I have a vivid memory of watching the Tonight show as Johnny Carson was interviewing Raquel Welch. She comes out with a cat that sits on her lap. She asks Johnny “do you want to pet my pussy?” He answers “sure, if you move that damn cat.” In my memory it’s vivid, I can see the picture, hear his reply, the exact intonation and see her response. I’m sure I saw it.
Or did I? Not according to Snopes. They note that the story most often involves Zsa Zsa Gabor, but sometimes involves Raquel Welch or a number of others. That inconsistency is the mark of an urban legend, they state. Doing a google search the story most often includes Gabor so I must be wrong. Or maybe not — in this thread another person remembers it just as I do, with Raquel Welch, and around 1970, when I would have seen it. This post also has the incident involving Welch in the 70s, which would fit my memory (it even mentions a clip, though I can’t find a clip posted anywhere).
In my mind there is no doubt but that it happened. The memory is vivid and clear, including a memory of me shocked by hearing that (suggesting it probably was 1972 or a little after) and seeing her reaction. There is no way my memory could be so detailed about both what I saw, how I felt and what my reaction was without it being true. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it, that’s what I feel to be true deep down.
But, of course, the evidence is against me. Who am I to argue with Snopes? What if as a 12 or 13 year old I heard this urban legend, visualized it in my mind, and somehow over time came to believe I’d seen it. Having watched Johnny Carson almost every night from age 10 to when I went to college at 18 I know his mannerisms and could easily have concocted a mental image of this exchange. Over time real memories and stories heard/scenes imagined blur. Perhaps what was once my imagination of a story I heard became to me a real memory.
Memories are strange things. In the court of law eye witness accounts used to be given the most weight; now they are if anything more distrusted than objective evidence one can glean from records, videos or other documents not so vulnerable to subjective error.
Part of the problem is that memory is imbued with a strong sense of subjective interpretation. For instance, let’s say I had an argument with someone in a bar in 1994 — or perhaps an early internet debate back when usenet was new and flame wars common. I might remember it with me rationally trying to reason with someone who is obstinate, arrogant and even rude. If that person were to recall the argument he or she would likely have the same memory — but with me the obstinate one.
If one has self-doubts, one may remember things as being more personally insulting and cutting then they were. Small statements that one is sensitive to may dominate a memory of a conversation where objectively that statement was inconsequential.
I remember seeing John F. Kennedy’s picture in the newspaper in color when I was three years old. He had just been killed, and a color photo was rare. I remember learning to walk and wondering why my parents were forcing me to do that, as my dad flashed lights at me. But there is also a picture of those first steps — is my memory a reconstruction based on that photograph, or real? Did that photo reinforce a real memory?
One memory I have is at age 2 in the Black Hills going to a zoo. My dad was enthralled with buffalo on the other side of a ridge, but I couldn’t see them (he had binoculars). I looked down and saw blankets and sheets floating down a stream, then apparently going under the stream and coming out at the start and flowing down again. I tried to get my mom and dad to look, but they were just into the buffalo. There was a picture there too — me looking down, my dad with binoculars. Once years later I asked my mom about that, and she said, “all I remember is you were really fascinated by a clothes line with sheets on it in the valley below.”
So the memory was real — albeit through the eyes of a two year old whose brain had not yet categorized clothes line perception and thus saw the sheets flowing down the river. But that shows another limit of memory, our brains interpret and categorize based on experience. We can’t be sure that our perceptions and interpretations are accurate, only that our brain is doing the best it can within its experiential framework.
Yet within our brain every memory is said to exist. Brain surgeons sometimes trigger old conversations, or cause patients to hear the past as if it were happening in the present. For that person the past is the present, the experience of that conversation is suddenly real.
Memories are flawed and biased; one remembers a reality where oneself is more benevolent than was likely the case, with others perhaps more flawed and malevolent. Memories fit into categorizations and can reinforce conflicts and bias, whether on a personal level or between groups like the Israelis and Palestinians.
Memories are useful, of course. Remembering how one was swindled makes one less likely to fall for the same ploy; memories of help and friendship can lead to positive action. The subjectve bias inherent in all memory means simply that we should be open to learning how others may have interpreted a situation differently, recognizing that even if it contradicts what any of us remember, that doesn’t mean the person is lying or dishonest. We all mold memories to fit our own subjective states. Recognition of that makes it easier not to carry grudges and to avoid resentment.
Yet I still insist that it was Raquel Welch being interviewed by Johnny Carson, and he delivered that line. Perhaps he was reprising something he did with Zsa Zsa Gabor earlier. Perhaps an angry Raquel demanded the tape be destroyed, and since this was pre-VCR and original tapes were often unique, the whole incident could easily have been made to go away. As long as the two never talked about it all there would be were the stories of people who remember seeing it, but in an era where Youtube provides instant proof for all recent claims, no clip exists.
There is no way to objectively know if my memory is right or wrong. There is no evidence for the objective observer to side with me, and as Snopes notes, the evidence suggests this to be an urban legend. My subjective evidence is still convincing to me, even as I recognize the likelihood of error on my part. It’s also a reminder that even though we think we objectively and clearly perceive and understand the world, interactions and activities around us, we’re always twisting and interpreting it in ways that are biased towards our beliefs, past experiences and world views. At the very least, that should lead to humility.