One morning while at my desk at the World Bank, I received a call from a Nancy Beardsley. She greeted me warmly, asked how I was, said that she was in town for a few days, and would I like to get together for lunch. I had absolutely no idea at all who Nancy Beardsley was; but judging by her affection and spirit, I assumed that I knew her and had just forgotten her name. Once I saw her, it would all come flooding back.
For the next few days until the lunch, I kept looking through memory closets for clues as to who she was. Something in her voice, perhaps – a lilt or an accent. I was fairly sure that she was not a former girlfriend – I remembered those well; but she could have been someone I had met at Bruce Strasser’s in Madras. It was so easy to meet women at Bruce’s but with so much champagne, it was also easy to forget them.
Or was it in Bamako at the dinner party given by the Maltese Ambassador? There were always plenty of women there. His parties were elegant – Baccarat crystal, Limoges dishes, Christofle silver; oysters flown in from Brittany, Cornish game hen, Barolo and Burgundy wines – and everyone was expected to dress for dinner. Tuareg and Bambara musicians played, and the dinners went on until after midnight. I remember one young Swiss woman who sat near the Ambassador’s wife – unusually dark hair, perhaps an immigré from the Maghreb, and especially beautiful; but she was not at all a Nancy or a Beardsley.
I remembered my many United Nations missions, all of them on teams of 5-10 people. There were demographers, economists, public health specialists, education experts, and statisticians, and Nancy Beardsley could have been one of them. There was a Nancy on an evaluation mission to the Philippines, but she was irritable and prickly. There was a Nancy in Romania, but her last name was Pelloquin. A Pakistani friend of mine used to call her The Pelican because of her name and her great flappy jowls.
It was no use. I kept thinking of women I would love to see but who were not named Nancy; women who I hoped would never hear from again also named Nancy; but could not place the pleasing voice, chipper spirit, and friendly eagerness. I would just have to wait.
On the day of our lunch I took the elevator to the lobby of my building. I was deliberately a few minutes late to be sure that she would have arrived first. She would greet me and the mystery would be over. As I expected, Nancy Beardsley did greet me as I got out of the elevator and gave me a big hug. “It’s so good to see you”, she said. “It’s been such a long time.”
I did not recognize her. There was nothing about her that rang a bell – not her hair, long and blonde; nor her face – Midwestern, plain, but not unattractive; nor her suit – tailored but off-the-rack; and not her mannerisms, modest and conservative. For all intents and purposes, she was a total, complete stranger.
She obviously knew me, and asked me questions about the Bank, my travels, and my work; yet she gave away nothing about where and when we met. “So have you been to Africa recently?”, I asked.
“Africa?”, she replied. “No, why do you ask?”. Obviously I had not met her in Africa; nor in Asia. She chatted on about the Bank, wondered how I had survived the latest reorganization, talked about the foreign aid bill before Congress, and how pretty the Plains were at this time of year; but there was nothing to grab on to – no tell-tale name, city, or agency. I was now in it now, but it was still too early to throw in the towel. Who she was would come to me over sushi.
To make a long story short, I never did figure out who she was, nor did she ever suspect that I was drawing a blank. Once I realized that recognition was hopeless, I steered the conversation to Werner Herzog, summers in Tuscany, and the C&O Canal. We parted warmly, promising to meet again soon.
I am aware that I have a problem with recognition. It’s not that I can’t remember faces – I am actually quite good at recognizing people but I have no clue as to who they are. I am always dead certain that I know the frazzled commuter sitting across from me on the Metro, but not where he comes from or where I met him. At parties I am always the first to extend my hand and introduce myself even to people I know well. It’s just possible that memory of me has faded or disappeared just as that of Nancy Beardsley had for me.
There have been a number of scholarly articles recently on memory and how selective it is. It is now well known that eyewitness accounts are often wrong. That despite the absolute conviction of witnesses that they saw a white male, large ears, and goatee point a gun out the window of a Buick LeSabre and shoot Robert Leggings, they saw no such thing.
In a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks, Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence:
Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts.
In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free.
Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses in question, what they said they saw had almost no bearing whatsoever on reality.
Literature is filled with stories of faulty eyewitness memory. Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book is a recreation of an actual event:
The Ring and the Book tells the story of a murder trial in Rome in 1698, whereby an impoverished nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, is found guilty of the murders of his young wife Pompilia Comparini and her parents, having suspected his wife was having an affair with a young cleric, Giuseppe Caponsacchi…. The poem comprises twelve books, nine of which are dramatic monologues spoken by a different narrator involved in the case… usually giving a different account of the same events, and two books (the first and the last) spoken by the author.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell is the story of an event told by four different people, all with different recollections of what actually happened.
We all ‘fill in’ memories after the fact. We may have stored some essential facts or impressions of a long-ago event, and we tend to fill in the blanks based on recollections of family and friends. It may be that it wasn’t Uncle Fred who threw up on the Persian carpet, but Uncle Pasqual. We had the scene right, just not the actors.
All of us store only some memories. No matter how many billions of neurons and synapses in the brain, there is only so much storage capacity. Moreover we were not programmed to remember everything. Survival has always been a matter of prioritization, categorization, and selective recollection.
Every married man has heard his wife say at one time or another, “I can’t believe you don’t remember. You were there!”. Of course we were there, but the events so vividly remembered by our wives meant absolutely nothing to us. We may have heard Fannie Bray tell about her husband’s death, the obsequies, and the emotional tributes at his memorial; but Fannie, her husband Bert, the very routine funeral, and predictable elegies were insignificant, unimportant, and irrelevant. There was nothing to trigger mnemonic storage.
I will never forget the story of how Betty Freeman murdered her husband with an axe while he was sleeping; or how the Peters family, for decades a close, loving, and respectful family came apart at the seams after the elder Peters died because of money. It was a melodrama right out of Lillian Hellman and the early Eugene O’Neill. How could I forget?
Mark Herrmann, writing in the New York Times (12.13.13) describes his prosopagnosia, a medical condition characterized by a pathological inability to recognize faces. His is not a story of occasional lapses or poor recall, but of drawing complete blanks all the time. Herrmann does recognize his own face which some people with extreme forms of the disorder cannot, but everything else is a challenge.
But I’m hopeless at parties. My compassionate wife now often whispers the names of people into my ear as they approach, or announces, “Susan, you remember Mark.” (Susan! Of course! How could I have been so blind?) I’m lost during movies with large casts of characters. Sixty minutes into the film, I’ll be asking, “Is that the evil brother?” and my wife will gently tell me, “No, dear — that’s the next-door neighbor.” And “Game of Thrones” is completely impossible. Except for the dwarf and the dragon girl, all I see are medieval guys with facial hair.
Like everything else, facial recognition has a spectrum. There are those unique individuals who never forget a face and whose storeroom of memories of people, places, and things is staggering; to Mr. Herrmann who needs help figuring out who’s who.
My wife’s mother is in the former category. Not only does she remember what each of her daughters wore at important events – First Communion, Confirmation, Aunt Celia’s wedding – but at all events. Birthdays, rafting trips, cookouts on the Jersey Shore with Joey Franco’s second cousin, Mervin, are recalled in painful detail. “Honey”, she would say, addressing her middle daughter, “How could you not remember Uncle Mervin’s tie? It was a hand-painted image of a tuna fish!” She would bang on about the fabric she recovered the sofa with in 1962, the café the family stopped at in Iowa on the trip to Seattle where the waitress dropped the waffles, the shoes that Daddy wore with the holes in the bottom. She went on incessantly about things that only she remembered.
Vladimir Nabokov called himself a ‘memorist’. He knew from a very early age that memory was more important than the present or the future. The present, he said, was a matter of only a few seconds, and the future was only possible; but the past was real. It was the only thing that defines us, and without it we are nothing. He taught himself how to fix events in his memory and how to assure that they remained there. He developed exercises to call up memories and to roll them like old movies so that he would never forget them.
Most of us are too lazy to even attempt what Nabokov did. Even if we accept his philosophical premise, we are happy to let time roll on, let the past accumulate in dimly remembered bits and pieces, and then – when it is too late – realize that the future is short, and that our past is poorly recollected.
I am going to my 50th college class reunion next year, and my personal facial recognition program will be tested. I remember what many of my classmates looked like in 1964 and I am helped by my yearbook; but the real challenge will be to identify who they are now.
There is always something about a face which is memorable. I recognized an old classmate of mine after many decades because of his mouth which was unmistakable. Bill had large lips that turned down at the corners. On other faces it is the eyes which never change. People have a look in their eyes that is as identifiable as fingerprints.
As I went through the yearbook in anticipation of the coming Reunion, I paused at certain faces. I did not remember much if anything about them, but something caught my eye and touched my memory. Maybe a funny story, long forgotten. A girlfriend, a way of walking. Most classmates had come and gone through my four years at Yale with nary a trace; but these few had left some strands of themselves with me.
A few years ago I went to the reunion of my country day school. We had not seen each other since the age of 15. There were only ten of us in the graduating class and we knew each other well. When I first walked into the crowded reception hall, I saw my classmates first as they were 40 years ago, and then in a millisecond as the were in the present. Their faces aged instantaneously. The experience was unique and unforgettable.
The older I get, the more selective I get; so I assume that most people will pass under my radar, and I will remember very, very few. North of 70 one also has the privilege of simply saying, “Who are you?”, so the elaborate pas de deux I had with Nancy Beardsley will never happen again.