It’s September and Claire texts, after we’ve talked about my most recent dream about her, to ask if I had ever heard about “The Berenstain Bears” conspiracy. A conspiracy? No, I tell her. I remembered The Berenstein Bears, at least visually. Though I had no recollection of the characters or stories, I know that I had seen them in cartoons or books when I was younger. Clearly she had spelled it wrong, though; she had spelled it Berenstain. I decided to gloss over it and just spell it the right way, though when I did so my iPhone gave it the old dotted red underline. Clicking on it, it suggested the spelling Bernstein, which I knew damn well was wrong. So I spelled it her way, and the spell-check for some reason accepted it.
When I got around to looking it up in an act of “deep Googling” I discovered that many people were certain they remembered the The Berenstein Bears despite the fact that the books now, and claim to have forever been, named The Berenstain Bears. Allegedly (as I have read countless references but have been unable to find the original post) this perplexing shit with the spelling first came to light on the world wide web in 2009 when a user known as Burke had asked, in a forum called Dreadlock Truth, why they had changed the name. Only later, perhaps, would it become clear that not everyone shared his certainty that it had been changed, and in some cases quite the contrary. Some, and for all I know most, recall it as Berenstain. Others apparently recall it being spelled Bernstein, and even this “lesser error” is still accepted by the autocorrect and spellcheckers of both my laptop and iPhone. In the meantime, weirdos such as Claire and I are lost at sea, clutching onto the memory of Berenstein. The natural question, of course, is: why?
One possibility is the psychological equivalent of autocorrect. We all have poor memories, we are told, in comparison to the actual past events in question, as must actively “re-member” events stored in memory every time we glance back at them. Some suggest people can also easily be led to believe things that are not true or recall things that never happened in the first place. Still, it would appear more difficult to explain cases of shared false memories, right?
Not necessarily. Some might suggest the scenario took place as follows. Parents read the books to us as children and the way they pronounced the name (“Barren-steen”) stuck with us. As a consequence, this is how we came to say the word aloud or to ourselves while reading the book. As we grow out of these books we are conditioned by a culture that subjects us to too few names ending in -stain and more than enough ending in -stein (Einstein, Frankenstein, and so on) that upon reflection on our childhood memories of the books the brains of many of us autocorrect our memories of how the name was spelled. As a consequence many of us not only falsely recall the spelling of the name but falsely recall it having been spelled the same way.
Fiona Broome calls this the Mandela Effect, earning its name from a large number of people who recall Nelson Mandela dying in prison when it fact he remained alive until 2013. There are other examples, too. For instance, there is the line Tom Hanks famously says in the movie, Forest Gump. Some recall him saying “life is like a box of chocolates”, though in actuality he says “life was like a box of chocolates.” An auditory equivalent of autocorrect could explain the Gump anomaly, perhaps suggested by a chain of false quoting through the amount of satire the line has been subjected to. I never actually saw the movie, though I am quite familiar with the impersonations and the quote which I recall as being widely quoted as “life is like a box of chocolates.” Some remember the Challenger explosion occurring in 1984, others in 1986. Some remember having seen a painting of Henry VIII eating a turkey leg. It never existed.
There are other proposed possibilities, however. For instance, there is the time travel hypothesis, first offered in 2011 on the humorist website The Communist Dance Party, where it was posited that the anomaly had to do with time travel and the Butterfly Effect. More specifically: sometime after the mid-1990s someone had traveled back in time, altering the history though not the memory of human beings, though in manners so slight we hardly notice them. It was akin to Ray Bradbury’s short story, “A Sound of Thunder,” which echoes the logic inherent in the Butterfly Effect to explain how we could return to the future after time travel to find one different from the one we left. In Bradbury’s story, however, the only ones who noticed a difference were those who had actually done the time traveling and created the paradox. The hypothesis makes little sense to me.
As it turns out, I am not alone. In an August 23rd, 2012 entry on “The Wood between Worlds: Blog of the world’s worst scientist” there is a post, entitled “The Berenstein Bears: We Are Living in Our Own Parallel Universe”. Reese, the blogger, recalls the books as the child and, upon seeing the obituary for 88-year-old Jan, now joining her husband and coauthor Stan in death, the blogger noticed the apparent and, to his eyes and mind, quite obvious misspelling of the name. Upon a little investigation, however, he found that everyone he came across spelled the names of the authors as Jan and Stan Berenstain. How could this fucking be? Even the old book covers had it spelled that way. Reese mentions the apparent similarities between the Berenstæin Anomaly and the ending of Bradbury’s tale, though is quick to assure us that contrary to Bradbury’s seemingly cautionary tale time travel cannot allow for the alteration of the past. “What happened, happened,” as LOSTies might echo.
Instead, he concluded that there are two universes which he arbitrarily dubs the “stAin” and “stEin” universes and that some point after 1992 the similar but nonetheless distinct universes collided. He then posits that the universes merged and that all now live with these inconsistencies between our memories and the history of the universe we currently inhabit.
Reese, like Burke before him, had made the mistaken assumption that we all shared this specific inconsistency between memory and history. It turns out we do not. If we posit that these two universes collided but never merged, however, this might explain why some of us recall things differently.
When two objects make contact, there is always an exchange of material. There is a term for this in physics, but I’ve forgotten it and my googling has thus far proven to be fruitless. It is also known as Locard’s Exchange Principle in the field of forensic science: “every contact leaves a trace.” Such a collision between two universes would result in a cross-contamination of consciousness, sending some but by no means all members of either universe into the other. The anomalies would therefore suggest that weirdos such as Claire and I are members of an exchange program between parallel universes and constitute the trace evidence for the collision that spawned it.
When I texted Claire back to tell her I had looked into it and found it interesting, she told me she liked the idea because it gave her an explanation for why she felt so out of place. It was something I had always sensed about her, that she felt like a fish out of water much as I did, that she belonged nowhere, but this was the first time in memory she had ever verbalized it to me. I told her I preferred her explanation to the one that my little inhuman friends had pounded into me throughout my life.
She agreed. She liked her explanation a hell of a lot better.