The theme for this evening is lies*. And while many of us up here might have stories about people who have lied to us or perhaps the lies we tell ourselves — like vegans saying they’re happy or Trump supporters saying they aren’t racist — I’d like to focus on why my brain is a big fat liar. That is, the lies we carry in our brains without knowing they are lies, especially in terms of memory.
Back in 1978 when I was four years old. I was living in New York in a small blue house with my parents and my older brother Craig, who was six years old at the time. We had a pet rabbit, and despite my brother and I insisting that we were responsible enough to take care of it, the burden of making sure this rabbit lived fell on my father. This was especially unfortunate since he hated the rabbit.
One summer day, while my mother was out shopping, my father told us that he had to take the rabbit outside to clean the cage. He was very clear that my brother and I were supposed to stay in the house. Luckily for us there was a giant window in the kitchen that looked out the back of the house to the garage. We watched as my father carried the rabbit outside in his cage and set it down next to the garage.
What we saw was this: My father opened the cage, removed the rabbit, and put him down on the grass next to the cage. He stood over the rabbit and while intently gesticulating appeared to be telling the rabbit something. My father then turned around and walked into the garage out of sight.
The rabbit being a rabbit knew an opportunity when he saw one, and immediately started hopping away. We watched in horror as our favorite rabbit ran off farther and farther away before disappearing into the woods behind our backyard.
To say we freaked out was putting it lightly. This was clearly the most traumatic thing to happen to us in our young lives. We ran outside crying and screaming. My father walked out of the garage carrying a towel and saw us coming.
“He’s gone, Dad!” we were shouting. “He’s gone!”
My father put his hands on his hips. He said, “Oh my god! I don’t know how this happened.” And then added incredulously, with the most serious expression on his face, “I told him to stay!”
Over time my brother and I were able to put the pieces together and the “rabbit story” had become one of those go-to stories we tell when the family is gathered, both as a way to get a laugh and, more importantly, to make my father feel a little guilty.
However, one time when my brother and I were both adults, the whole family was together having dinner and Craig started telling the rabbit story. But there was a serious problem with his version of the story: I wasn’t there.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “I was there.”
“No, you weren’t,” he said. “You were out shopping with mom.”
“That’s not right. I was right next to you. We were both crying.”
Now you are probably thinking the same thing I was thinking at the time: my brother Craig is a liar and clearly can’t be trusted.
I agree. You are right. What can I say? You guys are incredibly observant and intelligent.
A few years after Craig revealed his true face to the world, I was visiting my parents’ place and flipping through the photo albums. Eventually, I came across some pictures of the little blue house in New York and saw something that shocked me:
THERE WERE PHOTOS OF US EATING A RABBIT FOR DINNER!
No. Not that shocking! What is wrong with you?
I saw some photos of the kitchen and noticed that there was no window — no window looking outside to the back of the house. There was no physical way that Craig and/or I could have been watching my father with the rabbit.
Here’s the thing, I can remember a lot of things from that day. The coolness of the window. How blue the sky was. The blubbering mess I was when the rabbit disappeared.
But none of it is true.
Here’s what most likely happened: Craig and I were both out shopping with my mother. My father saw an opportunity to get rid of a pellet-shitting problem. When we returned home, my father told us that despite telling the rabbit to stay, he had been disloyal and ran away.
And somewhere over the years, my brother and I took this story and somehow pushed our way into the narrative — like Europeans entering the New World — giving ourselves front-row seats to this terrible family tragedy.
Once I came to terms with this bizarre lie that had been planted in my head, I started to question my other memories.
Is it possible that I really never went to the moon?
Did I not date Salma Hayek?
Now I’ve discussed all of this before publicly, and when I did, I talked about things like paraspace and metafiction, and made proclamations about how there is no such thing as fiction when we take into account that our lives is essentially filtered through our memories. I said things like, “The superposition of fiction.” Everything is true and untrue.
But I’m not here today to get all metaphysical with you.
Instead, I’m here to tell you that when you think about what I just said, you’ll be considering it through the prism of your own memory. And every time you think of this moment, you’ll be overwriting the image in your head, and in doing so, adding and removing details here and there.
Maybe you’ll even add yourself to this talk. You’ll be standing up here on stage with me. Maybe I’m juggling some bunnies to emphasize my point. Maybe we are high-fiving each other. Maybe we are making out.
Hey, these are your memories, not mine. Have fun.
The important thing to remember is that your brain, like my own, is a big fat liar. It will alter details, withhold information, and flat-out lie to you, and there’s nothing you can do about it except accept the fact that it’s doing the best it can; you know, for a two-faced liar that looks like a wobbly head of cauliflower that’s been left out in the sun.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the story about my sister and our dog.
Have a nice night.
*This is the story I told at a Storytelling Evening event in Wroclaw, Poland. Or did I?