- Memory: Fragments of a Modern History
One can be forgiven for being skeptical about any book that purports to be a modern history of a topic as broad and slippery as memory, especially a relatively slender monograph like this one. But Alison Winter approaches this challenging topic with a bold, creative framework that results in a fascinating and enlightening account of how and why scientific theories of memory have been developed and deployed in twentieth-century America. She does not create a straightforward historical narrative that focuses on key figures, correctly arguing that such a narrative would ignore too much of importance and overestimate the contributions of those few who were included. Instead, Winter creates a framework that echoes the phenomena that memory researchers have constantly grappled with—puzzling fragments of memory. She argues in the introduction that the broad history of memory can be recovered best by bringing fragments of its history to life for analysis.
Winter gathers a diverse range of fragments: courtroom battles throughout the twentieth century over whether memory constituted a stable and reliable record that could be relied on to provide admissible evidence, or whether it was a fragile construct, prone to subjective bias and open to manipulation from external influence; military concerns throughout the century about the large number of soldiers disabled by traumatic memories from battle, and Cold War fear that memory could be manipulated through brainwashing; medical and psychological research on memory, such as the surgical experiments that seemed to reveal memories physically embedded in neuronal pathways in the brain, and psychological experiments that seemed to show that memories were often confabulations concocted by individuals to allow them to make sense of experience; beliefs and practices about memory in popular culture, such as the widespread interest in hypnosis as a means of recovering memories from childhood and even purportedly from previous lives; and finally, the conflicting cultures that developed around the "memory wars," with rival self-help and advocacy groups created to help those struggling to deal with the recovery of long-suppressed memories of childhood abuse and those struggling to deal with the damage done by the creation of false memories of abuse.
Winter's prose is clear and compelling, and each of these fragments is fascinating on its own. But as she puts them together, several themes emerge. One is the ongoing difficulty scientific experts have had in establishing claims to an authoritative understanding of memory. A second theme is the way that the continual development of mass media technology—especially photography, audio recording, and movies—supplied metaphors for scientists and the general public struggling to understand memory. A third theme is the continual cycling between models of memory as stable and authentic record of autobiographical experience and memory as fleeting and flawed reconstruction. Finally, in the concluding chapter, she connects the increasing concern about memory through the twentieth century to a fundamental cultural belief that we as individuals are somehow the [End Page 291] accretion of our life experiences and that those experiences are perfectly preserved in memory even if recall is problematic. This belief explains the great fear generated by the loss of memory in Alzheimer's disease and the unease engendered by recent treatment strategies for PTSD that entail "erasing" traumatic memories by pharmacologically dampening the affective energy attached to them. She concludes the book with the interesting thought that, if successful, such therapies will entail a change in the concept of selfhood by breaking the link between identity and psychic pain, just as the development of anesthesia in the nineteenth century broke a similar link with physical pain.
Throughout the book, Winter is admirably circumspect in her analysis. She does not engage in historical or theoretical speculations that go beyond her evidence. But while this interpretive restraint is mostly a virtue, I wish that in the concluding chapter she had broadened her analysis to discuss how her work might connect with the larger historical literatures on the cultural history of memory and selfhood. Still, if that...