False Memories of 9/11 More Common Than You Think & Here's Why

In 2001, I was seven years old, almost eight. One morning in early September, a few days after the start of second grade, I was looking out the window of my suburban Connecticut classroom overlooking the Long Island Sound when I saw smoke rolling out across the vast water, smudging a sky that, according to all accounts, was a platonic ideal of blue. I do not remember anyone picking me up from school. I do not remember anyone gathering around a TV. Rather, my memory of 9/11 is black smoke over clear water, visible from almost 60 miles away.

Physically speaking, though, this is an impossible memory. Like, quite literally impossible — my classroom didn’t look out over the water, and though it was possible to see the smoke from the attack from space, I can’t imagine how it would have rolled out almost 60 miles away to my sleepy town. Another memory I have of that day — that my mom was working in New York at the time — is also completely factually incorrect. She commuted into New York for almost my entire life, except from 2000 to 2002, when she worked in Connecticut. On 9/11, she tells me, she was in Easton, Penn., for a meeting. I have these two memories of the day, both rock-solid in their accuracy in my head, neither of which are real. Why do I have these memories, and none of my dad picking me and my sister up from school — a memory that, to my dad, is a defining feature of that day?

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For many younger millennials who grew up in the tri-state area, 9/11 occupies this sort of hazy space of semi-remembrance; we create a patchwork of memories over the years, of where we were, what we were doing, how many people were in front of the TV. These memories are a way for us to try to make sense of a larger, incomprehensible trauma, where the loss of life, the tragedy, was not something we all experienced firsthand, but it shaped our new, millennial view of the world all the same.

Scientific American reported on the phenomenon of misremembering events as monumental as 9/11 in 2013, drawing from a 1992 study on “flashbulb memories,” aka a hyper-vivid memory made once and stored for the rest of one’s life — regardless of whether or not it's true. These "memories" are described as “burned into your brain,” and highly autobiographical, meaning that they aren’t memories of the event itself, but of how you reacted to it; where you were, what you were wearing, when you found out about this, that, or the other. The 1992 study found, however, that when people were asked to recount these memories both 24 hours after an event and again 2.5 years after the event, 25 percent of the subjects couldn’t remember anything about what they’d recounted 24 hours afterwards. However, a later study specifically examining memories of the 9/11 attacks (compared to “everyday” memories) found that subjects were more confident in the accuracy of their flashbulb memories as time went on, even if they weren’t actually accurate.

Memory isn't fixed. It's not stored like a movie you can play back and watch whenever; it's more like a script, where the major components — who, what, when, where — act as scaffolding for the smaller details — what you were wearing, what was on the radio, the exact sequence of events. Those details might change as you learn more information about the event that you're remembering, or as your memories from that era become more concise. For example, maybe you don't remember what you were wearing on a particularly notable day, but you remember that you had a favorite shirt when you were that age, so now in your memory you're wearing that shirt (even though you didn't receive that shirt as a Christmas present until a little later on). Or for me: my mom worked in New York City for nearly all my life, so of course I concluded she would have been there on 9/11, too (even though she wasn't).

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My memories of 9/11 aren’t burned into my brain; they’re mutable, they change, they are informed by related experiences later in life. The holes in those memories are filled in by elements of the common narrative shared by Americans who divide their lives into pre- and post-September 11: the visual of adults crowded around televisions, the glut of parents at school retrieving their kids, or the stories you hear of people not being able to get in touch with loved ones until they had walked all the way back to Long Island from Midtown. Then there are the images of the first responders, of the survivors, of downtown Manhattan cordoned off for weeks. Each of us had different reactions to the tragedy that happened 16 years ago, and it stuck with us in different ways — ways that many of us are still trying to understand.

They sell “Never Forget” t-shirts in souvenir shops from Times Square to Wall Street, in a city where it’s literally impossible to forget. Yet memory is a funny thing. In this case, it promises to serve, and what it doesn’t forget — can’t forget, ever — it aggregates from the many hundreds of things we’ve heard about the attacks. It manipulates and manufactures. It rebuilds for itself something that it doesn’t fully understand, out of a want, a need, to make sense of it.

It feels a little strange — almost inappropriate — to be preoccupied by my memories of a tragedy that, by my own admission, I only experienced indirectly. But for my generation of Americans (and not just New Yorkers, or people from the tri-state area), 9/11 is the foundation on which our idea of America rests — it did very much affect us directly, as we continue to grapple with its legacy. For all intents and purposes, we only know an America that’s been at war for 16 years as a direct result of the attacks; an America that has tried to keep Islamophobia out, but has not succeeded; an America that has, sometimes, let fear govern us. And looking back on that day, we realize that so much of what we remember (or misremember) is not just personal; it's collective. In acknowledging that our memories are built off of the memories of others, it becomes clear that we all experienced that day as a generation, and no matter the details, we continue to build and rebuild a living memory, one that ensures that we won’t ever forget.