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Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

Memory: Fragments of a Modern History

by Alison Winter

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Picture your twenty-first birthday. Did you have a party? If so, do you remember who was there? Now step back: how clear are those memories? Should we trust them to be accurate, or is there a chance that you’re remembering incorrectly? And where have the many details you can no longer recall gone? Are they hidden somewhere in your brain, or are they gone


Picture your twenty-first birthday. Did you have a party? If so, do you remember who was there? Now step back: how clear are those memories? Should we trust them to be accurate, or is there a chance that you’re remembering incorrectly? And where have the many details you can no longer recall gone? Are they hidden somewhere in your brain, or are they gone forever?

Such questions have fascinated scientists for hundreds of years, and, as Alison Winter shows in Memory: Fragments of a Modern History, the answers have changed dramatically in just the past century. Tracing the cultural and scientific history of our understanding of memory, Winter explores early metaphors that likened memory to a filing cabinet; later, she shows, that cabinet was replaced by the image of a reel of film, ever available for playback. That model, too, was eventually superseded, replaced by the current understanding of memory as the result of an extremely complicated, brain-wide web of cells and systems that together assemble our pasts. Winter introduces us to innovative scientists and sensationalistic seekers, and, drawing on evidence ranging from scientific papers to diaries to movies, explores the way that new understandings from the laboratory have seeped out into psychiatrists' offices, courtrooms, and the culture at large. Along the way, she investigates the sensational battles over the validity of repressed memories that raged through the 1980s and shows us how changes in technology—such as the emergence of recording devices and computers—have again and again altered the way we conceptualize, and even try to study, the ways we remember.

Packed with fascinating details and curious episodes from the convoluted history of memory science, Memory is a book you'll remember long after you close its cover.

Editorial Reviews

Yale University Daniel�Kevles
"A brilliant, original history of the intertwined theories of memory and attempts to recall past experience. Winter writes with engaging discernment about the clinic and the courtroom, trauma and therapy, neuroscience and neurospeculation, bringing to revealing life disputes about the reliability of memory that have arisen in the law, the laboratory, and the media."

Yale University Daniel Kevles
"A brilliant, original history of the intertwined theories of memory and attempts to recall past experience. Winter writes with engaging discernment about the clinic and the courtroom, trauma and therapy, neuroscience and neurospeculation, bringing to revealing life disputes about the reliability of memory that have arisen in the law, the laboratory, and the media."

Yale University DanielKevles
"A brilliant, original history of the intertwined theories of memory and attempts to recall past experience. Winter writes with engaging discernment about the clinic and the courtroom, trauma and therapy, neuroscience and neurospeculation, bringing to revealing life disputes about the reliability of memory that have arisen in the law, the laboratory, and the media."

"Impressive. . . . Winter has done an admirable job synthesizing many diverse sources into a tidy cultural history. . . . 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."

London Review of Books - Jenny Diski
"A deft study of twentieth-century memory controversies."

Ruth Leys
"There is no other book like this—a deeply researched, vividly written, marvelously accessible account of (not quite) a dozen important episodes in what Alison Winter calls the 'sciences of recall' in the twentieth century. A hugely enjoyable read, full of new information and valuable insights."

Douwe Draaisma
"Good books on memory are made of this: sophisticated ideas, subtle observations, and an engaging style. This one by Alison Winter is better than simply good. It’s splendid."

Library Journal
Winter (history, Univ. of Chicago; Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain) has chosen experiments and personalities from the last 100 years to demonstrate how the science of memory has evolved. She argues that with the development of the first recording media, memories came to be seen as exact records. Forensic psychologists and therapists only had to help recall the memory by hypnosis or other techniques to uncover the truth. But following controversies like the Bridey Murphy case (a Midwestern housewife "remembered" her past life as an Irish peasant), the memory wars of the 1990s, and the rediscovery of Frederick Bartlett's seminal 1932 work, Remembering, in the 1970s, experts started to see memories as reconstructions of past events based on perception and motivations and, therefore, as imperfect representations of the truth. VERDICT Some episodes described by Winter are fascinating, like the use of scopolamine as a truth serum and later for narcoanalysis, but others are less effective. Winter's constant need to find links between modern media and the science of memory is sometimes difficult to follow. This book will nevertheless be interesting to students in forensic psychology and history.—Maryse Breton, Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec, Montreal

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University of Chicago Press
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By Alison Winter

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-90258-6

Chapter One


In January 1906, Elizabeth Martha "Bessie" Hollister, a middle-class married woman in her twenties, went missing in a working-class neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago, now Lincoln Park. Her family circulated a description: brown hair, blue eyes, gray dress. But it was already too late. Her body was found the next morning on a pile of refuse, with wire wrapped around her neck. The next day, police had a suspect: a young carpenter named Richard Ivens, who had found the body in the vacant lot behind his family's workshop on Belden Avenue.

After several hours of questioning, Ivens signed a lengthy confession, recounting his actions and maintaining that he had acted alone. It seemed an open-and-shut case, but after a few weeks he dramatically changed his tune and announced that his confession was false. Yet Ivens did not claim he had consciously fabricated it. The police had used hypnotic techniques, he said—techniques powerful enough that he himself had temporarily come to accept their assertions as his own memories.

Experts readily came forward to agree that Ivens's remarkable allegation could indeed be true. Psychologists from Chicago, the East Coast, and even Europe sent in their opinions, pulling the case into an ongoing controversy about the malleability of memory and the nature of suggestion. One of the foremost of these was Hugo Münsterberg of Harvard. Münsterberg saw in the Ivens case an opportunity to launch a broader campaign to demonstrate the need for expert psychological evaluations of witness testimony in general. His efforts became part of an intensifying discussion about the application of scientific knowledge to social problems. But when it was proposed that science be applied to memory—something that seemed definitively accessible to everyone—this discussion threatened to become acrimonious.

False Confession, False Memory

In the weeks after the Hollister murder, newspapers wasted little ink pondering the killer's identity. They did puzzle over various inconsistencies—for instance, Hollister's gloves and muff were never found, nor could police account for her whereabouts during the hours before they claimed Ivens had targeted her. But there seemed no doubt of his involvement.

It is easy to see why people assumed Ivens's guilt. He initially confirmed his confession to his own father as well as to the police. It was only after several weeks that he recanted, claiming the confession was a "false" memory imposed on him during the police interrogation.

Could the court be made to believe in such a thing? A false confession was hard enough to prove, but it was at least imaginable. A false memory, meaning a good-faith confession that had no basis in experience—this was unheard of. How could one replace one's own memory with a story that belonged to someone else's crime, especially when this would lead to one's own execution? Yet this was the defense's argument.

The trial began on March 6. Bailiff s struggled to keep order as the twelve jurors were sworn in before a throng of spectators. The presenting of evidence began two days later. The confession was immediately the central issue. Should it be admitted? If so, how much weight should it receive? The officer who had initially questioned Ivens testified (for the prosecution) that he had come to police attention almost immediately because he had found the body. He seemed suspiciously reticent, unwilling to answer questions, and very nervous. After some hours of questioning—during which time, the officer claimed, he had neither threatened Ivens nor offered him leniency, Ivens gave a detailed and even expansive confession of how he had sexually assaulted Mrs. Hollister and then strangled her. The defense attorney asked the chief of police whether he had studied hypnosis: he had, though not to secure confessions. Nor, he affirmed when pressed, had he used more subtle forms of suggestive influence.

The defense's own presentation began with Ivens himself. He stated, sounding a little stilted and rehearsed, that he had confessed "under the sweatbox influence of the police." He had been nervous; they had "had me at their mercy." He had denied seeing Hollister before finding her body, but as the interrogation continued he got "excited." His "mind was not clear.... [T]hey asked me questions one right after the other, and I just answered 'Yes' to all of them."

As many as twelve witnesses gave Ivens an alibi, but their consensus was undercut by Ivens's own restatements of his confession. These affirmations would ordinarily have ruled out any claim of coercion. But the defense argued that this was not a case of ordinary coercion: Ivens—who supposedly was "dull" and therefore easily led—had been implanted with a statement that he himself came to believe for a while. The defense maintained that the police had literally placed him under a "hypnotic spell," though it was not clear if this had been done deliberately. The trance had supposedly prevented him from distinguishing "real facts" from "suggestion." Ivens had thus been prevented from speaking for himself, not by the usual technique of being forced into concocted and false statements, but by the subtler means of grafting a false story onto his own memory. This story had temporarily supplanted the true version in his own mind, making his confession an honest statement of an actual falsehood. The ventriloquists of this "confession" were the police. The jury was less impressed with this argument than with Ivens's original confession; he was convicted in March, but this decision only marked the first phase of the debate over his guilt and over the possibility of coercing an individual not only to make a false confession but to believe in it.

The Psychologists

Hypnosis was a fashionable topic among psychologists and psychiatrists in the early 1900s. Conversations about psychology and the law naturally gravitated toward it. In Chicago, J. Sanderson Christison was an outspoken member of a group of aspiring psychologists who made common cause around hypnosis, focusing specifically on the topics of suggestion and psychological expert witnessing. Christison had made a name for himself as an expert in several sensational Chicago murder trials, and he had also published a stream of pamphlets on craniometry, physiognomy, and the insanity defense.

Ivens's alibi testimony intrigued Christison, who came to court to see Ivens for himself during the trial. When he did, he was struck by Ivens's "dull expression" (an indication of mental weakness) and the lack of signs of guilt in his voice. Ivens's original confession also contained non sequiturs that seemed to indicate suggestions and leading questions: he had recounted events that one would not remember, such as losing his "senses," and had failed to remember critical details such as how many times he "attempted [sexual] outrage" and how he had placed the wire around Hollister's neck. Ivens also said that Hollister screamed, but several nearby shopkeepers had heard nothing.

Christison concluded that the defense was right. The police had "grafted a delusion" onto Ivens's mind, temporarily altering his memory and even his personality. Christison knew of three ways to create a false idea in someone who had been "rendered passive": You could try the silent treatment and wait for them to produce a suggestion of their own in an attempt to satisfy you. More aggressively, you could set the stage, throwing out hints and inviting your suspect to confirm them. The third, most "violent," technique was to make the statements outright and force them into the memory of your subject. He thought this was what had happened to Ivens. The resulting ideas blended in a complex way with Ivens's own memories:

The acceptance or belief in false ideas when "suggested," imposed, or grafted upon an individual, does not necessarily destroy all memory of actual occurrences, while there must necessarily be some degree of confusion between the actualities and the fictions believed. Such imposed ideas naturally operate upon the imagination in the way of filling out, but in the passive minded or hypnotic person the imagination usually operates very much feebler than normal.

So, warned Christison, "if the mind is sluggish and passive or in any way abnormally impressionable," it was even more vulnerable to false ideas. He told of a girl at a Chicago orphanage who was so tormented by a guilty "memory" of having killed another girl with an ax years earlier that she confessed. Police investigated and "found no deaths in the family."

Christison developed his own theory of the investigation. Ivens was not a bestial man looking for sex but a sweet, stupid, undeveloped boy, uninterested in women. Once arrested, he was subjected to a "fiercely energetic charge" from four "very magnetic police officers." They force-fed Ivens what they wanted him to say.

Christison circulated this argument in a brief pamphlet that he sent to other Chicago psychiatrists, asking for statements of support. He soon got them. Herbert Parkyn, a colleague who ran an institution dedicated to studying the power of suggestion, diagnosed Ivens as an "active or hypnotic somnambulist,"

[someone with] so little voluntary attention, and whose ability to associate his old impressions with new ones is so limited that when in the suggestible [state] ... the patient finds it easier to acquiesce in, rather than to refute, any statement made by the suggestor.... We found the hypnotic somnambules to be a distinct and unmistakable type. They are always dependants and seldom, if ever, exhibit executive ability, preferring to be directed by those around them.

Christison soon sent his text to psychological experts around the country and in Europe, soliciting authoritative support for his interpretation. Among the first to respond were the most powerful figures in psychology at this time: William James and Hugo Münsterberg, both at Harvard, and Max Meyer at the University of Missouri. James worked from introspection and observation, Münsterberg from precision laboratory work; Meyer was developing a protobehaviorist approach. Despite their differences, they were all deeply involved in promoting and portraying "psychology" to nonprofessionals.

James had already told Münsterberg privately that he thought Ivens's confession was "quite preposterous." But his public statement for Christison was more restrained: Ivens was "probably innocent." A reprieve was necessary, James said, "for thoroughly investigating mental condition." Meyer concluded, more bluntly, that Ivens's confession was "the direct or indirect outgrowth of injudicious suggestions, coming from the police officers, [and] received by Ivens during the abnormal mental state above mentioned." Almost all the others Christison approached confirmed that suggestion could produce a false memory, and most of them warned that the circumstances of Ivens's confession made this a likely instance. All called for medical and psychiatric evaluation and a new trial. Max Meyer went further and baldly declared that "the jury was incompetent for this case." Only two experts, whom Christison quoted but did not name, had not been convinced that there was a fatal problem with either the investigation or the jury's decision.

Münsterberg was the most intrepid of all in supporting Christison's campaign. The Harvard psychologist made a confident diagnosis from afar:

I feel sure that the so-called confessions of Ivens are untrue, and that he had nothing to do with the crime. It is an interesting and yet rather clear case of dissociation and autosuggestion. It would probably need careful treatment to build up his dissociated mind and thus awaken in him again a clear memory of his real experiences.

Through "dissociation," Münsterberg claimed, Ivens's original memory had been severed from consciousness, and a new (false) memory taken its place. Only when Ivens eventually tapped into his original memory was he able to recognize and discard the false one.

Behind this apparently strong agreement were elements of distinction. Christison's was not the only theory of what could have happened to Ivens to be held by his supporters. A different one would soon be put forward by Münsterberg himself. For the Chicago psychiatrists, the key issue was how easily Ivens could be led to embrace a suggestion. It was a matter of what an individual could be made to agree to. But for Münsterberg the central issue was whether the content of a memory could be changed if an individual was placed in an altered state of mind. In his eyes, it was a question of the content of memory itself and how it could be manipulated.

The Afterlife of Ivens's Memories

All of Christison's correspondents were interested in a tangle of issues brought together by hypnosis, relating to subtle influence, subconscious thinking, attention, and memory. They also shared a powerful interest in promoting psychology outside the clinic and the laboratory, wishing to give the field a greater stature in public culture. Münsterberg, who is now considered the founder of applied psychology, had written that it was absurd to leave psychology languishing within laboratories, "without immediate relation to the life around us." Within a decade, he forecast, applied psychology would be ubiquitous. Ivens's case became an instrument in the campaign to achieve that end.

By early June, a few days before Ivens's appeal went to the state supreme court, newspapers were printing quotations from the experts' letters. But the letters were read not as evidence that Ivens had been wrongly accused, or of the need for psychological expert witnesses, but instead as proof of psychologists' gullibility and frivolity. The press saw in them all the intolerable smugness and noblesse oblige of East Coast intellectuals: "Illinois has quite enough of people with an itching mania for attending to other people's business without importing impertinence from Massachusetts. This crime itself, no matter who may be the criminal, was one of the frightful fruits of a sickly paltering with the stern administration of law. We do not want any directions from Harvard University irresponsibles for paltering still further."

It seems that the court agreed, given the shocking speed with which they dismissed his appeal. A hint of wavering had come from Hollister's husband, who said he was worried that the court seemed to be leaning toward granting a stay of execution because of worries about the legitimacy of the confession. And Ivens's defense counsel did not try to use the cache of letters, apparently thinking them unnecessary. But the counsel was mistaken and the widower's worry unfounded. Ivens's appeal was denied on the twentieth. The city prepared for an execution.

Ivens was hanged two days later, on June 22. The actual execution was closed to the public, but thousands of people thronged downtown Chicago, crowding Michigan Avenue (then called Michigan Street) and "waiting for the undertaker's wagon to leave the jail yard."

However swift and decisive the appeal and execution might have been, debate about Ivens's guilt—and about the idea of a false memory—did not diminish. James and Münsterberg both issued new statements in the days after the execution. Christison also continued his campaign, expanding his pamphlet into a book and founding a new criminological society. In the next few years, the possibility of false memory sparked an increasingly intense debate about the very nature of legal evidence.

Memory in the Courtroom

Hugo Münsterberg had emigrated to America in the 1890s, hoping to realize William James's ambition to develop a "brass-instruments" psychological laboratory at Harvard. Münsterberg, who had been trained by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig, was devoted to a laboratory model of psychological knowledge making, using precision instruments to take quantitative measurements of various psychological effects. He worked tirelessly to call public attention to the power of psychological laboratory techniques, both at Harvard and in his popular writings.


Excerpted from Memory by Alison Winter Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago . Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alison Winter is associate professor of history at the University of Chicago and the author of Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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