Brian Williams and the resistance of memory

February 5, 2015
Category: Uncategorized
The Persistence of Memory,

“The Persistence of Memory,” Salvador Dali’s most recognizable painting.

Brian Williams is my favorite news anchor. I like his work ethic, his story selection, his fairness, his attachment to community and his sense of humor. He has been 10 years on the job at NBC Nightly News, an anniversary marked by his network in an ad – if memory serves – that uses words like “trust.”

If memory serves.

How am I to characterize Brian Williams now?  Is he a liar, fibber, exaggerator, fabulist, or in his own characterization, simply a man who “misremembered?”

If you follow the timeline and the story in question, you can only say that Williams got it right for many years. In 2003 he flew with troops in an Army helicopter in Iraq. Another helicopter in front of his was shot from the ground and had to make a dangerous landing. When he told that story for years, it was always self-deprecating.  It was never about his courage, but always about the courage and sense of mission of American troops.

Along the way, something happened. The story changed. The “they” became “we.”  How can you “misremember” whether or not you were in a helicopter that was hit with a rocket propelled grenade?  How can you, Brian Williams, a beacon of trust, tell a version of that event that requires a retraction and apology?

I think I know how.

Salvador Dali’s most famous painting is called “The Persistence of Memory.”  It’s the one with the melting watches. The title feels ironic.  As time melts, our memories are anything but persistent. I would argue that they become resistant to the truth. If we are healthy in mind in spirit, our stories about ourselves get better. If we are depressed, they get much worse.

I can’t imagine flying in a helicopter in a war zone. I wouldn’t even want to fly in one over Key West on a balmy day. If you are in a war zone, the story of danger and survival becomes more compelling when there is greater risk and more at stake. In narrative terms, we call it raising the stakes, upping the ante.

It is a powerful human impulse. When my daughter Emily was a second grader, she wrote a story about the day her dad – me – dumped a pot of boiling spaghetti over her head.  I was lucky not to have been arrested by Child Protection Services. What really happened is that she was playing with her SpaghettiO’s at the table, and when she wouldn’t stop, I flicked some of mine at her, and it accelerated into a playful mini-food fight.

That would have made a good story. Better, she thought, more dramatic, if her father dumped the whole boiling pot on her head. Welcome to the world of memoir, Emily.

I have been tempted, over time, to tell people that when I was in high school I played a basketball game against Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the highest scorer in NBA history. That would be a lie, and I have never told it. Sometimes, to enhance my glory days, I say that I “almost” played against him.

Here’s what happened. I was a starting guard on a JV high school basketball team in a New York City suburb. The summer before my junior year, I broke my ankle in a baseball game. That injury kept me from playing well in varsity basketball tryouts, so I didn’t make the team. That year, the school team traveled to New England for a holiday tournament and played against Power Memorial, Lew Alcindor’s team.

In my dreams, I made that team, got to play a couple of minutes in that game, took a shot that was blocked by one of the greatest ever. What was it like to play against him, I asked my friend Sean Higgins. “He puts his pants on one leg at a time,” he said.

I think I said, “But his legs are a lot longer.”  I may not have said it, but I have incorporated it into my memory.

My mom, Shirley Clark, is 95-years-old.  She misremembers things – especially things that happened five minutes ago. Brian Williams hasn’t reached that stage yet. I have a hunch that over time, when other people told that helicopter story, those others put Brian in the more endangered chopper. Out of courtesy, he didn’t bother to correct them.

I confess that I do this all the time. I am being introduced as a speaker. The people are trying to be nice to me. I am their honored guest. They read from the bio that I wrote. They may say something like, “He has taught writing in every state in the union.” Not true – only 40. But I kind of like the sound of their praise.

It takes only one more step to add the exaggerations into my autobiography. It would take a memory expert to testify as to how we then incorporate exaggerations and fictions into our memories until they become truths not lies.

As a faithful viewer, I forgive Brian Williams and wish him well. But, until his 20th anniversary, I would suggest to NBC that they take those credibility house ads off the air.

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