimony. The cited statistics show that eyewitness misidentifications and false memories in witness testimony can lead to false conviction and the destruction of an innocent person’s life.
The potential implications of false memories, however, are not solely negative. The influence that false memories hold over an individual could potentially be used beneficially over time. Loftus posits, “If we planted a warm, fuzzy memory involving a healthy food like asparagus, we could get people to want to eat asparagus more” (Loftus 00:14:34-00:14:43). In this application, false memories can be used to benefit an individual and help them to become healthier. Researchers could build from the information presented by Loftus and expand the positive benefits of using false memories to influence change. No matter what side the subject is approached from, the negative or the positive, false memories hold a tremendous power over the individuals affected by them.
As information regarding the problem of false memory becomes more readily available, professionals can use that information to find better ways to decrease the impact of false memories in criminal justice cases and may even be able to utilize the phenomenon to benefit the field of psychology. As researchers continue to develop new ways of testing the formation of false memories, the ability to understand how to best avoid these memory errors increases. Lyons et al. discuss the need for continued improvement of research methods when they state, “To fully understand the multiple pathways to false-memory development, future research will need to increasingly employ new paradigms and measurement methods to account for the complexity of the phenomenon” (361). With increased awareness and information regarding the phenomenon, criminal justice professionals can develop better methods of decreasing the impact of false memories, thus decreasing the number of false convictions due to inaccurate testimony. In their paper, Howe and Knott discuss their desire for change: “Our hope is that the relationship between the scientific community and other professions continues to develop so that what becomes known about memory, might become better disseminated and influence policy changes, procedures, and practices in important forensic contexts” (653). In the same way, as demonstrated by Loftus, psychologists may be able to find ways to utilize the formation of false memories to benefit an individual. While the formation of false memories cannot be stopped, the impact of this phenomenon can become much more positive with increased awareness and continued research.
False memory is a problem that can affect anyone and can greatly influence an individual’s life, as demonstrated in “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison. Throughout the story, the characters Twyla and Roberta struggle to recall the details of a traumatic experience they shared when they were young. The details of this experience change with their surroundings as they progress through life, and Morrison uses multiple literary elements to give the reader first-hand knowledge of how these false memories can affected the characters as individuals. The story ends with the question, “What the hell happened to Maggie?” (Morrison 244). By ending the story in this way, Morrison draws attention to the need to understand human experiences and memories. Researchers must continue to develop new methods to test how false memories are formed and develop better ways to understand either how an individual can be protected against this issue, or how false memories can be used to benefit the individual.
Brackmann, Nathalie, et al. “The Impact of Testing on the Formation of Children’s and Adults’ False Memories.” Applied Cognitive Psychology, vol. 30, no. 5, Sept. 2016, pp. 785–794. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/acp.3254. Accessed 27 February 2020.
Howe, Mark L., and Lauren M. Knott. “The Fallibility of Memory in Judicial Processes: Lessons from the Past and Their Modern Consequences.” Memory, vol. 23, no. 5, July 2015, pp. 633–656. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09658211.2015.1010709. Accessed 09 April 2020.
Loftus, Elizabeth. “How Reliable is Your Memory?” TED, uploaded by TEDGlobal 2013, June 2013, www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_loftus_how_reliable_is_your_memory?language=en.
Lyons, Kristen E., et al. “Age Differences in the Contribution of Recollection and Familiarity to False-Memory Formation: A New Paradigm to Examine Developmental Reversals.” Developmental Science, vol. 13, no. 2, Mar. 2010, pp. 355–362. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00889.x. Accessed 27 February 2020.
Morrison, Toni. “Recitatif.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, 13th Shorter ed., W. W. Norton, 2019, pp. 230-244.