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Biography 23.2 (2000) 372-374

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David B. Pillemer. Momentous Events, Vivid Memories. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. 256 pp. ISBN 0-674-58205-5, $35.00.

People often have vivid memories of momentous events, including traumatic war experiences, the deaths of public figures, marriage proposals, and graduation ceremonies. These seemingly diverse memories, which Pillemer terms personal event memories, have several features in common. Each memory corresponds to a specific moment or event, rather than a general event or a series of events; each contains many details of the rememberer's personal circumstances; and each is filled with sensory information that promotes a sense of reexperiencing the event. In his book, Momentous Events, Vivid Memories, Pillemer, a Psychology professor and memory researcher, describes how we use vivid memories for significant events to learn from experience and form a meaningful life story.

Pillemer's concept of personal event memories includes several types of memories--including traumatic and "flashbulb" memories--traditionally studied separately by cognitive psychologists. Most people can remember specific details about where they were when they heard that President John F. Kennedy was shot, or when they heard that the Challenger shuttle had exploded. These "flashbulb memories" are rich in sensory detail. Similarly, survivors of terrifying traumatic events, such as the bombing of Hiroshima or Hurricane Andrew, may have detailed memories, sometimes called "flashbacks." Pillemer also includes "insight" memories to account for the detailed descriptions of epiphany that scientists, artists, and everyday people sometimes provide. Finally, included in Pillemer's analysis are memories for "critical incidents," defining moments in people's lives, such as arriving on a college campus for the first time.

The focus of the book--naturally occurring personal event memories --differs from the focus of memory research traditionally performed by cognitive psychologists. Unlike laboratory memory research that asks college students to memorize lists of words or numbers, Pillemer's work, while still primarily empirical in nature, is more concerned with the personal significance of emotionally-laden events than with the absolute accuracy or processing details of memory for the mundane.

By definition, personal event memories are important to people. Pillemer describes how such memories form a "skeleton" for people's autobiographies. His review of breakthrough research by developmental psychologists [End Page 372] documenting the development of children's ability to form autobiographical narratives is especially thorough and fascinating. As children learn to speak, they begin to develop a narrative about their lives. Through young childhood, children refine their life stories with the help of adults who teach children rules about how to remember important details and explain them to others. By adulthood, people have many personal event memories and sophisticated skills for sharing complex autobiographical stories.

Pillemer explains how personal event memories can dramatically affect human behavior. Previous memory researchers have suggested that people experience similar situations and, over time, develop scripts that help them plan how to act the next time they are in a similar situation. For example, after taking the bus several times, people develop an idea of how each subsequent trip will go. Pillemer points out that one-time events can guide behavior directly. He describes a college student who took a bus to a late-night event, only to discover that the return trip did not run at the time he wanted to leave the event. The result was a long walk home, and the student reported that he carefully checked the bus schedule after that one event.

This example is, in some ways, analogous to the ways a one-time traumatic event can influence future behavior. People who experience traumatic events often retain a detailed memory of the event and tend to avoid situations that bring up that memory. Even when trauma survivors have little or no accessible conscious narrative account of the traumatic event, their implicit memory may function so powerfully as to motivate dramatic changes in behavior. Unlike all other personal event memories, however, traumatic memories are often either so unavailable or so intrusive (or a disturbing combination of unavailable in part and intrusive in other parts--as when only a...