Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hold On To Those Flashbulb Memories--and Write! by Stan Weeber

Flashbulb memories are very vivid and long lasting memories of the delivery of shocking news. The news is so important that we clearly remember the context in which the news was heard in great detail – where we were, what we were doing and the people present at the time. The memories tend to be long lasting because the news delivered may have important historical or personal significance. The unexpected deaths of a family member, a President, or a politician we admire are examples. Our emotionally charged reactions to unforeseen events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor or the September 11 attacks upon America also serve as examples.

My purpose in writing today is to encourage you to hang on to these memories and to write about them if you are so inclined. The initial drafts of your work come easily because you simply write down in narrative form, or poetic form, what you remember about the flashbulb event. Then, you contextualize your memory based upon an audience that you want to reach.

For example, I was so distraught at the news of President Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963, that I vowed to find out why someone would do such a dreadful thing. Forty years later, I published a biography of the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. The first chapter was based upon my own flashbulb memory of that horrible day. The remainder of the book was an academic study of Mr. Oswald’s life.

I was so saddened over the loss of life in the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995, that I once again vowed to peer inside the mindset of someone who would act in such a horrific way. When the New York Times reported on April 21 that accused bomber Timothy McVeigh had attended militia meetings in Michigan, I dug deeply into the mental makeup of people who join militia groups. The result: thirteen academic studies about the militia movement.

My third flashbulb memory came ironically enough on another November 22, this time in 2002. This was not a day that everyone remembers. It had more significance to me as an individual than for most people. The news flash on this day was that yet another woman was now missing in South Louisiana, this one in Lafayette. I immediately thought of the South Louisiana Serial Killer case. If confirmed as a victim of the serial killer, it would be his fourth victim. I was greatly concerned for the safety of my female students – I am a professor in Lake Charles – and now there was a victim about an hour away from where I live and teach. My fears about the case led to my book, In Search of Derrick Todd Lee, which was about online activists trying to coordinate information about the killer.

As you can see, my flashbulb memories were about major newsworthy events, but flashbulb memories do not always require such a high profile. The death of a relative, a pet, or the horrendous aftermath of a violent storm are also examples. Or, you win an award and life changes forever for the better. Some flashbulb memories are positive. .

One reason that flashbulb memories are remembered is because these memories tend to be retold over and over again. Because of that, accuracy tends to be lost over time, and the details are not necessarily accurate. Don’t worry, the memory is still vivid to you and deserves to be told as you remember it. Readers will bond with your account if they’ve been through something similar.

Stan Weeber is an Associate Professor of Sociology at McNeese State University. He has written or edited 20 books, including In Search of Derrick Todd Lee: The Internet Social Movement that Made a Difference (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007).


  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences and for encouraging us to share our flashbulb memories. Good post and good suggestion.

  2. I really like this. Made me think and remember. I was in high school Spanish class when we learned that Kennedy had been shot. A friend interrupted class and confessed that she had earphones on and was listening to her radio instead of the teacher. She announced the news about Kennedy and as soon as she finished, our school superintendent came across the intercom sharing the news. I remember feeling pretty scared. I have the book, In Search of Derrick Todd Lee. My daughter was at LSU and we were making constant phone calls instructing her to NEVER go out alone. Another scary time. Maybe I should write a book on being scared. :) Thanks for the post. I'm going to examine more of my 'flashbulb' memories and see where they lead me.

  3. You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give to fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. It’s not a pass on award. This is just for you to keep. I want to award you the Brilliant Writer Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

    Go to and pick up your award.

  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences and for encouraging us to share our flashbulb memories. Good post and good suggestion.