Tara Reade says she was sexually assaulted by Joe Biden in the Capitol Hill office building in 1993. Joe says it never happened. This is the ultimate he-said-she-said story and most reporters have concluded that somebody, either Tara or Joe, is lying.
Public reaction to the story has been predictably partisan. MAGA people are hoping that Reade’s allegations, true or not, will make it impossible for Sleepy Joe to play the sleaze card against Donald Trump.
The most ardent supporters of Bernie Sanders tend to believe Reade’s allegations implicitly. “Are you satisfied now,” they ask centrist Democrats, “you could have had Bernie but you just had to nominate a rapist!”
Biden’s loyal supporters just know that Reade has fabricated every syllable of her story in a desperate attempt to derail their man. In this camp, she is generally viewed as a paid Republican operative of some sort.
Now that Trump has controlled the media narrative for five whole years it has become much easier for us to assume that everyone is lying about everything. Trump lies constantly, even in situations where the truth is easily discernible. When his lies are exposed it doesn’t faze him in the least; he simply launches into another spate of distortion.
But Trump is an anomaly. Lying is hard for most of us.
If we could uncover the full truth about what transpired between Reade and Biden (which we can’t) it would almost certainly prove to be far more complicated that these standard reactions suggest.
We can’t know the truth about what happened for a couple of reasons. First, there is no forensic, documentary or video evidence to confirm either account and it is unlikely that smoking-gun proof will ever emerge.
Secondly, the human memory is far more fickle and fallible than is generally assumed.
My interest in false memory stems from my involvement in criminal justice reform work. Most criminal cases proceed through the court system without meaningful forensic evidence (DNA, fingerprints and the like). Although you’d never know it from watching television, meaningful video footage in criminal cases is exceedingly rare.
As a consequence, eye witness testimony is often all prosecutors have to go on.
They make the most of it.
Witnesses are generally privy to only a slim slice of the relevant action so, to make a coherent case, it is typically necessary to stitch together random memories from a variety of witnesses. By inserting these memories into a tight chronological narrative, a good prosecutor can create the appearance of an airtight case even when no single witness saw much of anything.
No one expects witness memory to be perfect, of course. The fact that the various witnesses in the Flowers case remember him wearing entirely different outfits is what we would expect. Memory’s video may be a bit grainy, but it’s good enough.
But memory doesn’t work that way. Elizabeth Loftus, the world’s leading authority on the human memory, says that memory has more in common with imagination than photography. “Memory is constructed and reconstructed,” she says. “It’s more like a Wikipedia page — you can go change it, but so can other people.” (Her terrific TED talk on the subject that will quickly bring you up to speed.)
In their groundbreaking The Science of False Memory, Charles Brainerd and Valerie Reyna distinguish between verbatim memory (what the scene looked like) and gist memory (what the event means to the witness). Verbatim memory is extremely fragile and quickly fades. Gist memory lasts longer, but is stored in a different part of the brain than verbatim memory. Several days after a witnessed event, gist memory easily attaches to extraneous snippets of verbatim memory, especially when the witness is being aggressively interrogated and is eager to please.
Most events are retained in memory for only a brief moment and then are sloughed off to make room for more significant data. We can’t remember everything, our brains aren’t up to it.
Unfortunately, false memories are far more easily created than most of us imagine and, once lodged in the mind, begin to feel more “real” than actual memory.
In The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory, Julia Shaw describes a 2015 study conducted as part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia. First, Shaw and her associates called up the parents of several dozen ordinary university students and asked them to recall a real event from their child’s adolescent years. Subjects were asked if they remembered the event and almost all of them did. Then things got interesting.
Subjects were told (falsely) that their parents had also described an upsetting incident involving behavior so troubling that the police were involved. Initially, none of the study participants could recall anything of that sort, but they were assured that painful memories could be retrieved with sufficient reflection. Subjects were asked to go home and give the matter more thought.
In the second interview, participants were told that if they reflect on what the painful past incident might have been like, genuine memories might be triggered.
Stephen Porter, Shaw’s PhD supervisor, says they were expecting a modest (though statistically significant) results from their manipulations and were appalled by the actual results. By the conclusion of the third session, 70% of subjects were recalling hideous, self-incriminating events complete with smells, emotional reactions and detailed physical descriptions. Once these false memories had taken hold, moreover, it was often difficult to convince test subjects that they had been duped.
False memories feel just as real as true memories. That’s why the confidence of the witness is a meaningless measure of veracity.
Because memory is highly amenable to suggestion, we frequently “remember” past events in ways that reflect well on us. During the current primary campaign, for instance, Biden repeated a story about going into a war zone to pin a medal on a soldier who had attempted a dangerous rescue. Biden says he brushed off concerns for his personal safety and recalls that the soldier refused to accept the medal because his rescue mission had been a failure.
“This is the God’s truth,” Biden assured his audiences. “My word as a Biden.”
When the media looked into this account it was discovered that the candidate had cobbled together elements from at least three unrelated events. Was he lying? Probably not.
In his book Searching for Memory, Daniel Schacter reports that, during the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan worked a story about a World War II bomber pilot into his stump speech. The plane was mortally damaged by an enemy hit and a young belly gunner was too badly wounded to evacuate the bomber. After ordering the rest of the crew to parachute to safety, the brave pilot told his belly gunner, “Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.”
It was soon revealed that Reagan was remembering a scene from one of his movies, A Wing and a Prayer (1944).
In recent years, Hillary Clinton and Brian Williams have recounted stories highlighting their bravery under war zone fire that conflicted with demonstrable fact. Public figures are strongly tempted to tell a better story than the truth allows, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t believe their false versions of the facts.
This explains why false witness testimony is the primary reason why victims of wrongful conviction are a staple feature of the evening news.
When Bret Kavanaugh claimed to have no memory of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey-Ford he was likely telling the truth. The alleged incident wasn’t retained in memory because it held little significance for the youthful Kavanaugh. Blasey-Ford was thoroughly traumatized by the incident and remembered the gist (what it meant to her) even though her verbatim memory had faded.
Memory science help make sense of Kara Reade’s allegations against Biden.
When Joe says he can’t remember Reade or the events she describes he may be telling the truth. In 1993, Biden was a senator; Reade was a lowly staffer. She was deeply disturbed by the experience; Biden just moved on to the next event on his schedule.
Something happened, we can be quite sure of that. Women don’t step into the national spotlight on a lark. Whatever that something was does not reflect well on the presidential candidate.
But that doesn’t mean everything Reade alleges comports with reality.
Many have asked why the claims of penetration emerged so late in the process—long after she participated in a series of in-depth interviews with a variety of reporters.
Reade has produced a variety of somewhat conflicting explanations for her evolving story. My guess is that the enhanced version includes elements of false memory, but, even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean Reade is lying.
She may remember being assaulted by Biden in precisely the way she describes.
Like Biden, Reagan, Clinton, Williams and a host of other public figures, Reade finds herself in the media spotlight. Her initially story, that Biden put his hands on her shoulder, neck and hair in ways that made her feel uncomfortable, is painfully consistent with what numerous other women have said about Biden.
We already knew the man has boundary issues and Reade’s accusations reinforce that impression.
But Biden is hardly the only boundary violator in his generation and no one else has accused him of sexual assault. Inappropriate touching conforms to an established pattern; penetration does not.
It is entirely possible, therefore, that Reade, realizing her story was sufficient to embarrass the Democratic candidate but not enough to drive him into retirement, “remembered” something that, if true, would be a deal breaker.
I’m not saying she “made it up” in the sense of knowingly telling an untruth. I fully suspect that she remembers the event as if it happened yesterday. In fact, the more she reflects on the encounter, the more “real” the crime becomes.
But that doesn’t mean it happened.
Nor does it mean it didn’t happen.
We can’t know for sure.
And neither, given what we are coming to understand about the human memory, can Biden and Reade.