The fetus mystery and the flaws of memory

    So what’s up with the Bush family, anyway? George W. says it was his mother who put the fetus in the jar. But his mother says it was the housekeeper who put the fetus in the jar. Who really knows? Maybe it was Colonel Mustard in the parlor with the candlestick.There’s something weighty to say about this weird little story – it’s actually a literary issue that has nothing to do with politics – but first, a quick recap: The former president writes in his newly published memoir that, when he was a teenager, Barbara suffered a miscarriage. He then writes that Barbara put the fetus in a jar and showed it to him. In his words, “I never expected to see the remains of a fetus, which she had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital.” He writes that this incident inspired him to oppose abortion (“There was a human life, a little brother or sister”), and helped prompt him to seek a close relationship with his mother.And he shared a new detail during an interview the other day on NBC: “She said to her teenage kid, ‘Here’s the fetus.'”But, on CNN two nights ago, when Barbara was asked about the fetus episode, she had a different memory: “No, the truth is, I didn’t put it in the jar…Paula put it in the jar. And I was shocked when she gave it to him.” Paula was the family housekeeper.So who really flashed the fetus? Granted, this is not a monumental issue. If George W. is fabricating, it hardly ranks with his infamous ’03 announcement to the Polish press that “we have found the weapons of mass destruction.” And if Barbara is fabricating, we can probably chalk that up to a traditional impulse common to those of high-class breeding, in which blame for an embarrassing incident is pinned on the hired help.By the way, weird questions do abound: Assuming it was Barbara who did the deed, was it common in early ’60s America for mothers to display miscarried fetuses to their impressionable teenage sons? Or assuming it was Paula, what kind of housekeeper takes it upon herself to handle the lady of the manor’s fetus, and to initiate an education process with the eldest son?It also seems a bit weird that a mother and son would bond over a fetus in a jar, and use it as the basis for developing a close relationship, but hey, all families are different. Let’s just skip to the weighty issue.The Bush family’s dueling memories about the fetus is classic Rashomon – the subjectivity of perception, when applied to recollection – and it’s a classic example of why I’m instinctively wary of memoirs. (I didn’t even read Barack Obama’s memoir of his father.) The memoir genre is very popular; if sales are any indication, readers love first-person books, especially the confessionals and the self-exposes of miserable childhoods. But there’s really no way to fact-check the human memory, which is perhaps why a number of recent high-profile memoirs have turned out to be fraudulent.Witness James Frey’s miserable-childhood tome, A Million Little Pieces, in which he concocted all kinds of stuff, including a three-month jail stint that he never served; and Holocaust survivor Herman Rosenblatt’s fake tale about how he supposedly met his future wife when she was a little girl throwing apples to him over a Nazi camp fence. And this phoniness is nothing new, either. A famous 1836 memoir about racist oppression, supposedly penned by a black slave, turned out to be the made-up work of a white Harvard grad. A 1983 memoir about atrocities in Guatamala featured material about the author’s brother, who died of starvation; the only problem, exposed later, was that this brother never existed. Ten years ago, a Native American wrote a shocking memoir about his lot in life (entitled The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams); turns out, it was woven from scratch by a white midwesterner.The Bush memoir is not remotely remiss on this scale. But, aside from its self-serving spin (a fault common to all presidential memoirs), we do have this fetus tale – which does serve to illustrate the real problem with the memoir genre itself. As Barbara said on CNN, “memories dim a little bit.”It’s actually worse than that. Memories are partial and selective. Memories sometimes grow more polished with repeated tellings, until all the rough edges are irrevocably smoothed. Maybe George W. has long erased over the housekeeper’s role because he wants to believe the jar episode was only about him and his mom; maybe his mom has come to believe that Paula the housekeeper instigated the whole episode, as a way to distance herself from the truth.Which brings us to the final question: If it was really Paula with the fetus in the jar, how come Barbara wasn’t shocked that her son wrote the tale otherwise? Because, as she told CNN, “He asked permission. And I gave him permission. It’s his book.” So she believes her son is lying, but she gave the OK for him to repeat the lie in print, at her expense? Freud once said, “What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.” I prefer a lesser charge, the nagging issue of veracity.——-The holiday break begins around here at the end of this paragraph. Back on Monday. Bon appetit!

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