How Reliable are Memories of Things Past?
The genealogist know all about memory, especially from interviewing relatives. Sometimes the memory of an event is actually better than the event itself. That is because as time passes and we have the privilege of embellishing upon it in a happier way it becomes more elusive. That is one of the reasons that people do not have perfect recall. Can you remember the date of your grandmother’s death? Or Mother? Since birth, we are processing family information into our memory banks, yet recalling it seems to fade into oblivion. We are more accurate in our recall effort shortly after the event occurred. As time passes, we lose credibility. In the same respect, writing about the historical past is not “second-hand”, however, more like “gossip!” If we were not there (at the time), how can our version be wholly accurate? How do we know if Thomas Jefferson slept with slaves? Did we see it? Is there a substantial record which proves it? If we were not there, we cannot draw conclusions. The quest of the historian, then, is to take his date from facts. That is, old written documents. Another imposition has been taken with Christopher Columbus. The story is that he imposed himself upon island people. Yet, the only first-hand information comes from the explorer himself, who “kept a log” of his travels. This log, now translated, written in his own hand-writing, describes a deeply religious Catholic who believed that he was on a mission for God. And then today we have women claiming that a politician “improperly touched them “ 40 years ago! Since, the first complainer has broken down in tears, claiming that she does not remember the details of what happened. Thus, should we shuffle aside our interviews with relatives, or compare their memories with actual records?