False Memories, Constructed Selves
Being Brainwashed by The Pursuit of Happyness
While recently re-watching The Pursuit of Happyness, a particular scene struck me. Chris Gardner, a door-to-door salesman on the brink of homelessness, is paying off some bills at a corner shop when he notices his five-year-old son eyeing a chocolate bar. Given how poor they are, the son is reluctant about asking for it, but Chris persuades him that it is okay and buys him the chocolate bar.
What struck me about this scene is how closely it mirrors one of my own memories. I am waiting at the checkout at The Warehouse with my parents. I point to a chocolate bar and ask if I can have it. One of them immediately says no. Then they start whispering; I can hear them talking about whether or not they are going to have enough money for the week. Finally, they decide I can have the chocolate bar.
Up till that point I had never considered that we might not always have enough money to buy everything we want or need. So I refused the chocolate bar, believing we should put that money towards other, more important things.
When I think back on my life, and all the actions and events radiating out from that moment, I realise that I have always been a frugal and risk-averse person. This memory seems to explain why. It makes that aspect of myself intelligible, rooting its origin in a selfless act: the denial of a chocolate bar for the sake of my struggling family.
Yet when I ask my parents what life was like back then, there’s little to confirm that we were struggling with money. Before I was born, my parents left their corporate jobs to run a takeaway shop. Having another kid put more strain on the finances. Those two things granted, we were never on the benefit. We made regular mortgage payments on the house. There was always food in the pantry. I always got (lots of) presents on Christmas and birthdays.
Where did this impression that we were struggling come from? Perhaps, being a kid, I wildly misunderstood their conversation. Perhaps I misunderstood “we don’t have enough money for a chocolate bar” as meaning “we don’t have enough money for everything we need, including food and clothes.”
Or maybe I was brainwashed by The Pursuit of Happyness. That movie came out at the start of my teenage years. I’ve seen it heaps of times because it was always on telly growing up (we had a subscription with all the movie channels—another hint that we may not have been as poor as I thought).
Until now I had never made the connection between my memory and the scene with the chocolate bar. Yet the two are so similar I can’t shake the feeling I may have conflated them. Did the scene in the movie overwrite the real event in my mind?
Memories are not static. Each time we recall something, we are recalling it anew, with the details ever -so-slightly different. Over a period of decades, this can add up to a considerable drift in veracity.
Did I refuse the chocolate bar because I am generous and selfless? Or have I reversed cause and effect, retroactively refusing the chocolate bar because I want to be generous and selfless? Maybe I unsconsciously distorted the events of the memory. In this way, it is like a story or fable, rationalising and explaining my life—the way things are—so as to make myself out to be the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be.
There probably was a chocolate bar that was or was not granted for reasons of money. I think it’s likely that I have (unintentionally) exaggerated my noble stand against accepting the chocolate bar, blending in aspects of The Pursuit of Happyness simply because it has a similar moment and left an impact on me. But I have no way of verifying any of this. I have only the memory, with no certainty that it even happened.
An article came out in 2021 which discusses something similar. In Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self, a group of British sociologists examined 175+ interviews to try and understand why people misidentify their class origins.
Those who correctly identified their class tended to have short, declarative answers:
My Dad has a PhD in biology and was a Malaria researcher; he lived in Africa, then Haiti for a long time. Then he dropped that. Research wasn’t really paying and mum doesn’t work so he started to work as an engineer for a train company. I would say it was like middle class, maybe higher.
Those who misidentified as working-class gave elaborate explanations which downplayed their advantages, while shifting the attention to the struggles of their parents or grandparents. Here is a successful actor in London who went to a private school:
Okay, well I consider my background to be a working-class one even though I don’t sound like that really. My parents, their parents were all very much like cleaners, taxi drivers, painters and decorators and then in my parents’ generation my mum is a hairdresser but then she was of the Thatcher world and was encouraged by her parents to own her own salon. And then my dad was good at engineering so he did an apprenticeship as a draughtsman. So I consider them like quite aspirational from the working class, which was quite typical of that generation. . .
The authors of the study suggest that these elaborate stories may be the expression of an “intergenerational self”, in which the person’s identity is anchored as much in their family history as in the facts of their own life.
I think that’s a generous interpretation. Couldn’t these people simply be making it up—class bullshitters, as Sam Atis puts it? Mightn’t they be claiming a working-class origin so as to legitimate what they have? No-one wants to say they don’t deserve or shouldn’t have the nice things in their life: a stable family, a loving partner, a well-paying job, a good education. But if you explain how you truly earned those things with a narrative of working-class struggle, your attainment of them is legitimated.
I wouldn’t say that is lying. “Lying” implies a malicious intent to deceive others. It’s quite possible that, having internalised a story of achievement— despite a relative lack of privilege—these people have actually come to believe what they are saying. They are deceiving themselves as much as they are deceiving others.
Memories are fallible and flexible. They are influenced by the stories we use to explain our lives. Those stories wield power by forcing us—and others—to understand reality in a particular way. Words rend and reconstruct. They reveal new truths while annihilating old ones.
A poem which helped me understand this is The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could To where it bent in the undergrowth; Then took the other, as just as fair, And having perhaps the better claim, Because it was grassy and wanted wear; Though as for that the passing there Had worn them really about the same, And both that morning equally lay In leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
This poem is often understood as meaning something like that we ought to take the more interesting or challenging paths in life, even when they might be harder or unusual. But did the narrator actually take the road less travelled? When he claims that it was “grassy and wanted wear”, he then admits that “the passing there/had worn them both about the same.” And if people have passed along both paths and worn them down the same amount, how could they also lay equally in “leaves no step had trodden black”? That is a contradiction.
The man’s choice was irrelevant. Whatever decision he made, he would have justified it as the right one. This is why, regardless of which path he took, he knows he will be telling others: “I took the one less travelled by/And that has made all the difference.”
We can never revisit those decisions. I can’t verify whether or not I was brainwashed by The Pursuit of Happyness. You’ll never definitively prove that someone isn’t fibbing about the struggles they had to overcome for their above-average income. The best we can do is to fashion new lies when the ones we tell ourselves become too big to believe.