Distorted / incorrect memories (and conviction to be right)
September 17, 2007 9:38 AM   Subscribe

My mother remembers events incorrectly, but is convinced this was how it happened. Is there a term for this? What can it be a symptom of? Is it common? Is it psychological, neurological, sth-else-ical?

They're almost always trivial things, and the way she remembers them is usually the complete opposite of how it actually happened, but she'd argue to her death that she's right. Recent example:

Mum: Remember that car your friend X used to have?
Me: Oh yeah, what was it again..... ah yes, a Foobar.
Mum: No no, that wasn't it.
Me: I'm pretty sure it was.
Mum: No, it definitely was not a Foobar.
[this continues for a little while]

/me gets home, emails friend, friend confirms it was indeed a Foobar.
I forward email to Mum. She replies (about a week after the actual event):
"I don't know what ever made you think I'd said otherwise. I agreed it was a Foobar as soon as you said the name!" [I realise how trivial this sounds, but it's really disconcerting. We argued about it for several minutes!]

Senility / dementia (Alzheimer's? we have no clear diagnosis) runs in her family, but I don't think it ever displayed this way. Her memory in general is not the best but this is the only aspect that's really scary. We have a difficult relationship so it may be a psychological reaction (her memory will usually confirm that she was right and I was wrong) - is this likely?

My mum's 59 (but this has been occurring for a while - my dad mentioned it and he's been dead 5yrs). She drinks and smokes, but not to excess. She's also clearly depressed but hates to admit it.

I've tried to research this, but couldn't find much, it seems to be mostly about repressed trauma etc. I realise you might not be able to help much either but it's worth a shot, the whole thing's really hard to deal with.

Thanks very much for any pointers!
posted by ClarissaWAM to Health & Fitness (46 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My mother did it too. I've noticed it's a skill you absolutely need to have in order to successfully be an alcoholic. YMMV.
posted by genghis at 9:46 AM on September 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

Memory is quite fallible and inaccurate after the fact, even if it seems clear. Perhaps she's just stubborn about her memory being correct? Or perhaps she's trying to cover for lapses in memory (or what she feels are such), and emails like the one you mentioned are making her defensive.

(IANAD, and there could be another factor at work, but this is what came to mind.)
posted by spaceman_spiff at 9:46 AM on September 17, 2007

Some medications can cause this; is she on any prescriptions?
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:49 AM on September 17, 2007

I suspect she's covering for memory lapses. And, when I say "covering" I mean "trying to convince herself that they didn't occur. Convincing you is purely secondary."

...at least, that's my utterly nonscientific suspicion based on observing other aging folks.
posted by aramaic at 9:53 AM on September 17, 2007

There is a well documented psychological phenomenon called false memories but getting a neurological check might be in order.
posted by bluesky43 at 9:57 AM on September 17, 2007

I think you'd call it a false memory, even though most research does, as you say, cover the area of repressed trauma and false memories 'recovered' by whatever kind of therapist.

I've got at least one such memory, and I suspect a fair number of people do but don't have one that it happens to be easy for other people to spot. Of course, like anything, something happening in excess might be an indicator of an underlying issue. Hope you find the answers.
posted by edd at 9:59 AM on September 17, 2007

My mom is the same way! She's not a drinker (at all). She has always been a little scatter-brained but most definitely she remembers things or says things that are completely inaccurate teetering on the edge of "did she just make that up?" For instance, a long time ago there was a Dear Abby article where someone mentioned that it was very important to keep cats away from babies because they might "steal the breath" out of the babies. My mom internalized this article and I assume she thought a lot about it because at one point she brought it up and mentioned that she caught one of our cats sitting on the chest of my little brother and it appeared the cat was trying to suck the breath out of him. It really scared my mom.

HOWEVER, the cat she mentioned doing this was not even around when my brother was a baby. We got that cat when he was 6 years old.

My point is that I think that after reading that article, she started to really think about it and somehow someway she internalized it and imagined the situation. Naturally she imagined that it happened to my little brother (the youngest child) and the cat (that we had currently at the time she read the article) was the culprit of trying to kill my brother. I think she has a very vivid imagination and imagined the entire scenario and after such a vivid recollection she assumed it as actually happening, although it clearly didn't. I did mention this to her at some point that that cat didn't even exist when brother was a baby. She didn't really respond to me calling her on it. I think she still thinks it happened that way.

Similarly, she recently saw the movie "Shark Tale," but instead of calling it "Shark Tale," she thought the movie was called "Fish Story." Not the same, but I think there is some weird wiring in her head that confuses her.

I know that didn't help answer your question, but you're not alone! I will be interested to see what this post comes up with.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:00 AM on September 17, 2007

+1 on "my mom does that too". No explanation from me though.

It's a little scary, though, since she, 71, is the primary caregiver and housemate to her own mother, 89. My grandma sees my mom doing that stuff all the time and it drives her crazy, but she's resigned herself to putting up with it. My grandma is a little forgetful as well, but at least she realizes it and doesn't get into arguments about it.
posted by Doohickie at 10:09 AM on September 17, 2007

Someone in my family is pretty good at that too. I always swore I wouldn't be that way except now my fiancée catches me doing it all the time (and she's right), so I have to remember to check myself when I feel so strongly about a memory. I'm not addicted to anything other than oxygen and water, nor do I have any psychological problems - and three separate psychologists have told me that. The reason I've had three psychologists evaluate me however is due to troubleshooting some problems from mild traumatic brain injury (MBTI) in the past, so maybe that's your answer. From what I can see it seems to be a common experience.
posted by jwells at 10:10 AM on September 17, 2007

My mother has a tendency to do this, but she's 80. It's only been going on for 5 years or so - actually, since my father died. The other thing she does which seems similar to me is read the paper or a magazine and somehow manage to interpret the article in a completely different way than anyone else would: i.e., she'll see a picture & read a blurb in the paper about a community group throwing a movie party for kids at a neighborhood pool and she'll be convinced that an underwater movie theatre is opening here. And she'll argue to the death about it, too. My mom is sharp as a tack most of the time, which is why this sort of thing always comes as a surprise.

So. This used to alarm me and sometimes it still does but what I finally figured out was that there was absolutely no point in me having these trivial fights with her. We used to battle over it - I don't know why it seemed so important to me at the time that she recognize her mistakes. I mean, when it comes right down to it, who cares if your friend drove a Foobar back in the day or if there is in fact no underwater movie theatre in North Carolina? In the long run, it so doesn't matter. So now I generally just smile and nod and say, hey wow, that was cool. We get along much better - to the point that when I think it's really important - as in, no, Mom, so & so did not commit suicide and you shouldn't say that - that she understand or remember, she actually listens to me.

When our parents get older and weird stuff starts to happen, we have to be the ones to back off, because frankly they're probably not going to change. So this is my take - yeah, it's probably not uncommon, no, it's probably not going to change and the only thing to do is change your own reaction to it. Which isn't easy either but it's damn sure easier than getting them to change.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:12 AM on September 17, 2007 [4 favorites]

We have a difficult relationship so it may be a psychological reaction (her memory will usually confirm that she was right and I was wrong) - is this likely?


And, like chronic exaggeration, mild paranoia, last-word-ism, delusions of grandeur (all of which I would place in the general category of "commonplace verbal manifestations of some sort of internalized insecurity") this sort of memory-revision is likely not a trait that you can fix.

Keep an eye on her for other signs of outright memory loss or dementia, of course.
posted by desuetude at 10:14 AM on September 17, 2007

I'm a fulltime caregiver for a parent with senile dementia. I don't want to be an alarmist, but this is exactly the kind of behavior my mother began to exhibit before her diagnosis.

Have your mother examined for diabetes and high blood pressure. Request a scan (MRI? CAT? I dunno, not a doctor) of her brain function to detect vascular defects and cranial bloodflow.

Agressive treatment with drugs and lifestyle changes can make a huge difference in her quality of life. If she has had some sort of multi-infarct cerebral event, or is on the verge of one, catching it now is the difference between having a mom who knows who you are and is glad to see you, and a mom who doesn't recognize you and tries to hide it politely, or worse, is scared of you. It's heart-breaking, it's hellish, and there's no cure.

But early detection makes all the difference. We don't know how to stop or reverse this decline in mental function, but we know how to slow it down. Get her an appointment with a neurologist ASAP.

Good luck, and I hope I'm over-reacting.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:15 AM on September 17, 2007

Most people engage in unconscious confabulation of memory to one degree or other. It's why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.
posted by Drastic at 10:16 AM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

My mom and my grandmother both do the same thing. My mom does it more, oddly - my grandmother seems to have accepted that her memory is a bit faulty at 90 and doesn't argue as much. But my mom, at 60, will be adamant about her incorrect memory of an event or fact unless and until actual proof is provided that she is wrong. It's silly little stuff. For example, we were at dinner and I ordered something and specified no tomatoes. She asked when I'd stopped liking tomatoes as she remembered me loving them as a child. I have always hated tomatoes - something about their texture squicks me out - and we argued about it for a minute or so until my uncle pointed out that I used to throw them off the table and would refuse to eat them.

I think it's partially that she's having memory lapses and trying to cover them up, and partially her stubbornness and our history of arguing - she always wants to be right (and, admittedly, I enjoy being right as well). Unless your mother is exhibiting other odd behaviors I wouldn't worry too much.
posted by bedhead at 10:19 AM on September 17, 2007

I have done it a few times in my life - not often. Almost every time, it's related to a very vivid dream I have had, where the dream is a real situation that is relived but altered in "dream time." There are times when it's hard for me to know which version was the real one and which was the dream, and times when the dream seems to have supplanted the reality. Is that a possibility?
posted by clarkstonian at 10:42 AM on September 17, 2007

My mom does this, A LOT, and she is fairly young (only 51).

We got into a bitter fight a couple of years ago because she insisted that until I was in 5th grade (in 1985!!), we only had a black-and-white TV. I clearly remember a large, color, console TV that we already had when I was around six.

The reason it made me so angry is that memory is a shifty thing as is, and I didn't want my "true" memories muddied up with somebody else's "false" ones.

She has also insisted that Thanksgiving day used to be on a fixed date every year, instead of the 4th Thursday in November, and that this changed sometime when she was a kid. She comes up with crap like this all the time, and if it's something we can rectify with an internet search (like the Thanksgiving thing), she backs down. Otherwise, it's very hard to get her to relinquish her version of things.

My theory is that she's from an alternate universe.

In all seriousness, my mom did have an extremely traumatic childhood. This may have something to do with it. Unfortunately, I can't offer any advice. I do think fact-checking your mom is a good thing, as it may prompt her to think before just saying whatever comes out of her mouth. I suspect that once she's said something out loud, she feels committed to it and would rather argue than back down and admit to being wrong.
posted by spacewaitress at 10:43 AM on September 17, 2007

My mom does this a lot too, and she's only 48. My brother does this as well, and he's only 20. Sometimes people are just firmly convinced in the superiority of their memories to anyone else's. The psychological term for this is 'conceit.'
posted by solipsophistocracy at 11:02 AM on September 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Human memory is a very fragile and easily swayed. It's pretty normal for people to have false memories. I know my mom has had some, but I also know I myself have had them as well. The real issue is that I would fight with my mom over these things sometimes when the truth is that neither of us can really be 100% sure of anything.

There might be something wrong but uncertainty is part of the human experience. Most of us don't believe that so we insist, misremember, and fight against it without even knowing.
posted by chairface at 11:04 AM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Your posting really struck a nerve with me, because your description would apply precisely - eerily so - to my own mother. She, too, will remember things exactly the opposite of the way that they happened, and will stubbornly stick to her guns even when presented with contrary evidence. she and I have a difficult relationship, and the "memory lapses" almost always occur around events or issues that are contentious between us. She won't insist that a red car was blue unless it is a point of disagreement between us. And she shares all of the social characteristics (age, smoking & drinking, moderate depression) that you mentioned.

For what its worth, here is how I have dealt with it. First, although my mother has had a tough life (orphaned at a young age, etc), I don't think that it is repressed trauma. Nor do I think it is dementia or senility, since it is so intermittent and specific to our disputes. It may be a some kind of lingering psychological problem, but not one that drugs or a short course of therapy is going to solve.

Instead, I think that this is just part of her personality. While she is very, very stubborn, its more than that. I think that she simply doesn't have the ability to separate matters of fact from the emotions attached to them. For her, giving way on even the smallest matters of fact feels like a vast capitulation. And getting hung up on small details allows her to avoid talking about really important matters. As long as she sticks to her guns on some relatively trivial point of fact, she can feel like she has "won" an argument between the two of us.

This used to really upset me. Sometimes it still does, but over the years I have come to realize that the mature thing to do is to choose my battles and in many cases let drop the disagreements over ultimately trivial facts. I like to think that this lesson is part of growing up.
posted by googly at 11:05 AM on September 17, 2007 [8 favorites]

My mom totally used to do this, she was convinced she had a great memory, and would even brag about what an amazing memory she had, especially for detail. And yes her memory always confirmed that she was right and that I was wrong. She would even claim I liked things, places, etc that I didn't or had never tried/been too, but I was still wrong.

It was really annoying, but I could also get her to pay me my allowance up to three times in one week, so there were other perks.
posted by whoaali at 11:14 AM on September 17, 2007

My 32 year old brother does this all the time. It drives my sister particularly crazy when he "remembers" something that clearly was not the case. In your mom's case, the only real cause for worry is if it was a new phenomenon.
posted by advicepig at 11:21 AM on September 17, 2007

Do you think it will help to have her write down what she said when she makes pronouncements like: "X's car was definitely not a Y"? You could kind of make it a light thing, like "I'll do your laundry for a week if it was a Y car."

Not helping you figure out the problem, but maybe if she has to own up to it later, she will start realizing there may be a problem.
posted by GaelFC at 11:22 AM on September 17, 2007

Same thing happened to me with a friend in her 20s. I said X, she said Y, we argued. And when I could prove X, she said I was saying Y.

Very aggravating.
posted by delmoi at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2007

Both of my parents have always done this and it drives me absolutely crazy. She is 57, he is 58. They are very passionate about their version of things and will argue, argue, argue, while backing each other up. I've learned just to let the lapses go, as it's not worth the energy of debating them.

A recent incident of this phenomenon happened when we heard my 5 year old nephew had his hair cut into a mohawk for the summer. My dad excitedly suggested we dye the nephew's mohawk blue. I reminded my parents of how much they freaked out when I, as a 15 year old, dyed my hair purple. They basically went nuclear on me, screamed, cried, claimed I was embarrassing the family and forced me to get the color removed. The whole incident is a pretty traumatic one for me, and in fact, I still have my childhood diaries, where I document this whole thing. However, my parents now recall being charmed by my purple hair and thought that it was "awesome."

So, yeah, being told that your distinct memory of something is wrong (when you know otherwise) can be frustrating and invalidating!
posted by pluckysparrow at 11:27 AM on September 17, 2007

Are you sure she's not just stubborn? I hate, hate, hate to admit I'm wrong - not to the point of making things up out of whole cloth, but I'll occasionally deny saying something I know I said.
posted by desjardins at 11:34 AM on September 17, 2007

Sometimes people are just firmly convinced in the superiority of their memories to anyone else's. The psychological term for this is 'conceit.'

Bingo, except for "sometimes" substitute "most of the time." Frankly, I'm a little appalled people are so quick to medicalize this (OMG it's Alzheimers!!). We all do this. Look, you know when you're arguing with your mom, who won't admit that her memory is wrong? How do you know her memory is wrong? Let me guess: because you remember it differently? And yet you're firmly convinced in the superiority of your memory to hers. Think about that for a minute, and think what your own kids are going to say about you in a few decades.

My wife and I met for the first time in Grand Central. It was a much-anticipated and memorable meeting, which we later recreated for the kids. Trouble is, we remember it differently. She clearly remembers that I was standing on the west side of the clock, and I clearly remember that I was standing on the east side. So we took commemorative pictures with us standing on each side, and we argue (jovially) about it at the drop of a hat. One of us, theoretically, has to be right, but god knows what a security-camera tape would show.

Executive summary: memory is unreliable. Yes, even yours. And man, do mothers take a lot of shit in this world.
posted by languagehat at 11:37 AM on September 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify a bit, at least for me it has nothing to do with any political posturing, need to be right, etc. It's a real memory, just not right. And that's the most troubling part. I've played memory games since I was a kid, memorizing license plates on long car rides to see what cars stayed with us as we went along, etc. I work in IT and can generally memorize a 32 character license code of random letters and numbers after typing it two times. It's very disturbing to know I'm getting things wrong now, but fortunately it only seems to be interpersonal, and importantly, *minor* events far from work.

I think that provides the basis for what people are saying above. I used to trust my memory implicitly and minor things are easy to misremember. The trick is getting to "used to".
posted by jwells at 11:38 AM on September 17, 2007

My mother did this constantly and it is a major factor in why I talk to the bitch as little as humanly possible. I can't stand people who do this or those who make excuses for them.
posted by Riemann at 11:41 AM on September 17, 2007

Thanks for your answers everyone. It's... nice to know I'm not alone. A few things...

My mum isn't on any prescriptions, she takes clorazepates irregularly, but no more than twice a month, if that.

A lot of examples provided here are about long term memory - childhood memories etc. These are easily remembered incorrectly, or distorted. The experiences I have with my mum can be very short term - a few days (tho we do have the childhood thing too, but it bothers me less)

Thanks for your advice BitterOldPunk. I'm not in the position to make any such suggestions because she would interpret it as "I am declaring you incapacitated just to insist I am right" - and I guess because of the history of dementia in our family I've just resigned myself to the fact that this is how it will go.

There may definitely be something to "trying to cover up memory lapses" but some of the stuff she comes up with jut seems too weird for that. I'm pretty sure she's convinced she was indeed right - she never doubts herself in these instances (tho she does in others!)

googly, thanks very very much for your answer. I do think there is a link to stubbornness / our specific arguments too, and that I need to learn to let go of it. I hope I can get where you are. (I will mark your answer best answer, tho this may be interpreted as "just wanted confirmed what she thought anyway, heh)

And yes I've considered writing/recording everything she says, but it seems a very extreme thing to do (also because we live in separate countries it doesn't really work). And I just know the horror that will ensue if I present her with written confirmation that "yes she is indeed making things up".

Are you sure she's not just stubborn?

She is, but not to the point of outright lying. She may be doing it out of stubbornness, but she really does believe her own version of things. Which is why I was hoping there was a word for this...
posted by ClarissaWAM at 11:43 AM on September 17, 2007

Gods, my Mom is exactly like that and shes 72. Up until recently I've sort of written it off as her just being "Mom" but its aggravating as hell. She'll often refer to me as my brother too; "Oh Fred.. I mean Elendil.. etc". She seems perfectly lucid 99% of the time but her memory is definately selective. Whether this is simply the prejudice of an older person wanting remember only whats important to her at the moment or a sign of something like dementia, I'm not sure. My brother and I have debated this frequently.

It's quite frustrating though. I can patiently explain how she has misremembered something one day, and she'll agree and apologize, and the next week its the same old arguement.
posted by elendil71 at 11:49 AM on September 17, 2007

Nthing that it's mostly your problem. We all do things like this ("Where are my keys? I swear I set them down on this table just a minute ago!") and probably the only reason you notice it so much in your mother is because you two are already inclined toward arguing with each other. In fact you'll notice it with perfectly healthy, young people that you also get into fights with--significant others that you're in the process of breaking up with, for example. But anyway, it's your mother, so back off. Only correct her if it's something REALLY important. Remind her as gently as possible to have all of her check-ups (extra screening for anything your family is prone to, and other old person stuff) and let her doctors do the diagnosing. If they say there's nothing wrong with her other than being old, then really, really back off.
posted by anaelith at 11:49 AM on September 17, 2007

we certainly can misremember things and be ABSOLUTELY convinced we're right--it has to do with the way our brains file a memory away (it's a slightly different shade of deja vu). it sounds like your mother is doing this, and then denying it when you challenge her.

the thing is, every time you challenge her, you might make her nervous, so she denies it. alternately, if your relationship really is difficult, it's possible that she is just resentful that you went and checked up on this trivial little detail and doesn't want to give you the satisfaction of being right.

also, if she's been doing this for years and hasn't gotten worse, i wouldn't worry about it.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:52 AM on September 17, 2007

It's probably not the correct application of the term, but I've always called it selective memory.

Basically, you only remember enough of a conversation/event to prove you right; contrary evidence is "forgotten". I think it lies more in the storage of the memory than the retrieval (after the conversation about the car, your mom stores it as an event in which she was right (or at least not wrong) so it's not a deliberate attempt to disregard the part where she's wrong, because she has no knowledge of that part).

Having lived with a person who suffered from selective memory, I can tell you that the easiest thing to do is make an attempt to correct the record, then shrug your shoulders and change the subject.
posted by stefanie at 11:53 AM on September 17, 2007

jamais vu
posted by bruce at 11:57 AM on September 17, 2007

I'm a little appalled people are so quick to medicalize this. [...] How do you know her memory is wrong? Let me guess: because you remember it differently?

Yes I'm aware of what you're saying, and trust me I have doubted my own perception and memory too while dealing with her over the years.

A few of the reasons why I have reason enough to suspect her memory is wrong rather than mine:

1. the very first time this occurred in my presence it involved both my dad and me. We both knew an event had happened one way, she was adamant we were both completely wrong (and this was something of such little importance to any of us)
2. my dad told me this was one of their main issues when arguing - her remembering sth incorrectly and accusing him of lying. My dad and I had massive shouting matches, yet we never came across this issue even once.
3. maybe I am wrong in this, but - she's older than me, she forgets things more frequently (and admits it). Yes sure I'll end up like her, but for now I'm 30 years younger than her so if you're gonna doubt one of us, it's more likely going to be her.

But sure, maybe it really IS all my crazy mind.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 12:00 PM on September 17, 2007

The freaky part in these interactions is not that she doesn't remember the initial issue: anyone can remember something incorrectly. It's the second interaction, where she says that the first conversation never happened. That's the problem. I think it's valid for you to notice and be concerned about this.

There are lots of possible explanations above. One more thing to look into is that people in the personality disorder biz sometimes call this kind of interaction "gaslighting" or "crazymaking". Please note that I'm not attempting to put a diagnosis on this person or this behavior at all, or to claim that she's doing this intentionally or aggressively: I'm just suggesting a few more terms to google in case they're useful.

Here's an example. I just made this specific conversation up...but it's pretty typical of 1000 conversations like it that I've had.

Person 1: We have to be at the event by 7.
Person 2: No, it's at 8.
Person 1: I'm pretty sure it's at 7.
Person 2: It's 8.

Person 1 goes to check the invitation. It's for 7.

Person 1: It's at 7.
Person 2: What is?
Person 1: The event.
Person 2: Why are you telling me that?
Person 1: Because you thought it was at 8.
Person 2: No, I didn't.
Person 1: auuughhhhh wtf
posted by lemuria at 12:57 PM on September 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

My mum isn't on any prescriptions, she takes clorazepates irregularly, but no more than twice a month, if that.

I take clonazepam for anxiety, which is also a benzodiazepine derivative. It causes blackouts. Once my fiancé and I had an argument over whether we'd driven through a particular small town the week before. I would absolutely swear up and down I'd never been there before, but he produced a receipt from the local gas station on a day we were definitely together. I don't take it all too often, in part because I don't want to misremember/forget something.
posted by desjardins at 2:13 PM on September 17, 2007

I recall an article (which I can't locate) which emphasized the role of dehydration in the onset of some forms of dementia. The fact that she drinks, and alcohol is a diuretic might well make this worth looking into.
posted by Neiltupper at 2:16 PM on September 17, 2007

oh yeah, and if I take the clonazepam with alcohol, I am guaranteed not to remember the next 12 hours.
posted by desjardins at 2:21 PM on September 17, 2007

Wow, you described my mom perfectly.

I always just chalk it up to her extreme desire to connect with people by showing her intelligence etc.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 2:57 PM on September 17, 2007

/me gets home, emails friend, friend confirms it was indeed a Foobar.
I forward email to Mum. She replies (about a week after the actual event):
"I don't know what ever made you think I'd said otherwise. I agreed it was a Foobar as soon as you said the name!" [I realise how trivial this sounds, but it's really disconcerting. We argued about it for several minutes!]

I know four people who have done this on at least a semi-regular basis during my life:

1. An old boss of mine. Not old, not senile, just impossible to deal with.

2. An aunt of mine. Alcoholic, and hates to be wrong about anything.

3. My wife's mother. Well-intentioned but forgetful, did have a drug problem before I met her, and did one day end up with a brain tumor that was diagnosed and removed successfully (hooray!)

4. My wife, although if she reads this she'll argue to the day she dies that she's never done this.

It's often hard to tell when this is happening due to a fundamental personality flaw, as an early symptom of a progressive illness, or as part of a substance abuse problem -- or even a combination. I think you're really tasked with watching the behavior over a long period of time to see if it's chronic, getting worse, only when it's self-serving, and so on, before you can narrow the diagnosis down.

Helpful: carry a notepad for a few weeks, jotting down specific things that your mother insists on, with dates and times. Hunt down the relevant answers, and when you know you're right and she's wrong, find a convenient and non-agressive moment to mention the correct answer. Assuming she continues this behavior, note it but don't confront her with your records. After you've tallied up, say, five of these in a reasonably short amount of time, bring it up with her doctor, and/or with her depending on whether it appears to be a personality trait or an illness or a chemical dependency triggering it (ie they all happened when she was drinking, or they happen even when she's arguing against her best interests, or if it's only in circumstances when you've just criticized her in some unrelated way; you get the idea.)

Good luck, and here's hoping that it's nothing more serious than her being a pain in the butt.
posted by davejay at 3:05 PM on September 17, 2007

My mother has done this. Reasons echo googly's--she wasn't an orphan, but she was raised by an extremely authoritarian father who make it clear that Good People Were Always Right, He Is Always Right, and I'm pretty sure she came away from that thinking being wrong is the same as being evil. I think it is very difficult for her to admit wrongdoing--even when it's just a mistake--so when confronted with it she'll do anything to avoid the fact. This has led to a pretty terrible relationship between us as it wasn't just over minor details--for example, there was one time when I was young she thought I was faking being sick, and even when I began throwing up she got mad at my father for helping me because she couldn't believe I was actually sick. At the time I thought she was just being cruel; now, I think she was just terrified of being wrong about such a major thing.

I have gotten through this mostly and just feel sad she went through what she did and never developed the self-awareness to see how it affected her.
posted by schroedinger at 3:18 PM on September 17, 2007

I have a friend who does this. It feels like a control issue. This particular friend is insecure, and it comes out in odd ways. My ex- did something similar, because he is contrarian. In any case, the more you challenge her the more annoying for you. Don't bite.

Mum: Remember that car your friend X used to have?
Me: Oh yeah, was it a Foobar?
Mum: No no, that wasn't it.
Me: Huh, the red car?
Mum: yes the red car.
Me: Great car; we used to get stopped all the time by the cops...

Try to turn an occasion for fighting into an occasion for communicating.

Our family term or similar behavior is Revisionist History, where my Mom retells family stories the way she wishes they happened, or to make some point. My Mom is really difficult; it's had to have a conversation because she's depressed, negative and cranky. But she's dying, and she's our Mom, so we keep trying.
posted by theora55 at 4:18 PM on September 17, 2007

So if there is such a thing as confabulation then is there disconfabulation? Oh, wait...that would be forgetting, wouldn't it? Like when my grown daughter asked me why I didn't take her or her siblings for swimming lessons when they were children, when I spent many hours taking them to the pool for exactly that reason. I've noticed my grown children tell several "family" stories that are not the way I remember them happening. Am I remembering them incorrectly or are they?
posted by rcavett at 7:44 PM on September 17, 2007

My mother does this. So does her mother. My brother and I are more tired of this than can be easily estimated. She's not much of a drinker as far as we know (which is pretty well). However, she is screwed up on two things, all the time:

1. Her serious, worsening, untreated, all-pervasive, all-encompassing mental problems (depression, anxiety, abandonment/betrayal/anger/control/self-control issues to the extreme
2. Heavy regimen of antihistamines, light regimen of painkillers.

For our mother, it doesn't seem to have to do with approaching mental decline (she's always been like this), although with our grandmother, I'm sure that's exacerbating her habit of pulling this shit.
posted by Coatlicue at 1:19 PM on September 18, 2007

pluckysparrow, for years because my parents' versions of things were so contrary to (& rosier than) what I remembered, I thought I was kind of crazy and, in fact, would tell people straight out that my memory was unreliable.

Then as adults my brother and I started hanging out again and it has been a godsend just to have my memories validated.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:32 PM on September 18, 2007

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