Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

Recalling the past and claiming expertise in how we do it can be fraught affairs, Alan Collins writes

January 12, 2012
Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

Tell someone you are interested in research on memory and they can usually find something in their own experience that they want to talk about. It might be their frailty with names, a colleague's inability to remember appointments or their elderly mother's amazing recall of events from her youth. Conversation may progress and touch on more sensitive matters, such as a brother's flashbacks after returning from combat or a cousin's struggle to forget the abuse she experienced early in life. In some ways, then, academics writing about memory have an easy job: readers already have both an interest in the topic and personal experiences they can bring to bear. But this advantage can also be a burden. With some authority, the ordinary person can challenge the specialist in memory in a way they typically cannot question experts in subatomic particles or French medieval peasantry. In her fine book, Alison Winter recognises this difficulty and throughout it returns to questions about who can claim expertise in memory, on what grounds and in which domains. She has a brisk, engaging style, and her ability to write in a thoughtful manner on technical subjects without using technical language makes the book a pleasure to read. Each chapter covers a separate topic, and most could be read on their own.

 

In 1962, Winter relates, Arthur Nebb walked past several people carrying a gun. He entered his estranged wife's house and killed her lover. Nebb was charged with murder but at his trial he claimed amnesia as a defence. At that time, the US legal system was flirting with hypnosis as a forensic technique, and the judge allowed Nebb to be hypnotised in court once the jury had been excluded. Under hypnosis, Nebb reported that he had killed his wife's lover but that he had done so unintentionally. So convincing was his memory - or account - of events that the prosecution reduced the charge to second-degree manslaughter. The case demonstrated the presence of a belief that under the right circumstances, with the appropriate experts using the proper techniques, previously inaccessible memories could be recovered and that those memories were true and accurate. It also highlights a key theme running through Winter's book, which is the tension between regarding memory as fundamentally reliable and treating it as fundamentally unreliable.

As one might anticipate, Winter explores the way that debates over the accuracy and permanence of memory became acrimonious in disputes about recovered memories of childhood abuse. In court, a Los Angeles attorney was cross-examining a man accused of abusing his young daughter when the lawyer suddenly began shouting at both the judge and the witness. She spent some time in jail for contempt. In subsequent therapy, she recalled childhood abuse for which she had had no previous memory. Almost no one seriously proposed that her behaviour in court had been simulation or fabrication. How then are we to understand this episode without recourse to a theory of memory that allows some events to be permanently stored yet somehow inaccessible for long periods? As more people reported recovered memories of abuse, some of those accused of abuse resisted. They argued that sometimes people created a memory for an episode or episodes that did not take place, but came to believe strongly in that memory. To support their claims, they pointed to cases where there was objective evidence that the abuse could not have taken place; they exposed doubtful therapeutic practices; and they referred to the vast amount of experimental research demonstrating that memory can be unreliable. (A quick test: do you recall reading that Arthur Nebb shot his wife's lover? I only implied as much - although in fact he did.)

If laypeople were divided on this matter, so were memory experts. In 1995, the American Psychological Association formed a committee to report on memories of childhood abuse. As Winter notes, the "panel was deeply split" and it compromised by accepting that abusive episodes could be forgotten for a long time but also that people could experience strong and convincing false memories.

Winter argues that the tension between these two extreme views of memory repeatedly resurfaces, even though neither extreme is plausible as an explanation of all memories. Memory can be accurate: I know with utter certainty that I went for tea yesterday afternoon with a colleague and that he paid. It can also be debatable: over a number of years my sister and I argued about who had bought an Andy Fairweather Low album (in blue vinyl) and both of us appealed to explicit memories of the purchase to bolster our case. At least one of us is wrong. These examples illustrate that however authoritative a memory expert may be, the ordinary person may feel able to draw on personal experiences in ways that they believe undermine the expert. This is not to say that such expertise does not exist, that it should not be pursued or that a case should not be made for such experts having particular authority in some contexts. But it does show that accepting such authority is likely to continue to be fraught. Winter's book helps us to understand why.

The book's second theme is that the ways in which we write about memory have repeatedly made reference to the technologies of the time. Winter points out that technologies have also shaped how we remember. Since the advent of the cine camera - or, for most of us, the video camera - it has become almost a duty to record family history for later remembering. This is familiar territory. From the wax tablet to the hologram, writers on memory have used technologies to help them develop theories of remembering. For almost as long, there have been commentaries on the contents and appropriateness of such metaphors. In 1880, Theodule Ribot, one of the most important early researchers on memory, complained that photographic metaphors for memory were appealing but inadequate because they always assumed someone or something looking at the photograph. Some historians have gone further and argued that if one strips away the metaphors entirely, we are left with no adequate means of talking about memory. That is, memory struggles to exist as a research topic without a metaphorical language to support it.

Just as in everyday life, in academic research, remembering has proved a fascinating but irksome thing. But memory cannot be confined to the laboratory, and Winter gives numerous examples of how theories of memory have entered into diverse and important areas of life. She shows how they became associated with national security through fears that people's memory could be systematically distorted using secret techniques. She shows how following on from shell shock, the problems of post-traumatic stress disorder sharpened concerns about remembering too much and not remembering enough. In the process, the right balance of remembering and forgetting became regarded as integral to our well-being. Winter also examines the way that beliefs about memory were challenged when people under hypnosis claimed to remember beyond their present life and into previous lives. Her knowledge of popular culture is put to excellent use, and in almost all the chapters she gives persuasive examples of how beliefs about memory have become woven into film and television. Her examples may be historical, but the implication of Winter's argument is clear: similar debates revolving around remembering are taking place right now, they are consequential and they draw on and reinforce particular accounts of memory.

The Author

Born in Connecticut, Alison Winter spent her toddler years in Bonn, Germany, where her father undertook postdoctoral research in mathematics. While she cannot speak German, Winter says her father likes to think that, deep in her mind, she possesses a fluency in the language. "My more cynical mother says that the only German I learned from the Kinderkrippe [day nursery] was 'toddler obscenities' - that is, I stuck to English until I was angry, then produced insults in German."

After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in 1987, Winter visited the department of history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge. Enthralled by the research prospects there, she was determined to apply for its MPhil programme and returned to the US to earn enough for her tuition. "At one point, I was working at a Greek restaurant, a diner, a bank and a Burger King, all at the same time. I did get in, and I got funding." During this first sojourn at Cambridge, Winter, now associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, met her future husband, with whom she now has four children.

Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

By Alison Winter

University of Chicago Press

336pp, £19.50

ISBN 9780226902586

Published 29 December 2011

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