Above: the invention of the wildly popular "Fishsticks" joke.
Below: Cartman's memory of the event.
"Never underestimate the ability of a human being to rationalize the truth."
— From the very short list of so-called Moscow Rules used by the CIA when operating in the USSR.
Self-Serving Memory is a Flashback
that is blatantly altered to serve the needs of whoever is remembering it. More often than not played for comedic effect, but is used a decent amount for dramatic purposes by arrogant jerks
At the lowest level, used mainly for dramatic purposes by a Consummate Liar
to suit their needs or manipulate other characters. But, when cranked up, can result in wildly fantastic scenarios, more often than not impossibly unrealistic. Depending on the believability of the character dreaming this up, it can be quite funny, both as a standalone gag or even a plot point.
See also Flashback Fail
. Compare Unreliable Voiceover
, The Munchausen
, and Crazy Memory
. May be related to I Reject Your Reality
and can go hand-in-hand with Believing Their Own Lies
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Anime and Manga
- Played for laughs numerous times in Ranma ½.
- Happosai's memories of any given set of events (and of his own appearance in his youth) are usually rather different from what really happens. Same with Genma, too.
- When Kuno suffered from amnesia, and saw female-Ranma for the "first" time again, his brain spontaneously generated a romantic love story of their past as a couple. Nobody (but him) was amused.
- Akane "chooses" to remember Ranma giving a fairly cogent explanation of one of his harebrained schemes as "blah-blah-blah you have small breasts blah-blah-blah" in order to justify her thumping him. The explanation involved pressure points on an adult teacher's breasts.
- Used in The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya when Kyon has to lie to his friend to explain how he ended up in a compromising (though technically innocent) position with Yuki. He explains that she, being an anemic, fainted, and he was forced to catch her. This was probably more believable than the truth, as the Class Representative, Ryoko, attempts to kill him, and he catches Yuki after she jumps in front of large spikes to save Kyon.
- In Martian Successor Nadesico, Yurika is convinced that as kids Akito would chase her around while calling her name, while Akito reminds her it was the other way around.
- In the second season of Phi Brain Puzzle Of God, Pinochle believes that after Daimon Kaito broke a promise with his Childhood Friend Freecell, Kaito then started badmouthing Freecell behind his back to make himself look better. This turns out to have been a lie that Pinochle told himself until even he started believing it, thanks in large part to his Orpheus Ring. The truth is that while Kaito did break his promise, it was Pinochle who spread rumors about Freecell so that Freecell would have to become his friend by default.
- In Kill la Kill, Ryuko Matoi's hatred of her arch rival Satsuki Kiryuin grows to the point that Satsuki takes the place of Ryuko's father's killer in her flashbacks. The real killer, Nui Harime, doesn't look anything like Satsuki.
- In the first episode of K-On!, Ritsu tries to guilt Mio into joining her band, asking her to remember The Promise they made years ago when they saw an amazing rock concert together. It turns out that only Ritsu was gung-ho about the idea, Mio made no such promise, and they watched that concert on TV.
Was all that a lie!?
No, your story is.
- Happens in an issue of Green Arrow/Black Canary. Green Arrow reminisces on a past event, and all the female characters are wearing less clothes and have larger breasts.
- Scott Pilgrim
- How Gideon remembers his time with Ramona.
- Scott recalls his past relationships only in idealized cartoon-o-vision. It isn't until he is confronted by the Negascott that he stops denying and running from the less laudable things he has done.
- Gideon thought Scott's thoughts were boring so he "spiced them up." One example was turning Kim's geek ex-boyfriend who Scott beat up for no good reason into a supervillain. The Cerebus Retcon was how the memories actually were.
- In a Spider-Man story written by Peter David in the 1980s, Peter Parker, Mary Jane, and JJJ sit at a table in a bar, telling Joe Robertson about a robbery they had just witnessed in the "Rashomon Bank". Mary Jane tells it in a way that she thinks will help Peter's standing at his job at the Daily Bugle, trying to make Spider-Man look good, while portraying Peter Parker as a loyal employee and trying to make JJJ look well. In J. Jonah Jameson's account, he is the hero and Spider-Man was probably in cahoots with the robber. Peter's version is the closest to the truth (the would-be robber was a pathetic loser, JJJ embarrassed himself etc.) but he still conceals the fact that he's Spider-Man and tries to make Jameson look better. He ends up having to pay the tab for all.
- In the Astérix story The Mansions of the Gods, Caesar recalls the Hollywood History-famous moment of Vercingetorix's submission to him after the battle of Alesia, where Vercingetorix's troops were forced to surrender. As he tells it, Caesar is sitting on a throne in beautiful golden armour looking handsome and splendid while the battered Vercingetorix bows to lay his arms at his feet. When we saw the scene happen in the first book Asterix the Gaul, Vercingetorix is actually throwing his arms on Caesar's feet, and Caesar is dressed poorly, is a bit overweight and looks a total mess even besides how he's howling in pain. This works on two levels. In-story it shows Caesar having a self-serving memory. On a meta level, it provides an example of how patriotic re-imaginings affect the way we look at historical events. In his own account (the only contemporaneous one), Caesar writes that Vercingetorix was handed over to him by the Gauls defending Alesia, who at the same time laid down their arms before him. The depiction in Asterix the Gaul parodies a well-known 19th-century painting reprinted in many French history school textbooks, which portrayed Vercingetorix as the moral victor by placing him on horseback in a dominant centre position (with Caesar in the background), by taking it up to eleven.
- A related example: When the women in Asterix and Obelix's Birthday speculate about Asterix and Obelix's future wives, they all imagine the wives as being slightly altered versions of themselves.
- Inverted in the Doctor Who comic "The Forgotten", where the Tenth Doctor is trying to recall adventures he went on through each of his previous regenerations in order as a Framing Story. During the Fourth Doctor's adventure, he's drawn somewhat Off Model. After the memory ends, the Tenth Doctor moans to Martha that he was sure his scarf was longer than that.
- Syndrome in The Incredibles. While he guilts Mr. Incredible into thinking he was wrong to have rejected him as a sidekick, his flashback conveniently omits all the problems he caused that night.
- In Second Hand Lions, Garth's recollection of saving Hub is tinted in a manner to impress Walter and make him sound badass. The retelling shows otherwise.
- Zombieland: Tallahassee tells Columbus about how he hated to lose his puppy, Buck, with a cute flashback of him doting on this sweet, smart dog. Later on, while stoned, he admits that Buck was really his son. The same flashback plays, replacing the puppy with a little boy, not more than three years old.
- This is the entire premise of Rashomon, where the witnesses all have irreconciliable versions of who killed the victim and why.
- In The Avengers, Loki accuses Thor of throwing him into the wormhole at the end of their movie. In reality, he let go after Odin refused to accept attempted genocide as proof of what a good son he was.
- In The Ref, Caroline has a very strong Nostalgia Filter in place regarding the days when she and her husband Lloyd were a young couple living in New York City, and she'll go on and on about it, especially when she's had enough to drink. Towards the end of the movie Lloyd finally calls her out on said nostalgia, her memory, which is definitely this trope, and the way she more or less blames him for everything that has gone wrong their lives since the New York days.
I told you what moving here could mean, but you were the one who said we should consider it! Not the actual moving, just the considering. The actual moving in part was left to me! Why? Because you didn't know what to do. You were... confused, you didn't know if it was the right thing. But you were sure as hell sick and tired of living in a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, so don't hand me that 'it was the best of times' bullshit! You didn't want to work anymore and you didn't want any help with the baby because you wanted to do it all by yourself! And you hated New York because we weren't as rich as your college friends were to enjoy it! We couldn't afford a bigger place, and you were miserable being around people who could! AND... we were up to our EARS in debt!
- In The Hangover Part III, Alan's father's last words to him before he died were to berate him for his immaturity and selfishness. At the funeral, Alan claims his father's last words were, "I'm proud of you, son. Don't ever change."
- In Quick Change, Bob Elliot's highly-ineffectual bank guard character becomes a whole lot more heroic when recounting the events of a robbery to the police.
- Harry Potter
- Horace Slughorn revises his memory of telling Tom Marvolo Riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort, about the Soul Jars known as Horcruxes. However, the memory has been artificially and obviously altered. Any that haven't been are treated as 100% accurate. Harry manages to get the real memory later.
- Also, Snape's pensive memories in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows conveniently leave out his fascination with the Dark Arts and everything he did with the Death Eater Jr. gang during his time at Hogwarts. Of course, the only other person to ever mention said fascination was Sirius, and the worst he was accused by his crush Lily was ascociating with said gang, not partaking in the worst deeds, so maybe there was nothing to leave out.
- Fridge Brilliance: His pensive memories are his most carefully guarded memories, not the whole thing. He likely wouldn't be worried about anyone seeing the BAD things, since he has a reputation as a villain. He's worried about people seeing his WEAKNESS, and his 'good' traits.
- Possibly too subtle to count, but the second part of C S Lewis's Till We Have Faces shows the first part to be a Self Serving Memoir.
- Eustace's diary in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is replete with such entries, until his Character Development kicks in.
- Grand Inquisitor Zhaspahr Clyntahn of Safehold is notable for having Believing Their Own Lies as his creepiest attribute in-universe. Lampshaded at the end of Midst Toil and Tribulation, as Vicar Rhobair Duchairn notes that while Clyntahn was reasoned down after a devastating loss, he'll inevitably find some way to twist everything he had planned as perfect and failed only in incompetent execution.
- According to How To Be A Superhero, one of the benefits of licensing your exploits to Comic Book companies is that they will whitewash your less-than-heroic moments. For instance, Captain Triton's girly-man faint at a gory crime scene is rewritten as the result of a hidden cache of argonite.
- In the Relativity story "Movie Night", Ravenswood tells a highly-embellished version of how he became a superhero. Fortunately for the reader, the side-story "The Super Secret Origin of Overcast" reveals the truth.
Live Action TV
- Natalia from ABC's Cristela thinks back fondly of being a singe mother raising two daughters when, in reality, the family struggled immensely.
Natalia: "Your father never held me back!"
Cristela: "He left when I was born!"
Natalia: "And he left me free to do as I pleased!"
Cristela: "So you wanted to be on food stamps and answer the door with a baseball bat?"
Natalia: (Happily sighs) "Ay! Memories..."
- Red Dwarf: Taken to ridiculous extremes. Lister is missing the recently departed Rimmer, and rose-tinting his memories of their history together to such a degree that Rimmer comes of almost like a saint. When Kochanksi tries to comfort him, Kryten (who's afraid that she will replace him in Lister's life) takes a massively different tack; He creates a holographic carnival ride based on Rimmer's own "war diary". Needless to say, Rimmer's recollections are massively divergent from reality, depicting himself as the only competent person on the ship, rather than the cowardly, stupid, tasteless nitwit that he really is. It promotes Rimmer's views, tastes, and interpretations on events which clearly are biased. Lister ends the episode decrying his past with Rimmer.
Lister: I never want to see or hear from that scum-sucking, lying, weasel-headed smeghead in my entire life!
Kryten: Sigmund Freud, eat your heart out.
- Community: In "Investigative Journalism", Jack Black's character has a vivid flashback of Britta and Annie fighting in a soapy pool without bras on in cheerleader's outfits... in the middle of a class.
- In Full House, Kimmy Gibbler wakes up after passing out drunk from a party and accuses DJ of ruining her night. She then recounts her recollection of the night, which shows her being erudite, delightful and charming. DJ tells her what really happened, which was that she was a loud, abrasive, stereotypical Hollywood drunk. Because it's Full House, DJ's version turned out to be the correct one, rather than an exaggeration.
- How I Met Your Mother: Averted (except for the occasional Rule of Funny) by Future Ted (although we only know this because of Word of God — there's no way to actually prove that Ted is telling the truth except the argument that it would be out of character given his cautionary tale approach to his narration), but often occurs in stories and flashbacks told inside of the Whole Episode Flashback of the show, mostly from Barney — e.g., seducing a female cop who pulled him over when she actually arrested him, his friends heaping lavish praise on him for no reason, women telling him his penis is enormous out of the blue, etc.
- Yes, Minister: Sir Humphrey sees this as a natural occurrence in government committees, which is why minutes are so important:
"It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them, and that every member's recollection of them differs violently from every other member's recollection; consequently we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials; from which it emerges with elegant inevitability, that any decision which has been officially reached would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the officials, and any decisions which is not recorded in the minutes by the officials has not been officially reached, even if one or more members believe they can recollect it; so in this particular case, if the decision would have been officially reached, it would have been recorded in the minutes by the officials and it isn't so it wasn't."
- To translate from Sir Humphrey's classic Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness; minutes exist because without them, the parties involved would be so blinded by their own Self-Serving Memory that once out of the meeting they'd insist that the decision reached was the one most favorable to them or that they agreed with, causing confusion. They also exist in order to enable the person writing them — usually a Civil Servant — to ensure that the actual recorded decision is the one most favorable to them, but that's beside the point.
- Gossip Girl's Dan Humphrey remembered having a threesome with girlfriend Olivia and friend Vanessa as essentially a bad porno. The girls remember it being more awkward, with him giving The Look to Vanessa.
- Space Cases: During Harlan's trial, prosecutor Catalina recalls being in the process of heroically saving the ship when Harlan pushed his way to the pilot station while Harlan remembers single-handedly saving the ship as the others look on in awe. The kicker is that BOTH remember fellow students Radu, Rosie, and Bova cheering them on when none were in the Command Post at the time.
- Note that Radu and Rosie were the jury and Bova was the judge, as well.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("Storyteller"), when Andrew tries to justify killing Jonathan, we see various flashbacks which differ wildly as he changes his version of events. This prompts Buffy to point out indignantly that he has just completely changed his story.
- In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Court Martial", a verbal version of this takes place — Finney, a crewman who faked his death to frame Kirk, accuses the captain of keeping him down out of jealousy. What really happened was that Kirk logged a dangerous negligence committed by Finney, which put him at the bottom of the list for a promotion.
- In the episode "A Matter of Perspective" of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Riker is accused of murdering a scientist. Riker, the scientist's wife, and the scientist's assistant each use the holodeck to reconstruct their own versions of the events leading up to the scientist's death, in a dramatic example of the trope.
- In the Kenan & Kel episode "I'm Gonna Get You Kenan", Kenan, Kel and Chris tell their versions of how Rigby's was robbed. Kenan and Chris's stories are self boasting as possible while Kel's focuses on how he couldn't open a bottle of orange soda.
Policeman: What does that story have to do with the robbery?
Kel: Nothin'. It's about orange soda. You have to pay attention.
- This is the basis of a hilarious episode of Coupling where we see Sally and Patrick's questionably accurate memories of the day they met.
- Ugly Betty:
Amanda: We met at the Jill Sander party last night. He was totally worshiping me.
[flashback to him ignoring her and then return to present]
Amanda: I mean I get it because I was the hottest girl there, but then there was this skank who was totally trying to horn in and I was as nice as I can be.
[return to flashback]
Amanda: [shoving the girl to the floor] Out of the way, skank!
- Outsourced: Todd had to find out whether Rajiv hit Gupta and gets both their accounts. Gupta's first attempt at telling the story turns Rajiv into professional wrestler The Great Khali before he settles down tell how Rajiv beats him savagely to the point of coughing up blood while employing an Evil Laugh. In Rajiv's version, he asks Gupta to get back to work in an extremely polite (and highly out of character) manner while Gupta snarls back disrespectfully and then starts slapping himself while yelling that Rajiv is hitting him.
- M*A*S*H episode "The Novocaine Mutiny": Frank has accused Hawkeye and BJ of mutiny, and the court-martial requests their recollection of the event. Frank recalls being a self-sacrificing, awe-inspiring surgeon (he wants two patients at once, "I have two hands"), while Hawk and BJ are whimpering and burning out. Hawkeye retorts, "It was, to say the least, fascinating; it was, to say the most, perjury," and proceeds to recount the more likely scenario: Frank is bumbling and obnoxious, while Hawk and BJ are trying to ignore him and do their job. They are acquitted and the JAG takes Frank down a peg by telling him his record wouldn't make him stand out as a pastry chef.
- A serious example occurs with Hawkeye in the series finale, "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen". Hawkeye tells Sidney Freeman of being on a bus with some South Korean refugees, and telling a woman to keep a chicken quiet so it won't give their position away to the enemy. But it's not true. "It was a baby!" (hysterical sobbing) The woman had smothered her child.
- The series finale example above was a more poignant example of a similar plotline from an earlier episode, in which Hawkeye had uncontrollable itching for no medical reason. Hawkeye related to Sidney a childhood story of his brother, whom he deeply admired, who saved him from drowning in a lake. It turns out that his brother was the one who pushed him into the lake in the first place, and Hawkeye hated him for it; Hawkeye had repressed his own memory of the affair and turned his brother into the spotless hero.
- In The Flying Nun episode "The Boyfriend", Sister Bertrille tells how she and her ex broke up, with her flashback showing him being cruel and her being meek and fearful of him. Her ex's flashback has the roles reversed. The real way it happened was that they simply agreed to break up.
- It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia mixes this in with The Rashomon: when the gang attempts to remember what they drunkenly did at a Halloween party, a couple of the memories they attempted to piece together (such as Charlie impressing and making out with the Waitress and Mac's where he's suddenly portraying himself as a sunglasses wearing Badass) are instantly recognized by the others as Blatant Lies.
- Dennis wasn't as popular in high school as he thought he was, mainly because he'd say he was a "golden god" while having nothing to back up his claim. In "Underage Drinking: A National Concern", he is the first (and only) one to tell the rest of the gang they're over-romanticizing their high school experiences.
- Both a regular and present-oriented variation of this trope are played straight, when the gang dances at the end of "High School Reunion 2". At first, we see a choreographed dance number. Then it cuts to how they're actually dancing and it looks like a chaotic mess. They are later surprised that no one else liked their dance.
- Happens a lot in The X-Files "Rashomon"-Style "Bad Blood". For starters, Scully's flashback has herself as calm and mindful while Mulder is gung-ho and over the top, while Mulder's has himself as a guy who knows what he's doing who is sensitive and polite to Scully despite her being dismissive and irritable.
- Happened in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air one time. Will and Carlton are in court in an argument with Uncle Phil about a pool party. In Uncle Phil's version, the party is a wild rave with everyone wearing bikinis and portrayed as thuggish while he is a calm quiet man who asks them to keep the noise down but is thrown out. In Will and Carlton's version, the party is a classy innocent affair with Uncle Phil as a loud screaming man who yells at everyone.
- 30 Rock:
- Liz Lemon thought she was the geeky bully victim that you always see on TV. She later finds out that she was the bully.
- Liz remembers her "compliments" of Jenna's performances being more convincing. She also remembers them hugging afterwards, each and every time.
- In the Leverage episode "The Rashomon Job", each member of the crew tells Nate how they stole a precious dagger, the twist being that they were each independently trying to steal the same dagger on the same night. Each story plays out differently, with the teller being cast as the hero of their tale. Especially notable is Hardison's story in which he is a suave ladies' man while Parker remembers him as being awkward and uncouth, going so far as to hoard shrimp puffs in his pockets.
- Interestingly, in that episode, the four thieves remember Coswell, the museum's head of security, as being cunning, ruthless, and somehow able to foil each of them at decisive moments of their respective heists. Nate remembers the same man as being nervous, socially awkward, and silently pining after one of Sophie's characters. According to Nate's recollection, Coswell is really a pretty friendly guy and only foiled the various plots by sheer chance rather than by any sort of skill.
- In Kamen Rider OOO, Dr Maki's memories of his kind, loving sister who suddenly died tragically. He's deliberately blotted out the truth that she didn't care about him at all and he himself killed her. Being forced to remember what really happened is what pushes him over the edge at last.
- Red vs. Blue has Sarge do this at the start of season seven when he recalled how they deleted the record of the Blues from Command's computer, with his modifications including killing Grif and Simmons turning into a motorcycle. When Grif calls him out on this, citing his not being dead, Sarge tells Simmons to transform and run over him.
- Most heels run on this mindset, either whining about losses and complaining about actions that faces took when actions they took were way worse but somehow unsuccessful.
- For example, after the 2014 Survivor Series, Triple H blamed the loss of Team Authority on the debut of Sting. However, it was clear that Sting wouldn't have needed to get involved in the match had Triple H not interfered on the behalf of Seth Rollins by attacking Dolph Ziggler and numerous referees, and presumably paying off Big Show to attack John Cena and leave the match. None of these occurrences were mentioned of course except for Sting's debut.
- Kimberly's short lived tag team with Leva Bates involved dressing up as Things. After a loss to Made in Sin, Kimberly attacked Bates and later took and ripped the head off of one of her Thing dolls. Kimberly later went searching for "her" lost doll and was shocked when she found the doll had lost its head, which told her Leva had ripped it off after Kimberly sewed it back on. So Kimberly aimed to avenge it. Leva explained this sequence, along with Kimberly's other "quirks" as being symptoms of delusion, psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder.
- Spider And Web: Part of the gimmick of this Text Adventure. The main game is composed of the PC's retelling of a mission gone awry, but the character is purposefully misrepresenting parts of the story (you take an "important package" item that doesn't really exist, for example: it is made up as an excuse to hide important tools in a nook).
- Sonic Adventure: A bit of a meta-example: in the game, you play as six different characters whose stories are happening simultaneously. At a few points in the game, the characters fight each other and as you'd expect, the one who wins is whoever the player is playing as. The official strategy guide claims that this is because the characters all remember the fights ending differently. This explains:
- Why Sonic runs away from Amy in one version, leaving her to catch up with him at the entrance to Twinkle Park, while in another, he walks her there like a gentleman.
- The line "This plane's cool!" in Tails's version (when he flies by the end of Red Mountain to pick up Sonic) when no such line exists in Sonic's version.
- Tails as a tagalong who always tries to be where Sonic is in Sonic's version of the stages, while Tails always beats him to the goal in his own version.
- Oddly reversed around for Tails in Sonic's story, where he is depicted as more confident and reliable. In his own story, he has dialogue that makes him out to be insecure.
- Varric in Dragon Age II, embellishes obviously enough for his interrogator to see through it and demand the real account.
- The very first mission in the game consists of this. When you first do the mission, Hawke is a curb-stomping, unstoppable beast of a warrior (or mage) that effortlessly beats back waves of enemies...and all the female characters have an "enhanced" appearance. When Cassandra tells Varric to stop bullshitting her, the mission is replayed as a desperate struggle to merely survive, and the female characters look normal.
- There is a Storming the Castle mission that has to be done twice. Once with Varric alone, where he single-handedly kills dozens of mercenaries, and his brother Bartrand comes crawling on his knees to beg forgiveness, and one (the real one) with the entire party battling tooth and nail through mercenaries and demons. Cassandra demands to hear the real story after Varric tells her the first one. There's also a third version he gives in between which is technically correct, but omits a lot of detail: "We found my brother. We talked. It was awkward."
- In Fire Emblem 7, should you choose to have Rebecca and Lowen support one another, it becomes clear that he had left quite an impression on her when he whisked her from her village as it was being attacked by bandits...
Rebecca: Oh, but that's absurd! Sir Lowen, you are a fine knight! Why, I remember it so well... Countless hundreds of bandits had descended on our village...
Lowen: Please... There were ten at most...
Rebecca: In the heat of the moment, it felt like many more!
Rebecca: Anyway, just as their fiendish grip on our village began to tighten, you appeared, Sir Lowen, on your white steed...
Lowen: But... my horse is sorrel.
Rebecca: This is the way I prefer to remember it, milord. Please don't ruin it by correcting me!
- The bonus level of Monsters Probably Stole My Princess shows the Duke's memory of how he met the Princess, and is described as "entirely accurate (probably)". In addition to the bizarre spelling and grammar throughout, it shows the Princess (who is a real Princess this time rather than a waitress) being madly in love with the Duke, before being kidnapped by "the coolest and toughest foe it is possible to imagine". The level is filled with banners proclaiming the citizens' undying admiration for the Duke.
- BioShock Infinite makes use of this trope as a rather important plot point, and unlike most other examples, it is very much not Played for Laughs. At the end of the game the protagonist Booker is revealed to have completely (albeit unintentionally) fabricated his memories and as a result, his entire purpose for traveling to Columbia. The Arc Words "bring us the girl and wipe away the debt" were not orders from his current employer, but an offer by Comstock from nearly 20 years earlier - Comstock would pay off his gambling debts if Booker sold his infant daughter Anna (later renamed Elizabeth) to him. The subsequent guilt and self loathing, when combined with the disseminating properties of the tears, caused Booker to suppress these memories, and replace them with something much more palatable - like rescuing a girl locked in a tower, for example. Which is exactly what we as the player saw for most of the game. The brilliance lies in the fact that all of this is explained by a quote that appears in the first 5 seconds of game - we just didn't have the context to realize it at the time.
"The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist..." - Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel by R. Lettuce