[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: My memory of the beginning of COVID involves someone you’ve heard from on this podcast a lot this year, an epidemiologist named Dr. David Fisman. Back in late February of 2020, before this was an official pandemic, we had Dr. Fisman on the podcast to talk about what we should be doing to prepare for one.
All you really need to know about that episode is that we were still in the studio back then. So David came in to do the interview in person. Our producer Stef met him in the lobby and brought him upstairs to the studio, and I shook his hand. Then he stepped out to get some water or use the restroom, and Stef said to me, “He’s sanitized his hands, like, four times on the way up here, it’s a little strange.” And something clicked for me. The people who know about this stuff were already prepared for it to get bad. And I will have that memory for the rest of my [00:01:00] life, but I actually don’t know how accurate it is, but that’s what we’re going to discuss today.
I also asked our producers, Stef and Claire and Ryan, to record their own memories of when the pandemic became real for them. I’m going to play those quickly. I’d also ask you to picture your own.
Stefanie Phillips: It was a Saturday night, I think March 14th, and I was supposed to be heading to a friend’s house to celebrate her birthday. At the time, bars and restaurants were still open in Toronto, but health officials were warning everyone of safety concerns, and the world just seemed to be shutting down all around us. So I texted her nervously confessing that I didn’t feel comfortable going out that night with everything going on, and that I didn’t even feel comfortable going over to her house.
Ryan Clarke: I was sitting at my desk working on the big story with a bunch of my colleagues and sitting close to me was the national format director, Scott Metcalfe. He’s been in the news [00:02:00] business for decades on decades and he’s seen everything under the sun. And there’s a TV close to us, which we were all kind of looking at, as many countries began restricting flights from Asia. And he looked at me and he said that in all his years of working in the news business, he’s never seen anything like this.
Claire Brassard: For me, it was the last day in the office, Friday, March 13th, 2020. I’ll never forget it. It was just the atmosphere. Everyone was freaking out and I could see a lineup to the grocery store down the street. It was all just such a shock to me. And I remember just being exhausted when I got home and thinking, “holy crap, this is real.”
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now that we have some memories to work with, I won’t bore you with the details of them, but take Claire’s memory, for instance. I work with Claire every day. We were both in that same office, the same studio, and I think she’s wrong about what happened when. I think she’s blurring together a few days. She probably thinks I’m wrong.
Chances [00:03:00] are, if you have someone in your life who was with you, for whatever memory you’re thinking of, and you ask them about it, they’ll tell you that you’ve got a few things wrong and you probably won’t believe them. And so here is a really fascinating thing about our memories, especially during COVID.
Usually our memories exist in moments or in generalities. Think of, like, the difference between remembering where you were on 9/11 compared to remembering your childhood vacations. The pandemic has both of those. It has a short, dramatic, worldwide shock followed by, for those of us who were lucky anyway, days and weeks and months, that all bled together. That gives our mind a lot to work with when it’s crafting our memories and when we are crafting stories from those memories. And the results, when we [00:04:00] eventually tell those stories to our grandkids, are going to be fascinating.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings:, this is The Big Story. Melissa Fay Greene is a writer and an author. She looked into the memories we’ll have of COVID for the Atlantic, and her most recent book is called ‘The Underdogs’. Hello, Melissa.
Melissa Fay Greene: Hi, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t you start, and because your piece starts this way and because we started the show this way, um, by telling me when COVID got real for you.
Melissa Fay Greene: We have a little grandson who lives in Denver and we live in Atlanta and the little grandson is just the love of my life. And, uh, my husband and I were planning a trip to visit the kids in Denver. And we were going to stay there for a week and that the trip was scheduled for March 12th, 2020.
Uh, by March 11th, [00:05:00] the COVID news was getting more and more ominous. I was in total denial because nothing was going to keep me apart from this little curly haired three-year-old boy. And then all of our grown kids started calling and saying, are you sure, it seems dangerous, it looks scary out there. And then even the Denver kids called and said, we don’t think you should do this.
I w- I was crushed and just was unpacking my suitcase, weeping. My husband was like, this is ridiculous, we can still go, they’re overreacting. But then the National Basketball Association canceled its season, at which point my husband was like, “Oh gosh, okay, this is serious”.
And I started wondering, what will we remember? And how will we, assuming we survive this, how will we describe what happened to future generations? If someday, you know, younger people ask you what it was like living through the pandemic, would I forever narrate my canceled plane ticket episode and would my [00:06:00] husband forever talk about the NBA canceling its season?
And I just, I started to wonder, what will we remember? What will we talk about? So I started interviewing, you know, locating and interviewing memory experts and got so deep into the neuroscience of memory, I thought I would never emerge again. I got so far over my head so quickly. I landed with a group of experts studying, not the neuroscience of memory, but studying memory more from a psychological perspective, studying autobiographical memory, narrative memory.
And it was absolutely fascinating. Everything they do rests now on the understanding that memory is really fallible and really changeable and flexible. So what these experts study is why we choose to remember the things we remember and what sense do we make of them.
[00:07:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And before we get into all the details of this, just to play off your initial answer, after all the work you’ve done and all the people you’ve spoken to about this, how accurate do you think your own memories are, the ones you just described to me?
Melissa Fay Greene: So that’s the funny thing about it. Our memories feel absolutely accurate to us. So I would say a hundred percent, but. It’s not what the experts would say. I happen to live just a few blocks from Emory University, and one of the most interesting discoveries was made at Emory, uh, starting in 1986, the day after, uh, the fiery destruction of the space shuttle known as The Challenger. A professor of psychology there, Ulric Neisser, asked a hundred-some undergraduates to write down how they got the news. Uh, how did they learn about the [00:08:00] cataclysmic failure of The Challenger? And the undergrads wrote down how it happened.
Uh, someone typically might, might say something like, “I was asleep, but my roommate came running in and told me what happened, and we ran downstairs and watched it on the TV, in the lobby of the dorm”. That, that might be what they said in 1986. Uh, Three and a half years later, before these students were graduating, Professor Neisser found about half of them and ask them again, tell me, tell me how you learned about the destruction of The Challenger, and their answers veered off incredibly.
Let’s see, the results were that 25% of the students were wrong about everything, scoring zero. Half of the students scored two or less on a seven point scale. And yet almost all of them felt really confident. So a few years later, what they might say- they would forget that the roommate came in and woke them up, what they might remember then was, “Oh, I saw it. I was watching TV in the [00:09:00] lobby and I saw it then”.
There’s been a lot of fascinating research around the subject of how accurately do we remember, and the answer is we don’t remember all that accurately. I shared this information with friends of my generation because we all perfectly remember with a hundred percent accuracy the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963.
I remember the chair I was sitting in an elementary school. I remember the voice coming in over the Intercom.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Melissa Fay Greene: But this research indicates, yeah, no, you know, maybe not. But still, your feeling is that you have it exactly right.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What’s going on in our brains, uh, when that changes over time? You know, are we just isolating the most important parts? Are we, are we crafting something, polishing it up? Like what’s happening there?
Melissa Fay Greene: Well, I interviewed Dr. Robyn Fivush at Emory who is interested in how we construct our own identities from our memories. She sees memories as [00:10:00] being kind of these fluid pieces that change every time you call them up. So every time something triggers a memory and you summon it, you might look at it differently.
It’s not the same when you call it up because you may be calling it up for different purposes. You may be calling up a memory because you’re going to look at it from a new angle. Someone else might remember something a little different, and you might then restore your memory altered. You’re open- it turns out we’re open to amending our memories and letting other people amend them. We’ll take in new information. Uh, Dr. Fivush said it doesn’t make them more inaccurate necessarily because someone might be offering a correction, you know, “No no no, that, you know that wasn’t the Thanksgiving at the beach. That was the Thanksgiving at the mountains.” “Oh, right. right, right. I was remembering the wrong house.”
So you might put back the memory more accurately, but you might not, [00:11:00] and you won’t know necessarily. So she’s more interested in big picture. What do the memories mean to us? What do we make of them? And one of the great discoveries I learned through this research was the fact that we, we do have a little bit of control, maybe not on the raw data of a memory, but on how we shape our anecdotes about it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah, explain- explain how that works, um, because I think, well, certainly myself and probably many of our listeners, tend to view memory as a static thing. Like it doesn’t change. It’s just what happened.
Melissa Fay Greene: Uh, for decades now there’s been research showing that, uh, our memories can be influenced by all kinds of things. Uh, Professor Elizabeth Loftus from UC Irvine, uh, was one of the first to impeach the accuracy of so-called [00:12:00] eyewitness memories. So she’s been of incredible value in court cases, in the prosecution of crime.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Melissa Fay Greene: She discovered early on if someone were an eyewitness to, say, a fender bender, uh, if the eyewitness were to be asked, “At what rate was the car traveling?” That eyewitness might say, “I think maybe 30, 35 miles per hour.” But if you were to ask, uh, “How fast was the car speeding?” If you added words that shaped an impression, people estimated a faster speed. You, you could, you could shape eyewitness memory, even from such tiny tweaks as that, by the way you asked.
One of the most interesting things I learned about here was story shapes. A few years ago, working on a suggestion by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, researchers at a couple of institutions tried [00:13:00] tracking the arc of stories using artificial intelligence and all kinds of data analytics. They basically fed the plots of thousands of works of fiction of novels and stories into this program.
And the computers generated six basic story arcs that cover most of the plots in Western literature. And just to tell you quickly, we all know these, we know all these stories. Uh, there’s there’s rags to riches is a famous one, just a slope from the lower left to the upper right. If you picture a graph and its opposite, tragedy starts out high on the upper left, falls to the lower right. So either rags to riches or tragedy.
Then there are story arcs with one inflection point: ‘rise, then fall’, and that’s called Icarus. Uh, or the, the- its opposite is ‘man in a hole’- something’s gone wrong, [00:14:00] you’re in the pit, but you rise out of it. And then finally, a little more complex- ‘rise, fall, rise’ is called ‘the Cinderella story’. That was one that Kurt Vonnegut was interested in. Uh, and its opposite is ‘fall, rise, fall’, and that’s named after Oedipus.
So, fascinating material. What Dr. Fivush and her colleagues did a couple of years ago was to wonder whether our personal narratives, the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell our friends, our little after-dinner accounts to, to amuse our dinner party guests- do those have story arcs? Just our own stories?
So they, uh, solicited and tracked down, uh, thousands of stories in which people were asked to tell about the worst thing that ever happened to me and the best thing that ever happened to me. And then they did very similar data analytics to people’s private stories. And, to everyone’s astonishment, the same [00:15:00] six story arcs materialized. We shape our own stories, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, and the stories we tell one another.
Uh, I talked to her Robert Thorstad, who was the, kind of the head of the data analytics on that project. He said he’d been expecting that most of our stories would be the simple ones- rags to riches, or tragedy- but that was not what people liked.
The vast majority of the stories that everyday people tell, that we tell, have one inflection point. We like ‘man in a hole’, and we like, we like Icarus, which I think is just fascinating. I think it’s that we like a little bit of complexity, and we tell stories, you know, again, over dinner, over beer. When we tell stories, we want there to be a little more drama, rather than I screwed up and everything went to hell.
We like a little more, a little more drama. I screwed up, everything went to hell, but you know what? I found a different job six months [00:16:00] later, and now I couldn’t be happier. So ‘man in a hole’, that, that’s how we like to tell our stories.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When we look back at this time, then, um, you know, to your point earlier to tell our grandchildren or whatever about it, how do you derive a story arc from a year of, you know, most of us, again, if we’re privileged enough to not be doing much?
Melissa Fay Greene: As far as that kind of Groundhog-Day sensation that a lot of people, as you say, the people privileged to be comfortable, not struggling, perhaps working at home, perhaps dazed by the sameness of the weeks they’ve experienced. Uh, Dr. Fivush said it is not all that unusual and that she doesn’t think our memories from this time are, are going to be more vague than they are from other times. Uh, but that we should look at the pandemic as a life period. It’s not like the assassination of John Kennedy. Uh, it’s more like [00:17:00] the Depression, the Blitz of London, you know, the Siege of Leningrad.
It’s a life period in which all our memories will be anchored. So in years to come, we can still tell our personal stories, “Yes, our first child was born, she was born during the pandemic.” That, that’s, that’s the life period within this, what feels like this endless, you know, 14 months now. Uh, there will be all kinds of stories.
I did- I did some crowdsourcing for this article and I tossed out, “What do you think you’ll remember? What do you think you’ll talk about?” And the memory experts, you know, picked over some of those stories with me. What I include in the magazine, it’s a tiny- it’s a very brief moment. It’s not, it’s not this woman’s story of the entire pandemic, but the story she told me was that she’s really a people person, she was feeling very lonely. So she sat on her porch every day and called, “Hi neighbour,” to people walking by. [00:18:00] Uh, there was a couple, uh, a man covered with tattoos and a woman with bright red hair on part of her head and the other part shaved. And they always said, hello back. They were dog walkers. One day they said, hello. And she burst into tears.
They said, what’s wrong? And she said, “I’m just not doing very well today”. And the woman said, “You’re grieving for everything we’ve lost, I understand. We’re going to check on you every week”. And the woman who told me the story said, “And then I felt a little better and I looked forward to them checking on me.”
It’s a tiny little anecdote, but it’s ‘man in a hole’, right? You see that? And what the, what the narrative psychologists look for is the density of story shapes. As you, as you collect and gather the stories you’re likely to tell about this period, are more of them going to be Icarus? Another word they use for that is, is contamination.
Contamination stories are, ‘something went wrong and everything was ruined’, or are they more likely to be [00:19:00] ‘man in a hole’ shapes, which they also call ‘redemptive arc’. “Yeah, things were really bad, but, you know what, even though we lost Grandpa, we came out of it stronger and now we’re closer than ever”. That’s that’s the redemptive arc. North Americans especially like that arc. Uh, Dr. Fivush mentioned that we, we push one another to tell that arc. So if your friend is telling you about a really awful thing that happened, you might, almost unwittingly, prompt your friend to say, “Yeah, but you learned a lot from that, right?” Like we prompt one another to make a redemptive shape, to make a ‘man in a hole’ shape.
And the cool thing about it is that, if we’re able to do it and you’re not able to do it right away, if you’ve lost someone dear to you, it can take years. It’s not like you’re going to just flip over the Icarus shape and have a happy ‘man and a hole’ shape. It’s not like that. It’s not like it’s instant, but if [00:20:00] you are, in time, over time able to shape some of your stories, you start to feel more resilient and you start to become more resilient.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Melissa Fay Greene: No matter how awful the things are that we’ve all faced, there’s still a possibility for deriving some strength from it going forward. If we see ourselves as not entirely defeated by it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That’s fascinating, and it makes me want to ask a weird question, um, which is based on a stereotype, I guess. Does what you just described have something to do with why you always hear, uh, about older people who say, “Oh, you kids have it so easy today. You know, back in my day, we had to uphill to school, both ways, et cetera, et cetera.” Like, how does the passing of time change the way we view these things?
Melissa Fay Greene: I think that’s an awesome question. And I think that sounds like a person who’s asking [00:21:00] that has shaped their own ‘man in a hole’ narrative, that childhood was hard as hell. And maybe the person telling you this lived through the depression, lived through World War II. God knows what all people live through, you know, maybe the person has been a refugee. But it sounds like a person who is able to tell that story is telling it with a bit of pride.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah. Like it made, it made me tougher. Right? That’s the, that’s the narrative.
Melissa Fay Greene: Yeah. I think that’s exactly it. And so that, that person has found in those hardships a source of strength because of the way that person shaped the narrative arc around those memories. Dr. Fivush thinks- she does not think we store memories already shaped as narrative arcs, but that when we reach for a memory, that we perhaps, at the same time, sort through our possible narrative arcs. The [00:22:00] research shows there are only about six of them, and that we tend to choose from among those six arcs.
The researchers, especially in the Fivush-Thorstad group, they also were searching for, “are there other shapes we don’t know about?” Are there just, are there random shapes we haven’t seen in fiction? Nope. They didn’t see any. And they also of course scanned for, and we all know people who try to tell stories like this, just flat lines- the people who don’t really get the notion of, you know, motive- motivation, or conflict or drama.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If that’s the case, and given that we’ve all had, uh, to suffer through the same, uh, being in a hole, I guess, over the past year, will we all then, and I’m, I’m trying to put a positive spin on it because I know that people can use that right now, but. As time goes on, will we all collectively encourage one another to pull off that redemptive narrative just by the way we ask [00:23:00] each other to recall our stories?
Melissa Fay Greene: Chances are that we will, and that we will do it, first of all, within our close circle, our families and our close friends. And then within increasingly large circles. Uh, Dr. Fivush was mentioning, just as an example, maybe you say to your friend, “I’m just, I’m feeling really down. I’m so cut off from my family. I just, I haven’t seen my grown kids in forever.” And your friend says, “No, I know I feel the same way, but, but Zoom actually helps, right? Like we’re Zooming more than ever before, and we’re playing, we’re having board game nights and we never did that in person.” And then the first person says, “Yeah, yeah, you know, you’re right. You’re right. That is true.” And so the first person sort of shelves that memory in a bit of a happier mood, a little bit more of an upbeat mood. So we do, we do that for one another.
I also think we’re going to have very, very, very different stories to tell, and we [00:24:00] will shape them, first of all, within our communities. You know, the anti-science, anti-vaccination, anti-democracy people are going to have one set of memories, activists in the Black Lives Matter movement are going to have a different set of memories, people on the front lines, quote, unquote essential workers who are underpaid, working impossible hours and getting sick, they’re going to have a set of memories. And little by little we’ll we’ll kind of rub off the rough edges and agree on these group narratives. And then over time they might even rise to national narratives. It is a collective and national impulse, something good will come of this. And we want it to, because we’ve lost tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people. We’ve lost loved ones, and we don’t want their deaths to have been in vain.
We’ve got to do better. We’re going to do better. We’re going to build [00:25:00] something new on the ashes here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And then 30 years later, we’ll tell our grandkids that you have it so easy. We survived a pandemic.
Melissa Fay Greene: We had to wear masks for months every time we went out.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Exactly, Melissa. Thank you so much for explaining this to me. It’s such a fascinating subject, I’m so glad you wrote about it.
Melissa Fay Greene: Jordan, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Melissa Fay Greene of the Atlantic, author of The Underdogs, a book about the first service dogs for kids with disabilities. You can find all her books at melissafaygreene.com. That was The Big Story, for more from us, you probably remember this whole spiel by now, you can head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Write to us at thebigstorypodcast, that is all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!], and follow us, subscribe to us, whatever the app wants you to do in your favourite podcast app of choice.
Thanks for [00:26:00] listening, I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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