January 8, 2009

Plagiarism And Memory

It's my considered opinion that people remember things that generate intense emotions; things that generate only mild emotions tend to slip away into the fog of one's generalized recollection of the past. Examples:
  • I can remember, with great clarity, how great I felt getting married. I remember my best man telling me early that day that it was important to eat. I remember what my wife looked like during the ceremony intensely. I don't remember everything the officiant said other than that he defied my instruction for a civil ceremony and invoked Jesus at the end, and that I decided that was OK because it would be pleasing to most of our families.
  • I also remember, with no small amount of clarity, what it felt like to travel to Tennessee and realize that the job I thought I'd had lined up for myself was not ever going to happen. I can remember the terror I felt there scrambling around to financially provide for my family. A terrible feeling, and I remember it and the times I experienced it quite well. And there are other bad things I can recall happening to me about which I am more reticent to write in detail -- confrontations with enemies (indeed, even coming to the realization that I had somehow acquired an enemy) were tough times. Learning of the deaths of family members was tough.
  • I do not remember with any particular clarity, whether the traffic lights on my way to work yesterday were in my favor or not. I can't really remember whether the coffee I got from McDonald's the last time I drove up to Stinking Bakersfield worked out or not. I think the last time I bought a shirt it was a little bit too small, but I'm not real sure about that. None of those things inspired intense emotions.
When I hear of people saying that they've repressed memories of particularly traumatic things, I am skeptical. It seems to me that if I went through a really bad experience, it would not only be difficult to repress, it would be difficult to stop thinking about it. I remember my grandfather, a combat veteran from WWII, seemed to have no trouble remembering what he'd been through -- he didn't care to talk about it much, but he clearly remembered everything that had happened.

So that's a little bit of my thinking of how the human mind works. With that background, I have little trouble at all reacting with some sympathy to this story -- Neale Donald Walcsh wrote a book called Conversations With God in which he claimed to have, through episodes of what can be called "automatic typing," communicated with Jehovah.

Well, Walcsh also writes for the religious website beliefnet.com. In his recent essay,* he related a heartwarming story, about a schoolgirl in a Christmas play was supposed to hold the letter "M" in a display reading "Christmas Love." But she held it upside down, so the text the audience say read "Christ was Love." (Now is the time for all Christians in the audience to go "Awww....".)

The book caught on and he sold millions of copies. Problem is the upside-down "M" story was not original to Walsch; another Christian author, Candy Chand, wrote the same story in a Christian magazine back in 1999. So when she saw Walsch's posting on beliefnet, she got mad, and now she's suing him for copyright infringement. And we're talking about a fairly extensive and serious bit of plagiarism here:
Except for a different first paragraph in which Mr. Walsch wrote that he could “vividly remember” the incident, his Dec. 28 Beliefnet post followed, virtually verbatim, Ms. Chand’s previously published writing, even down to prosaic details like “the morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down.”
What does Walsch have to say for himself?
In a statement posted Tuesday afternoon on his blog on Beliefnet, which is owned by the News Corporation, Mr. Walsch said he had made a “serious error,” and apologized to Ms. Chand and his readers.

“All I can say now — because I am truly mystified and taken aback by this — is that someone must have sent it to me over the internet ten years or so ago,” Mr. Walsch wrote. “Finding it utterly charming and its message indelible, I must have clipped and pasted it into my file of ’stories to tell that have a message I want to share.’ I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience.”
Now, this is in no way a legal defense to the claim of copyright violation. Chand wrote the story, and Walsch copied it -- apparently nearly verbatim. But frankly, I have little difficulty believing Walsch's explanation. I've seen this process in action in my work a lot. I see people who act as though they are convinced of things that aren’t true all the time. Common protest from an unlawful detainer defendant: “No, I paid the rent!” They act like they really think they did. My client, however, never got the money. But I have to entertain the possibility that not only do the tenants act like they really think they paid it, but that indeed, they really, really do think that they paid it.

So it’s easy for me to see how Walsch might have put this story away for a long time and, to use his words, “internalized” it and ultimately convincing himself that it was his own. That’s not objectively true, but over time he could have forgotten where he learned of the story without forgetting the story itself.

The reason I think this is possible is that the story does not elicit a particularly strong emotional response. Oh, sure, it's cute, especially if you are a Christian. But it's forgettable, based on cheap wordplay. You can build up a story like this with some fluff and background, maybe help the punch out a little bit, but at the end of the day, it's not much of a story and it likely doesn't even inspire a huge sense of awe even in a true believer. Far be it from me to question the authenticity of his Christianity, but Walsch is a guy who is both willing to indulge himself in the vanity that God literally types through his own hands, and then to sell the putative product of such a extraordinary conversation for profit. There is a possibility that in the course of making his living -- which is gathering, packaging, and then selling stories to a religious market -- he lost track of where he picked up particular stories that he sells.

Chand is clearly in the right here, both legally and morally. She wrote the story, she deserves to profit from it. I'm not going to say Walsch was a horrible thief, but he did take and exploit something that was not his and he needs to make that right. I suspect that he will and that his contrition is genuine. But the big insight out of this story is not that authors sometimes plagiarize, it's the insight into how the human mind works.


* Beliefnet.com has taken the original essay down since the story erupted. The link should take you to a mirror site maintained by Google.

3 comments:

The Bad Yogi said...

Hi TL,

A couple of points to consider, because I don't have a lot of time to get into details:

1) Physical trauma can lead to blocked memories. i.e. childbirth. Almost no-on remembers the pain itself, thought they may remember parts of the experience.

2) Eyewitness accounts are worthless, because we make up parts of the "story" to fit the pieces that made an impression.

Both these ideas aren't new or difficult to find quality studies about.

But IME, people can convince themselves that something has happened (payed their rent) just by obsessing. I've had the experience of believing I told my wife something because I thought about telling her so much, but it turned out she never got the message.

Anecdote: my mother "remembers" telling all her kids that our father died by suicide (now 44 years ago), while none of us have that memory: we remember being told that he had been sick.

Anyway, I'm enjoying your writing. Thanks!

John, the bad yogi

Transplanted Lawyer said...

Great points. I certainly agree that physical damage to the brain can and often does interfere with memory.

Salsola said...

Here is another example of same phenomena, although I suspect it was intentional. God in the Stairwell