Selective memory is one of those things that is an essential ingredient in other things—without selective memory, such things as denial and gaslighting just don’t work.
What must be understood about the narcissist is that many of her peculiarities—like denial and gaslighting and selective memory—are not always consciously, intentionally created. Oh, narcissists can—and do—intentionally lie and twist things to suit their own agenda, but there is also a non-volitional component in which the narcissist has unconsciously altered reality to create or support her fantasy world and those things are as real to her as anything in your reality-grounded life is to you.
Self-identified narcissist Sam Vaknin addresses this in his essay Being There: Narcissism and Selective Memory, “I am often shocked when presented with incontrovertible evidence to an event in my past, something I said, or did, a person I knew, a sentence I have written. I do not remember having done, said, or written what is attributed to me. I do not recall having met the person, having felt anything, having been there. It is not that it looks alien to me, as though it happened to someone else. I simply have no recollection whatsoever, I draw a blank…I simply erase and atomize that which is no longer of use in the pursuit of Narcissistic Supply.”
The website Out of the Fog, a site dedicated to people having to deal with personality-disordered others, describes selective memory thus: “…the use of memory, or a lack of memory, which is selective to the point of reinforcing a bias, belief or desired outcome.”
My own MNM’s particular brand of selective memory was simple: if she didn’t remember it, it didn’t happen. Not that she might have forgotten it…that was not possible. She was absolute in this—if she didn’t remember it, it never happened. And you can be assured that, like Sam Vaknin, she never forgot anything that might lead her to N-supply!
Now this could be applied in a lot of ways—she could forget her own words and deeds or the words and deeds of others, or she could “misremember” her own words and deeds as well as those of others. Any way you sliced it, she was entirely confident of her memory, so when it came to a difference between her memory of an event and yours, you were inevitably wrong…even when you were objectively right. And if she said it didn’t happen and you insisted that it did, well, you were just setting yourself up for a world of hurt.
There was nothing too small for this to be applied to. If she thought she told me to peel some potatoes and put them on the stove—but failed to do so—then came home from work the potatoes were not there, I got a beating; trying tell her she had not told me to put the potatoes on would just make the beating worse: if she remembered it, it happened, whether I “remembered” it or not. She once gave me permission to go to a choir concert, which she promptly forgot; weeks later, when I asked for a ride to school where I would pick up the bus to the event, she exploded and accused me of trying to “sneak one past” her. I was sent to my room for the rest of the day and evening, causing me to miss the concert, which caused a knotty problem for the other 59 members of the choir and the choir master, since I was a featured soloist and I just didn’t show up for the event.
There was nothing too big to come under the spell of selective memory, either. My mother conveniently “forgot” that she forced my father out of the house…her “memory” of the event was that he abandoned her for his “cheap chippie.” When I became pregnant at 17, she attempted to have my 17 year old boyfriend arrested for statutory rape (didn’t fly—he was also under age) and when I married someone else, she “forgot” about my high school boyfriend and insisted to everyone that my new husband (whom I did not meet until I was 4 months pregnant) was the baby’s father. Now, this may sound petty and small—and even understandable, given the mores of the time—until you realize that years later, when my daughter was an adult, NM still insisted that my first husband was my daughter’s father, long after there was anything “embarrassing” to hide in such a lie. To her mind, my claims that she tried to have my boyfriend arrested and that he is my daughter’s father were lies simply because she didn’t remember it that way and therefore my story could not be true.
The ability to remember what they want in the way they want it, should not be confused with lying. In telling a lie, a narcissist is consciously creating a falsehood to advantage herself. The lie can be as simple as saying she works ten hours a day rather than the true eight, or it can be as elaborate as the two years of lies my MNM told her family and the courts in three states to separate me from my children. Selective memory, however, is less contrived: the narcissist believes those very lies her subconscious has fabricated in order to create a “memory” that is more in keeping with the narcissist’s self-image, takes blame away from her and puts it on another, makes her look noble, heroic, smart, accomplished, or simply right.
When their selective memory is not consciously chosen, the narcissist may be engaging in “confabulation.” “Characteristic features of confabulation:
1) Typically verbal statements but can also be non-verbal gestures or actions.
2) Can include autobiographical and non-personal information, such as historical facts, fairytales, or other aspects of semantic memory.
3) The account can be fantastic or coherent.
4) Both the premise and the details of the account can be false.
5) The account is usually drawn from the patient’s memory of actual experiences, including past and current thoughts.
6) The patient is unaware of the accounts’ distortions or inappropriateness, and is not concerned when errors are pointed out.
7) There is no hidden motivation behind the account.
8) The patient’s personality structure may play a role in their readiness to confabulate.”
Item #7 may seem confusing with regard to narcissists, but bear in mind that when the narcissist’s subconscious is amending reality for a purpose, the narcissist may be completely unaware and have no conscious hidden motivation. And #8 is particularly important: a dysfunctional personality structure surely makes one more susceptible to confabulate than a person with a more integrated, functional personality.
I am not trying to prompt sympathy or empathy for the narcissist, here. Quite the contrary, in fact. Nobody is certain what prompts a person to develop NPD, but we are all aware that the narcissist’s actual actions are volitional: they have the same ability to choose their behaviours as the rest of us, the same ability to resist their baser urges, the same ability to take the high road, even if they have no emotional investment in doing so. Make no mistake, narcissist’s know right from wrong and when they do wrong, they make a choice to do so, just as a normal person might. They choose to do wrong because there is something in it for them, some kind of obvious gain or the not-so-obvious reward of Nsupply.
This is why, even if the narcissist in confabulating and is truly not aware of her selective memory, I give no quarter. A perfect—and true-to-life—example is two men I know: both are diabetic, both recently had seizures that left them unconscious for a brief period of time, and neither of them have any recall of the seizure. The first man, while having absolutely no memory of the seizure, believed his wife when she told him what happened and, as a result, became more careful with his medication. The second man (already known to both me and his girlfriend as a narcissist) had not one but two seizures on the same day. But when his girlfriend told him what happened he, like my NM, didn’t remember it and therefore declared it didn’t happen. As a result, he continues to make foolish choices regarding his medication, adjusting nothing because, in his mind it never happened and he simply refuses to entertain the thought that his lack of memory of an event does not negate its reality. Both men had exactly the same choice—to believe their “memory” or their partner—and the narcissist took the arrogant, self-aggrandizing one.
Selective memory can be volitional, as when someone determinedly puts something unpleasant...or something that simply does not serve her...out of her mind, and it can be non-volitional, as when the subconscious rewrites history to create or support the narcissist’s fantasy life. But in both cases, a person has the option of relying on what she thinks she recalls or relying on outside evidence, the testimony of others, society’s norms. The narcissist invariably goes for what she “remembers,” to the detriment of all others concerned.
Next up: Hypocrisy
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.