My episodic memory stinks. All my birthday parties are a blur of cake and presents. I’m notorious within my family for confusing the events of my own childhood with those of my siblings. I’m like the anti-Proust.
I believe in false memories. Thanks to Jonah and others, we know that memories change a bit every time we recall them. And we are pretty sure that multi-tasking impairs the brain’s episodic filing system. Perhaps Jonah is a multi-tasker.
Yesterday, Jonah Lehrer resigned from The New Yorker magazine after admitting that he invented quotes from Bob Dylan and subsequently lied about doing so. Like Jayson Blair, the disgraced New York Times reporter who wrote Jonah’s journalism epitaph, Jonah Lehrer took license from his fast fame.
The story in his mind was much richer than the story the facts supported. So he told the story in his mind, in his rich language. When necessary, his imagination conjured up Bob Dylan saying exactly what Jonah needed him to say. And it was just too damn good to erase.
Just three little quotes.
A gifted researcher and writer and thinker now leaves the occupation he’s helped redefine, and the world will be deprived of his brilliance. That sucks for us, but not nearly as much as it does for Jonah and his family. I can only imagine the pain his parents feel seeing their son twisting in the wind, the butt of jokes and the subject of irresponsible journalistic speculation about his other sins. (We humans are like chickens who peck the injured to death.)
In that Wired story on memory, Jonah may have prepared us for his future sins:
This idea, simple as it seems, requires us to completely re-imagine our assumptions about memory. It reveals memory as a ceaseless process, not a repository of inert information. The recall is altered in the absence of the original stimulus, becoming less about what we actually remember and more about what we’d like to remember. It’s the difference between a “Save” and the “Save As” function.
Close. But it seems that when a reporter calls and challenges those memories, demanding evidence, the original “Save” version of the document floats accusingly to the surface.
What sticks with me is the tragedy of the story. Pure tragedy, like Shakespeare served. The definition I memorized freshman year at St. Mary’s went something like this:
Tragedy is the serious treatment of a story in which a hero, because of a flaw, suffers a downfall, wherein there is catharsis.
It’s all here. King Lehrer has fallen. His pen silenced until, down the road, some fast-rising star of storytelling finds himself repeating this tragic sequence, and the world calls upon Jonah Lehrer to recite the epilogue.
- Bob Dylan Jonah Lehrer – New Yorker Writer Resigns Over Bob Dylan Quote Fabrication (contactmusic.com)
- Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book (mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Where Jonah Lehrer Went Astray (forbes.com)
- Jonah Lehrer admits to fake Bob Dylan quotes, resigns from New Yorker (cbsnews.com)