Chinese Whispers

I love watching family videos. I can sit for hours sifting through videos of my children and never tire of watching them. I didn’t own my first camcorder until the twins were 6 years old. They were born in 1999, so smartphones weren’t yet a thing. My one lament (okay, it’s not my one lament, but it is my biggest) is that I have no videos of the twins before they were 6 but have hours of footage of Baby C’s entire life.

When I was a child, our family was lucky enough to have a camcorder. My dad filmed our soccer games, Christmas mornings, and family reunions. I’ve been feeling nostalgic since mom passed and decided to raid my dad’s old video cassettes and copy them to my computer. Not only so that I could watch them, but to preserve them. VHS is a dead medium. You can’t find VCRs anywhere anymore.

Left: Camcorder from the 80’s. Right: camcorder of today.

It was a good thing I did, too. Two of the cassettes came undone after I rewound them. With the magic of scotch tape, I was able to get them working well enough to copy to my desktop.

Watching these videos was awesome. I relived some fantastic childhood memories. I saw some wonderful folks who have since gone to heaven. I heard their voices once more. Saw their mannerisms. I got a small glimpse into my youth and what I was like as a child. I used to be cute…

One of my favorite childhood stories to tell is how my youngest brother tried to show me and my brother Revis up when we both were having difficulty flying one of those cheap styrofoam airplanes. In fact, I even posted the story to my old blog:

I was excited. I couldn’t wait to get it put together and play with it. I raced outside and removed it piece by piece from its packaging, and carefully assembled it. When I had finally completed it, I stood proudly holding my newly constructed styrofoam airplane high.   I headed out to the yard in between our house and the neighbor’s house, where there was ample room to fly the plane, and the ground was relatively flat.

I ensured my father had the video cassette recorder rolling before I attempted my first flight. I reared back and let her go. The plane flew! Straight into the ground. Undaunted, I picked up my plane and made another attempt, only for it to nose dive straight into the ground once it left my hand.

My younger brother, in an adolescent display of machismo, stepped over to me. "Here. Let me try."

I mentally shrugged, and I handed him the plane. I just wanted to see it fly. He cocked his arm back and let it rip. And the plane flew! Straight into the ground. He tried one more time but produced the same failure. Enter my youngest brother. "Let me try," he said pompously. He picked up the plane from the ground, took a couple of steps back, and let her fly. And the plane flew! It flew in a loop! And then hit him in the back of the head. All recorded on our trusty camcorder. I love modern technology.

As I was copying our old VHS tapes to my computer, I found the footage about which I wrote and was shocked at just how different my “memory” of that incident is.

First of all, I was not even there when this happened. It was just my two younger brothers. Just to reiterate, I was not present for an occurrence my mind tells me I was. I’m not sure what devilish sorcery this is, but I’m not amused.

Secondly, there was no contest. My brothers were just taking turns, trying to get it to fly. You know, like good, well-behaved children. I don’t recall any of us ever being so well-behaved.

Lastly, my youngest brother did not strike himself in the head with the plane. It was Revis who threw the plane. My youngest brother was actually standing a bit behind and to the side of him. The plane just looped back as soon as it left Revis’ hand.

The only thing in my “memory” that actually happened was my dad filming my youngest brother getting smacked in the back of the head with a styrofoam plane. It is still a hilarious childhood memory, even with the knowledge that my mind somehow butchered almost every detail of it.

We all played Chinese Whispers when we were in school. It was used to make a point. We’d gather in a circle, or maybe even form a line. One person would then whisper a sentence into the ear of the next. Then that person would do the same. And so on and so forth. Then, by the time the sentence was whispered into the last person’s ear, it was a completely different sentence.

Experts theorize our memories work in much the same way. I had never had an opinion on this one way or another until discovering how drastically my mind altered one insignificant memory. I’m suddenly suspect of my mind.

Obviously, my mind altered that memory, and I don’t have the slightest idea how or why that happened. How did I unconsciously decide to rewrite reality? At what point did my conscience decide I had been there despite my absence? It’s evident that I only knew of this occurrence because I watched the tape. 

The article I linked above theorizes, “Take storytelling for example. When we describe our memories to other people, we use artistic license to tell the story differently depending on who’s listening.” There’s a huge distinction between artistic license and complete fabrication. I’ve told that story the same way for as long as I can remember. I was completely shocked to find out I wasn’t even present for something I remembered.

In my search for nostalgia, I found something completely unexpected: my brain is a liar. I’m left to wonder if my other childhood memories actually happened as I remember them or if my brain has been telling stories.

What say you, dearest reader? Have you ever discovered that you remembered an event incorrectly? How did that strike you?