Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The nature of memory

I have just attended two days of sessions about Oral History.  At one point there was an open discussion/Q&A session and the discussion revolved around what do you do when you know what you have been told is incorrect.  What this really comes down to is the nature of memory.  Many of us will have heard a story from our very early childhood so often that we become unsure about whether we really remember the occasion, or whether we have “invented” the memory based on the story we heard over and over again.

An example was given of a rural community who all would have sworn blind that a certain family owned a property, because they had lived there for a couple of generations, whereas the Land Records categorically showed that it was owned by someone else.  The residents had been renting it all along.  But when we find two bits of conflicting evidence when studying history, we usually decide that the balance of probability is with the more commonly written/expressed point of view if we cannot find definitive official evidence.  The land ownership versus occupancy is a particularly relevant example, as land transactions are often used to identify people or branches of certain families in the times before parish registers. 

Even believing the official documents might not give us the true or full story.  My great-grandmother, Merab Brockbank (nee Annesley), lost a son aged 4.  His death certificate says that he died of pneumonia, but according to one of her daughters she always said that was wrong.  She claimed he “got a strain” helping a next door neighbour get out of some barbed wire he was caught in.  He came inside crying and from that time on was in pain and she believed he had strained something.  Within less than a week he died in bed in his mother’s arms. 

To us the concept of dying of a strain seems ridiculous, and the reality is that we’ll never really know what happened in this case, but I have a theory.  Both his parents died of heart conditions, and his father had to retire from work early because of a bad heart (the family used to say he had strained it from too much hard physical work – bit of a theme here from this family).  What if the young boy had a congenital heart problem, and what if he really did injure himself and the pain was as a result of that injury.  In 1911 would a country doctor think that a four year old could have heart problems?  Then once he was already injured, he might have been more susceptible to infection, leading to the pneumonia that was the ultimate cause of his death.

Or maybe the story that came down to me was the result of ‘chinese whispers’ and had changed since the original event.

We’ll never really know the truth, but it does illustrate that stories from family members can indicate that an official document may not contain the whole truth, and that commonly held beliefs may not be true

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