The New Yorker:
When Ada JoAnn Taylor is tense, she thinks she can feel the fabric of a throw pillow in the pads of her fingers. Taylor has suffered from tactile flashbacks for three decades. She imagines herself in a small apartment in Beatrice, Nebraska. She is gripping the edges of a pillow, more tightly than she means to, and suffocating a sixty-eight-year-old widow. “I feel for her,” Taylor told me recently. “She was my grandmother’s age.”
Taylor confessed to the woman’s murder in 1989 and for two decades believed that she was guilty. She served more than nineteen years for the crime before she was pardoned. She was one of six people accused of the murder, five of whom took pleas; two had internalized their guilt so deeply that, even after being freed, they still had vivid memories of committing the crime. In no other case in the United States have false memories of guilt endured so long. The situation is a study in the malleability of memory: an implausible notion, doubted at first, grows into a firmly held belief that reshapes one’s autobiography and sense of identity.
A 2015 study in Psychological Science found that seventy per cent of people, when subjected to highly suggestive and repetitive interviews, would come to believe that they had committed a crime. They developed what the authors called “rich false memories,” detailed and multisensory, of having perpetrated a theft or an assault. The authors wrote that “imagined memory elements regarding what something could have been like can turn into elements of what it would have been like, which can become elements of what it was like.” In the past thirty years, roughly a hundred men and women in the United States have confessed to crimes for which they have later been exonerated by DNA evidence.
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