Brian Williams, Lies, and Memory

I don’t often write about being a lawyer. There are good reasons for that: pesky things like attorney-client privilege, ethical duties, and–perhaps most importantly–there’ls nothing interesting about what I do. Now, I’m not one of the really boring lawyers: transactional attorneys who draft contracts and wills and… Well, I’m not even sure what they do to fill their days. I work in litigation, which means I actually am in the courtroom a fair amount, and I do get to argue at hearings and take testimony. But it’s still completely boring 99 percent of the time. I don’t want to write about boring things.

Today, though, I thought I’d further dilute my brand by discussing a few things I’ve learned at the cost of wearing a tie every day.

Earlier this week, Brian Williams, who is best known for his cameos on the hit sitcom 30 Rock, recanted an oft-repeated story of his: that he was in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq. Turns out that some other folks who were in that helicopter got sick of hearing the story and finally decided to call him out on it. Williams was actually in a different helicopter nearby. That helicopter did have to land when the other one was shot down, but that’s a little less dramatic than the story Williams was telling.

In admitting his fault, Williams claimed that the stress and confusion of the moment, compounded by watching footage later, caused him to remember the events differently than they actually occurred. On its face, that sounds ridiculous. But it seems very familiar.

People tell me things that aren’t true all the time. It’s a pretty common theme of my job. Often times these untruths merely aren’t believable. Other times, they are verifiably false. Witnesses, clients, opponents… Everyone does it. I don’t believe anyone tells the truth. I don’t think I would tell the truth if asked enough questions. And it isn’t because I’m a liar. Notice, I’m not saying these people are telling me lies. They’re just telling me things that aren’t true.

They do this because they trust their memory. And I don’t blame them for it. For the most part, I trust my memory too, if only because the other option is existential terror. But while our memories are good at a lot of things, especially with the help of repetition, they are terrible storytellers.

Most of the cases I work on deal with very traumatic events that happened over a year ago. These are events that no one will ever forget–certain images, thoughts, feelings will be seared in their mind forever–but that isn’t a guarantee of how well they will be remembered. Certain details will recede, others will come to the forefront. The order of events may get jumbled up. If the event happened while they were in the middle of doing something they do every day–like crossing the street to get to work–details from other days may get mixed into the pile. But that’s not where the real damage happens.

The real damage happens when they begin to tell the story. They tell their families, they tell their doctors. And their story gets repeated back to them. Sometimes the people repeating it back tell it wrong and the person assimilates those wrong details into their own memories, then repeats it back to another person. The story grows and as it does, the story changes. But more importantly, the memory changes.

The power of suggestion is a hell of a thing and our memories aren’t nearly strong enough to resist it. The worst thing, perhaps, is that this even happens to actual liars. They start out telling something that isn’t true because it helps their case. But then they repeat it enough times, defend it and build a context around it, and pretty soon they believe it. Their memory adjusts to include the falsehood, and then they doubt that they ever intended to lie about it in the first place.
Now, the story that Brian Williams told is a pretty tall tale. He didn’t recount the events out of order, or replace a detail. He put himself on a completely different helicopter. I’m not going to say for sure whether he lied the first time he told the story, but I would be willing to bet he wasn’t lying a few years later. By that point his brain, in its neverending quest to turn observations into narratives, took the footage he watched of the other helicopter and married itself to his story.

When you think about it, this makes a lot more sense than to believe that Williams, who can’t be a total idiot, continued to tell a story he knew was a lie, that could easily be disproven by a number of people, and could destroy his career. By now, he’s really got nothing to gain from repeating the tale and everything to lose. If he knew it was a lie, why didn’t he bury it–never speak of it again. Even in the terrifying ever-connected world of the internet, the story might have mostly disappeared. No, the reason he kept repeating it was because I think it became the truth to him.

I can’t go into details, but I’ve seen this before. It can be both frustrating and terrifying, because there is no one harder to defend than someone who truthfully believes something that is plainly not true.

This is not (necessarily) a defense of Brian Williams. I have no idea why he told the story the first time. But this story is important because it is a high profile example of how shitty our memories can be, and how it’s not always our fault. It’s why an eyewitness account is often a terrible piece of evidence, especially if the person has been discussing the event with someone who might be biased. It’s why we should take come claims with a grain of salt, but also why we shouldn’t demonize people when parts of their story turn out to be untrue. They might not be lying. They might be telling their truth, and it just doesn’t line up with what actually happened.