Thursday, November 09, 2006


Distorted Memories

Ever since Captain James McAndrew's The Roswell Report: Case Solved appeared in 1997, ufologists have ridiculed his suggestions that some of the details recalled by witnesses actually referred to events which took place some years after 1947, in particular that some of the reports of alien bodies, were distorted memories of the recovery of dummies used to test parachutes.

However, such confusion of the timing of events is not unusual when persons are asked to recall events which happened many years ago. In 1998 Peter Rogerson discussed the confusion which resulted when witnesses to the Goose Bay case of 1954 were interviewed about 13 years later. The following article appeared in Magonia 65, November 1998:


There has been some scepticism expressed about the claim made by the United States Government in The Roswell Report: Case Solved, that people had misremembered incidents occurring in the 1950s as having happened at the time of Roswell. Surely memories cannot be that distorted, can they?

Historians who work with oral testimony, however, are familiar with just this sort of problem, as one of them writes:

"Memories play tricks, as drastic pruning commences very soon after an experience, one person's selective processes operating very differently from another's, offering several perceptions of even the most mundane incidents. Memory is a mixture of fact and opinion, full of inconsistencies and excisions. Events may be reinterpreted over time, may relate to occurrences which [either] had no great significance for, or made a huge impression on, a child; several may be telescoped together, or recalled out of order, whilst a person's role in them might be enlarged by wishful re-enactment. Some may remember events as participants, others retell a story based on hearsay which has been recounted many times over with embellishments at every telling." (Colwell, Stella, Teach Yourself Tracing Your Family Tree, Hodder, 1997, p. 11)

An interesting example of just such a memory distortion, compressing events which occurred over a decade apart can be found in Jenny Randles's Something in the Air, concerning the Goose Bay Stratocruiser case. Interviewed by Jenny Randles (presumably in the early 1990s), the chief stewardess recalled that after being quizzed before they left Heathrow, she was later asked to go to the Air Ministry with Lee Boyd and James Howard. They asked her if she often saw things, whether she was psychic and if she had seen fairies.

After further questions at the Ministry all three were introduced to a Professor Black, a psychiatrist. He asked about their perception and eyesight, and speculated about optical illusions and light refractions. Then, quite remarkably, the officials requested Daphne and the pilots to undergo hypnosis. Jenny goes on to say how remarkably early 1954 would be for hypnotic regression, and how all trace of this incident is gone from official files.

In fact the name Black is a vital clue here, for it allows us to identify the correct time in which these incidents occurred. The crew of the BOAC Stratocruiser did not meet 'Dr' Stephen Black (who may or may not have had a degree in psychology) in 1954 but in either 1967 or just possibly early 1968. And the meeting was not at the instigation of the Air Ministry, but that of the BBC, for the documentary UFOs and the People Who See Them broadcast on BBC 1 on 9 May 1968. A detailed review by John Harney appears in MUFOB, volume 1, number 3, pp 23-25, and was the subject of an editorial by Charles Bowen in FSR 14, 4, pp 1-2. Both these reviews note the BOAC crew's appearance in the programme. This study by Stephen Black was indeed remarkably prescient, anticipating much of the psychosocial ufology of the 1980s and 1990s. There is no doubt that the interview with Black that the chief stewardess recalls was for this programme (in which she appeared). The hypnosis was not exactly hypnotic regression, but was part of Black's testing of his theory that close-encounter UFO witnesses were deep-trance hypnotic subjects. He suggested that flickering light, the way people react in groups, and hypnosis could all combine to explain UFOs. Many of us would think he may have hit on something very important.

This case of memory distortion is very informative. Daphne the stewardess had correctly remembered the doctor's surname and his line of questioning, but had the time frame and context totally distorted. Another person may well have remembered the day when the interview took place, could have told you what the weather was like, but could not have remembered anything of what was asked. This inciedent proves that time compression over a decade is possible, and that there is nothing totally improbable about the USAF claims over Roswell.

How many other such cases of memory distortion are there in which groups of events thought to have occurred at roughly the same time occurred ages apart, and where context is misremembered? It reinforces the warning Stephen Smith (then BUFORA's director of research) gave at a conference a quarter of a century ago: there is little point in investigating cases much more than a week old, and that the aim should be no later than 48 hours. Today's ufologists are becoming obsessed with cases from half a century ago, for which original documentation is sparse, and memories confused with the passage of time.

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