We know that people make up false memories if prompted. But since our brain never stops being a jerk, we can also convert real memories into things we believe we imagined. Cryptomnesia can strike via our own memories, or our memories of things that others tell us. One of the most famous cases of cryptomnesia destroyed the fantasy-writing career of Helen Keller.
Have you ever told people a joke that you’re sure that you made up – only to have someone point to a magazine or website where it was already published? It happens to a lot of people. Their mind registers a phrase or an event and keeps it around, but the provenance of the event is lost. After a sufficient amount of time, the event pops up in their brain, and they assume they made it up.
One of the most sensational cases of this, which made its way through the media and the courts, involving no less a beloved figure than Helen Keller. Keller, blind and deaf since early childhood, relied on her memory to get her through school, and through life.
When she was eleven, after she’d been working with Anne Sullivan for only a few years, she carefully wrote a story called The Frost King. Intended as a present for Michael Anagnos, the head of a school for the blind, it was published in his almuni magazine, and then picked up by local papers.
Helen Keller’s story was already well-known, so this remarkably precocious fantasy tale got a wider and wider circulation, until someone noticed something odd. It was an almost exact retelling of another story, The Frost Fairies, by Margaret Canby. Accusations of plagiarism started flying, and reporters combed through Helen’s history for evidence that she had read that book.
It was finally discovered at the home of a friend of the Keller family, who acknowledged that she had read the book to Helen while Anne Sullivan was on vacation. While Helen had her defenders, the specter of plagiarism was never entirely dispelled. Helen Keller wrote, much later in life, that the event scared her so much that she never again dared write any fiction.
Helen’s most famous defender was the famously cynical Mark Twain, who claimed that similar things had happened to him throughout his writing career. He was probably right. Cryptomnesia – the misattribution of memories – is a fairly easy trap to fall into.
According to the The British Journal of Psychiatry, we experience partial cryptomnesia all the time. We remember things, but don’t remember where we learned them. So we may recommend a book to the person who recommended it to us, or tell a new piece of gossip to the person who first told us about it. We remember learning something, but not where we learned it.