Dec/Jan 2012

Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

Meehan Crist


In 1906, a young carpenter named Richard Ivens was accused of murder after a woman’s body was found in a vacant lot behind his Chicago workshop. Subjected to hours of interrogation, he signed a confession, but later retracted it, insisting the admission of guilt was obtained after police caused him to have a “false memory” of the crime. Here was a legal, scientific, and perhaps even philosophical conundrum: Could a person be made to remember an event that never happened?

Thus begins Alison Winter’s impressive cultural history of memory. “We have become the first culture in history to subject memory . . . to the authority of the sciences,” she writes. “This book is about how that happened, and why it matters.” By investigating incidents such as the Ivens case, Winter argues that the ongoing battle over how we conceptualize memory has had profound effects on our most important social institutions, on science itself, and on the individual. “The stories we tell about our personal past define who we are in the present” she writes. “The battles over the status of these stories amounted to a battle over the nature of the self.”

Each chapter tackles a controversy that sparked debate about the nature of memory, ranging from the contentious use of “truth serum” drugs in the early twentieth century to the heated disputes over recovered memories of child abuse in the 1990s. In the modern era, these debates have been characterized by opposing points of view: Either memories are somehow permanently engraved in our minds (even if we don’t always have access to them), or they’re mental constructs subject to the vagaries of time, suggestion, and context. During the First World War, when a “truth serum” capable of forcing honest testimony was a popular notion, opinion tended toward the first view; in the ’90s, when accusations of ritual satanic child abuse based on recovered memories reached unprecedented numbers, there was a swing toward the second.

Winter, an associate professor of history at the University of Chicago, has done an admirable job synthesizing many diverse sources into a tidy cultural history. But she has not set out to comprehensively document the science of memory (hence the “fragments” of the book’s title). She asserts that “psychological experts increasingly claim that memories are capricious, error-prone, and partial,” a view that now seems commonly accepted. But her focus on psychology and cognitive science, rather than on the recent work of neuroscientists (whose research is focused on the brain rather than the mind), leaves the reader with an incomplete understanding of why we now generally think of memory as a subjective experience. This small disappointment, however, should not detract from Winter’s project: a compelling demonstration that the science of memory—like all science—is both a product of and an influence on the culture from which it springs.

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