The Broome Effect: Appropriating the Legacy of Nelson Mandela

Countless articles, websites, and YouTube videos describe a phenomenon they call “the Mandela Effect.” In short, this phenomenon occurs when a significant number of people share the same false or faulty memory (of a name, object, event, etc.). We know our minds play tricks on us, and when we meet clear evidence that our memory is faulty, it is easy enough for us to say, “I was wrong.” But when a whole group of people vividly remember a thing that is plainly contradicted by the facts, it feels as if something odd, if not spooky, is going on.

Some “Mandela Effect” articles are content to point out the funny mistakes we all make, offering common sense explanations. We’ve seen so many names end with -stein (Einstein, Bernstein, Goldstein, Frankenstein) that we never expected one to end with -stain; so, when we first encountered the Berenstain Bears, our brains “corrected” it to “Berenstein,” and we grew up vividly remembering the wrong spelling. Likewise, our brains demanded it was more logical to read “Looney Toons” (like “cartoons”) rather than “Looney Tunes,” and we remembered it the way our brains wanted it to be, rather than the way it was. This is indeed a funny and interesting phenomenon, at least a worthy subject for a five-minute read.

But the paranormal researcher Fiona Broome, who originally coined the phrase “Mandela Effect,” offered a different explanation. Broome claimed (or at least suggested) that these are not brain glitches at all, but evidence of an alternate timeline or parallel universe in which these false memories are true. The idea is that the course of history was somehow altered, or two dimensions merged — as in science fiction — so that some people come from a universe where it really is spelled “Looney Toons,” the Kit Kat candy bar brand name is spelled with a hyphen, etc., and these people are correctly remembering the spellings from their home worlds. I don’t think many people firmly believed Broome’s story, but they breathlessly passed it along — half joking, half believing — the way we pass along stories of UFO sightings or the Loch Ness Monster.

It’s a cute story, and I’m tempted to say it’s harmless fun. The part that strikes me as problematic is the way it has tangled itself up with the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Ms. Broome first noticed this phenomenon, and decided to call it the “Mandela Effect,” when she realized she had mistakenly believed the great South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela had died in the 1980s. Broome discovered that she was not alone in her error: hundreds or thousands of others thought they remembered seeing the memorial service on TV — the weeping, the celebrity tributes, and so on. Thus Broome posited this theory of an alternate timeline, reasoning that two irreconcilable memories of history pointed to the existence of two parallel histories.

First of all, this instance of collective false memory is easily explained. In June 1988, the Fox Television network aired the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, a star-studded celebration of the anti-apartheid activist, who was then a political prisoner. The broadcast featured a backdrop with a huge image of Mandela, and celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Sting, and Stevie Wonder paid tribute. Mandela himself did not appear live at the event because, well, he was in prison. If someone happened to turn on the TV and saw part of the program without any context, it is easy to see how it could have looked like a funeral. Most of the program’s 600 million viewers worldwide understood that Mandela was still alive; but it is not at all surprising if a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand saw the program and assumed Mandela had died.

So — they were wrong. Big deal. That’s not the problematic part: anyone can make a mistake. But instead of admitting she and others were wrong, Broome insists on kooky/spooky explanations. She offers up the notion of an alternate history — a history that would effectively erase the accomplishments of Mandela, who survived his years as a political prisoner and emerged triumphant, ultimately becoming the first Black president of South Africa.

In Broome’s alternate timeline, who led the fight against apartheid in the 1990s? Who was nominated by the African National Congress party in 1994, and won the presidency in a landmark victory for racial equality worldwide? Broome offers no answers to these questions. There is no alternate timeline: only a single, half-remembered event. In Broome’s world, South African history begins with Nelson Mandela’s funeral and ends when she turns off the TV.

Virtually every example of Broome’s “Effect” evaporates as soon as you begin to look at context. Imagining Mandela dead in the 80s is only plausible until you consider South Africa’s subsequent history. Just so, “Looney Toons” makes more sense than “Looney Tunes” — until you consider that other animations from that era were known as “Silly Symphonies” and “Merrie Melodies.” Sex in the City (another commonly cited example) seems more logical than Sex and the City — until you catch the oblique reference to Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 self-help manual Sex and the Single Girl. “Luke, I am your father” is a more quotable and more memorable line than “No, I am your father,” but it makes less sense in the context of the scene.

But these other, more innocuous examples serve to camouflage the racial implications of erasing Nelson Mandela — the astonishing racial arrogance of writing an alternate history where the first Black president of South Africa never existed, because you mistakenly thought he died.

The comedian Michael Che, commenting on the Black Lives Matter movement, joked that perhaps a less controversial slogan would be “Black Lives Exist.” In Fiona Broome’s world, however, even that would become a matter of opinion. President Mandela’s life exists in your world, maybe, but in mine he doesn’t, because parallel universe — so goes Fiona Broome’s argument.

The racial implications become even more obvious if you imagine the roles reversed. If a Black paranormalist dreamed of a world where Washington died in the Revolution and never became president, surely the racial implications of this fable would be obvious to everyone. People would clearly see a challenge to the orthodoxy of white history. It should be equally obvious why Broome’s rewriting of Black history is problematic.

I am not suggesting that Fiona Broome is consciously promoting a white supremacist agenda. It seems likely to me that she made an honest mistake, and she explained it as best she could, given her assumptions about the world (ghosts and spirits exist, etc.). But built into her reasoning process was a kind of privileged attitude, an assumption that her memory of watching something on TV is just as meaningful and impactful as the real lived experience of millions of South Africans. Countless millions lived under Mandela as president; on the other hand, some people thought they heard on TV that he died — in her world, these are equally significant truths, with each deserving its own parallel dimension.

Even if we set aside the science fiction of parallel worlds and alternate timelines, it is inappropriate that Mandela’s name has been permanently attached to this discussion of collective false memory. History has been rewritten, but not in the way Fiona Broome suggests: now a whole generation of young people, when they hear the name Mandela, do not think of his inspiring patience, his admirable courage, his unparalleled commitment to justice. Instead, they think of Looney Tunes and Kit Kat bars and Berenstain Bears.

It is unspeakably arrogant for this paranormalist (who happens to be white) to appropriate the name of Nelson Mandela and repurpose it as the name of a mistake. If you made a mistake about the president of South Africa, that’s not Mandela’s “Effect.” That’s on you.

There are some real-life phenomena that would have been aptly described as Mandela Effects. When a political prisoner becomes the symbol of a movement — that’s a real Nelson Mandela Effect. When justice prevails, and a victim of oppression becomes empowered as the leader of a nation — that’s a real Mandela Effect. Not a trick of the mind, but a real change effectuated by Mandela, the man. When a former radical turns statesman, and must dial down his old incendiary rhetoric — that too, perhaps, is a Mandela Effect.

Collective false memory is a legitimately interesting topic. It is mind-blowing to discover that the thing you clearly remember never happened; and it’s fun to play detective, and try to figure out where these phantom memories came from. It is easy enough to see why our brains read Fruit Loops when the box said Froot Loops, but why did so many people remember Sinbad playing a genie in the 1990s, when it was really Shaquille O’Neal? (There are many reasons.) It is an interesting topic, but it has nothing to do with Nelson Mandela and should not be clutching to the coat-tails of his legacy.

Moreover, there is a know-nothingism and an arrogance inherent in the “alternate timeline” mentality — the idea that mistakes aren’t mistakes, they’re just facts from another dimension. It eliminates the need to support one’s beliefs with reasons or context or evidence. Sometimes this arrogance intersects with racial arrogance: in the clinging to the “Berenstein” spelling of Berenstain Bears, there are subtle shades of “I know how these Jewish names are spelled”; in the insistence that Sinbad played a genie, a note of “Don’t tell me, I know which Black actor is which.” Why is it so hard just to admit we were wrong?

Recognizing our mistakes is an opportunity to be humble, to widen our world by discovering things we didn’t know. But that’s on us, that’s our responsibility. If we as a culture forgot the life and work of Nelson Mandela, it’s not because Mandela is elusive. It’s our own inattention, our own ignorance, our own mistake. False memories are not Mandela’s “Effects” — they are our own.

I’m OK, you’re OK

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