Immediate Family:On the Consolation, Embellishment, and Distortion of Memory
I advance two claims about memory. The first is that memory itself is best conceived as consisting of scenes (or images), which thus provide the raw material for the stories that we can tell about the past. The second is that these narratives can be revised in the light of new possibilities for redescription. In support of these claims, I examine the photographer Sally Mann's stunning (and controversial) 1992 series entitled "Immediate Family." By appealing to Ian Hacking's account of how, in the latter part of the twentieth century, multiple personality became "a culturally sanctioned way of expressing distress," I argue that both the condemnation of Mann's work and the explosion in diagnoses of multiple personality were ultimately rooted in the then-popular belief that memories of childhood abuse determined adult character.
memory, Sally Mann, immediate family, photography, multiple personality
The past is in the remaking.—adam phillips [End Page 311]
In this article, I seek to advance two claims about memory. The first is that memory itself is best conceived as consisting of scenes (or images), which thus provide the raw material for the stories that we can tell about the past. The second is that these narratives can be revised in the light of new possibilities for redescription. In the words of Ian Hacking, "We rewrite the past not because we find out more about it but because we present actions under new descriptions" (1995, 243). In support of these claims, I will examine the photographer Sally Mann's stunning (and controversial) 1992 series entitled "Immediate Family." By appealing to Hacking's account of how, in the latter part of the twentieth century, multiple personality became "a culturally sanctioned way of expressing distress" (1995, 236), I will argue that both the condemnation of Mann's work and the explosion in diagnoses of multiple personality were ultimately rooted in the then-popular belief that memories of childhood abuse determined adult character. In this way, I hope to comprehend why "the imperative to remember" assumed this particular form.
As with all interesting artwork, the series of photographs that make up "Immediate Family" resist easy summary. Moreover, and for reasons that I hope to make clear in the following, the wildly disparate reactions to these photographs, especially when Mann first exhibited them in the early 1990s, often revealed much more about the interests and fears of those looking at them than they provided any sympathetic attempt to understand Mann's motivations for taking them. My reactions to these photographs are, of course, likewise informed by my own interests and fears, but I am also, with the recent publication of her memoir, the beneficiary of Mann's considered deliberations about what she was trying to achieve with them and why they provoked such controversy.1
That said, I, as both a mother and a grandmother, read these photographs as fundamentally an exploration of what Mann describes as "maternal desire, marrow-deep and stronger than death" (2015, 157). What makes these photographs of the Mann children playing, posing, sleeping, and swimming so compelling, in other words, is how they capture both our delight in our children's unfettered play and our ceaseless concern for their safety. Consider, for example, the 1987 photograph entitled The Ditch. This photograph, like many others in the series, is set on the sandy beach below the Mann's farmhouse. Mann's son, Emmett, is shown sliding along an inlet that he and some other boys have constructed along the river's edge. What makes this image of boyish shenanigans so complex and thus [End Page 312] so haunting, however, is that it also suggests a grave. Indeed, despite their exquisite composition and the banality of the activities depicted, all of the photographs in "Immediate Family" maintain this disconcerting balance between the idyllic and the menacing. Given the pleasure we take in looking at them, we can, I think, thus conceive Mann's achievement in this series to be akin to what the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips identifies as the purpose of flirtation. This is that it "eroticizes the contingency of our lives by turning doubt—or ambiguity—into suspense" (Phillips 1993, xxiii).
Further evidence for my reading of Mann's work is to be found in the impetus for "Immediate Family." Having taken a photograph of her middle child Jessie's swollen face (caused by an insect bite), Mann was struck not only by how closely her photograph resembled Dorothea Lange's well-known work Damaged Child, Shacktown but by how this resemblance proved comforting. In Mann's recollection, "Looking at the still damp contact print, and then looking at Jessie, completely recovered and twirling around the house in her pink tutu, I realized the image inoculated me to a possible reality I might not henceforth have to suffer" (2015, 114). At least initially, then, Mann thought that these photographs could provide "an escape from the manifold terrors of child rearing. . . . [I could] stare them straight in the face but at a remove—on paper, in a photograph" (2015, 114). [End Page 313]
But just as fairy tales, designed to allow children both to confront and to pacify their fears, cannot make the real world a completely safe place, Mann's hope that her photographs would serve as "apotropaic protection" (2015, 114) could not keep her children immune from accident. In fact, soon after taking the photograph of Jessie just mentioned, Emmett was hit by a car when walking home from school. And although he appeared to suffer no permanent harm from this incident,2 Mann herself could not help but wonder in its aftermath whether "by photographing my fears I might be closer to actually seeing them, not the other way round" (2015, 118). What helped mitigate this worry was Mann's hope that "at the farm, there is no reason for photography-as-inoculation, no fear and no danger" (2015, 120).3 As the photographs constituting "Immediate Family" attest, however, the possibility of danger or threat is never totally eliminated, even in circumstances as idyllic as the Mann's farm. Consider, for example, the 1988 photograph entitled The Alligator's Approach. In this picture, Mann's youngest child, Virginia, is shown wrapped in a beach towel and napping against a folded-up lounge chair on the deck. Below her in the distance, an alligator approaches the beach. [End Page 314] It took me, at least, several viewings to realize that the alligator is merely an inflatable float.
What further contributes to the richness of these photographs is how they overturn entrenched conventions about family portraiture. In particular, and to their credit, they depict the children as complex individuals rather than as sanitized tropes. As Mann declares, "Children are not just the innocents that we expect them to be. They are also wise, angry, jaded, skeptical, mean, manipulative, brooding, and devilishly deceitful" (2015, 157). (Indeed, what bothers my own mother most about these images is that the children are never shown smiling.) What enabled this honesty, what permitted, in other words, Mann's "conviction that my lens should remain open to the full scope of their childhood" (2015, xi) to come to fruition, was the collaborative nature of making the photographs. In her words, "When I stepped behind the camera, and they stepped in front of it, I was a photographer and they were actors and we were making a photograph together" (2015, 140). This is especially evident in the 1987 photograph entitled The Last Time Emmett Modeled Nude. This formally [End Page 315] gorgeous and conceptually rich image of Emmett standing in the middle of the river took a week's worth of failed attempts before Mann was satisfied.4 This experience thus illustrates why Mann is adamant that "children cannot be forced to make pictures like these: mine gave them to me" (2015, 126).
Given both the explicitly collaborative nature of the endeavor that Mann and her children were engaged in and her children's obvious understanding of the distinction between pretense and real life—"taking those pictures was an act separate from mothering, and the kids knew the difference" (2015, 140)—Mann was, in her words, "blindsided" (2015, 134) by the controversy that the publication of Immediate Family (1992) provoked. For my purposes, criticism of these photographs, as exemplified in the thirty-three admonishing letters to the editor received by the New York Times in response to a 1992 Sunday magazine cover story on Mann's work,5 can be regarded as falling into three main camps. The first, and most easily dismissed given the nature of the photographs' creation, were accusations that Mann was a "Bad Mother" (2015, 138) simply by virtue of making the work.6 The second and [End Page 316] largest group of negative reactions centered around the circumstance that, in slightly less than a quarter of these photographs, the children were nude. Given the cultural climate, some of this criticism stemmed from a naive if well-meaning concern that these particular images would inflame pedophiles. Mann herself took this worry seriously enough to meet with an FBI agent: "He said what I already knew: that some people would be aroused by these pictures. Then the smile, and he said, 'But they get aroused by door handles, too. I don't think there is anything you can take a picture of that doesn't arouse somebody'" (2015, 157). Most, however, were simply knee-jerk (and thus ultimately inexplicable) reactions to the fact of the nudity.7 As Mann points out, "All too often, nudity, even that of children, is mistaken for sexuality" (2015, 157). To my mind, making this mistake can be the only explanation for the Wall Street Journal's disfiguration of 1989's Virginia at 4 in a 1991 editorial attacking government funding for the arts. (The editors of the Journal placed black bars across toddler Virginia's eyes, chest, and hips.)8
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It is this equation of nudity with sexuality that fueled the third type of criticism. Because it not only is such a reflection of its time but makes deliberate appeal to then-common beliefs about memory, I propose to examine it in more detail than I have done with the other two types of condemnatory reaction to Mann's work. Of the thirty-three critical letters, seven were from people who either claimed to have experienced horrendous childhood violence or were working with abused children. Every single one of these letter writers was staunchly convinced that Mann herself was a victim of incest who had repressed the memory of the violation that she had suffered at the hands of her father. Because of this conviction, these writers were adamant that, in Mann's characterization, "I . . . was unconsciously working out some kind of psychic pathology in my photographs" (2015, 136). More than a quarter century later, this kind of simplistic and reductionistic response to what is unequivocally art seems incredible. It needs to be emphasized, however, that at the time repressed memory, its susceptibility to therapeutic recovery, and its etiology were thought by the general public to be well-established scientific findings. It should also be pointed out that, as Mann herself admits, she unwittingly contributed to this interpretation of her work by being careless in discussions with New York Times reporter Rick Woodward. In her words, "I had stupidly planted the repressed memory idea by telling Woodward that I had very few memories of what was, basically, an unmemorable childhood" (2015, 137). It should, of course, be clear to us now that this off-the-cuff remark was not indicative of traumatic amnesia but was instead a gesture to a larger point about the relationship between memory and photography. As Mann explains, "What I had intended to convey to Woodward was that my pitifully few childhood memories were primarily based upon photographs, and this was true" (2015, 137).
Indeed, Mann's suspicion that photography has usurped the role of memory appears only to have intensified in the decades since the creation of "Immediate Family." Spurred in part by her examination of family memorabilia in preparation for delivering the 2011 Massey Lectures, Mann insists that "photographs supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories" (2015, xiii). This is because, on her view, "photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time's continuum" (2015, 151), a phenomenon to which I have borne witness. A few years ago, my husband found an old roll of film and gave it to our photographer son Darius to develop. When Darius showed them to us, interspersed with some newer photographs, I became [End Page 318] intrigued by a photograph of a young dark-haired woman holding a baby. I asked him who it was. Darius looked at me in exasperation and replied, "That's you, Mom, and that's me as a baby."
To my mind, these beliefs of Mann's not only dovetail nicely with my claims that, at its core, memory consists of scenes (or images) and that intentional action is always action under some description but, and most importantly, provide support for what Hacking admits is "a very difficult view about memories of intentional human actions" (1995, 249). That is, because new classifications—such as that provided by the multiple personality movement—provide new ways of being and acting, Hacking contends that we must accept that "the past is revised retroactively" (1995, 250). This phenomenon is well exemplified, I believe, in the censorship employed by the editors of the Wall Street Journal of Virginia at 4. In a climate defined by outrage over the newly recognized horror of childhood sexual abuse, the public was, in Mann's characterization, "in the throes of a full-scale moral freak-out over the photographic representation of nude children" (2015, 156). This is why, I think, a photograph like Virginia at 4, which would previously have been appreciated in solely aesthetic (and possibly sentimental) terms, could, in 1991, be regarded by the editors as portraying something unseemly. The tragic irony, of course, is that the only child to suffer actual harm from the photograph, or more to the point, from the editors' butchering of it, was Virginia herself. As Mann recalls, "When we saw it, it indeed felt like a mutilation, not only of the image but also of Virginia herself and of her innocence. It made her feel, for the first time, that there was something wrong not only with the pictures but with her body" (2015, 147). Indeed, with Mann's encouragement, Virginia, then age five, wrote a letter to the editor declaring, "Dear Sir, I don't like the way you crossed me out" (reproduced in Mann 2015, 148).
Given the ubiquity of such retroactive revision, Hacking is deeply critical of attempts to comprehend memory with the metaphor of "the imaginary camcorder in the sky." In his words, "The imaginary camcorder in the sky, which records everything that happens in a particular scene, does not of itself suffice to record what people were doing" (1995, 248; my emphasis). That is, because our deeds are always actions under some description or other, changes in our sensibility and vocabulary can create a paradox wherein "the past becomes filled with intentional actions that, in a certain sense, were not there when they were performed" (Hacking 1995, 250). Hacking illustrates this by considering the hypothetical case of a woman [End Page 319] remembering her discomfort at being compelled to take showers with her father as a young girl. At the time, she could not have characterized these experiences as incidents of abuse, because she "did not have these descriptions" (Hacking 1995, 240). But for Hacking (and for us) there is now no doubt that the attribution of abuse applies to this scenario: "If the father insists on showering with his daughter, knowing that she is uncomfortable at some level of her being, then he is being abusive" (1995, 240). It should be emphasized that it is the fact that the father knew of his daughter's discomfort that is the key issue here. Whether his actions are best classified as covert incest or bullying is ultimately a matter of therapeutic efficacy. This also means that, despite our well-justified suspicions about memory's veridicality, our memories nonetheless originate in what Shelly M. Park describes as "perceptions of material reality" (1997, 34).
Because "memory," "self," and "person" are what Sue Campbell calls "historically braided concepts" (1997, 52), what is ultimately at stake in discussions of memory is our understanding of personhood. This is especially evident if we follow Campbell's lead and regard the self as fundamentally "the site of certain activities" (1997, 55) or as what John T. Lysaker and Paul H. Lysaker characterize as "a complex ensemble of interanimating parts whose interactions are not driven by an overarching ego" (2005, 3). As such, "a sense of self depends on some of a person's experiences becoming memories, some of that person's desires becoming plans and intentions to act, and some of the person's pleasures and displeasures becoming self-regarding attitudes, such as pride or shame" (Campbell 1997, 55). Selves acquire the normative status of persons and thus become bearers of responsibility only when these activities are acknowledged and respected. Indeed, Lysaker and Lysaker contend that the very ability to say "I" is "tethered to actual and possible interlocuters and grounded in the habits required for communicative competence" (2005, 9).
Most importantly, the opportunity to indulge in practices of self-examination, or what Campbell identifies as "our narration of past experience" (1997, 56), is what unites memory, desire, and belief into a person. In her words, "Memory enters as a core cognitive ability, one of the abilities through which a human is configured into a person; and the kinds of activities that can be seen to be important to developing and maintaining this core cognitive ability are activities involving self-narratives" (1997, 62). It is in this way, moreover, that memory serves as "a source of warrant for [one's] beliefs, desires, actions, and values" (Campbell 1997, 63). It is in this [End Page 320] way, in other words, that we become responsible agents who can thus be held accountable for what we say, do, and believe. As Mann's insight about photographs "supplanting" the past and creating their own memories suggests, however, this relationship between acquiring a sense of self, becoming a bearer of responsibility, and exercising self-narration is, in Campbell's characterization, "complex" (1997, 56). This is largely because, and in line with both the recognition that action is always action under some description and Hacking's analysis of his example of the daughter showering with the father, she is adamant that "to take responsibility for an action often involves coming to regard the action as fitting a certain description, without necessarily having been aware that the action fit that description at the time the action was performed" (Campbell 1997, 62). Such learning, moreover, not only obviously depends upon the existence of communal practices of evaluation and criticism but reinforces Hacking's insight that changes in our vocabulary and sensibility impact our attributions of responsibility.
More expansively, both Campbell and Hacking are ultimately concerned with how the relationship between memory, responsibility, and a sense of self can go awry. Campbell, specifically, analyzes the ways in which one's personhood can be undermined through attacking one's reliability as a narrator. Hacking, as noted, appeals to the phenomenon of multiple personality principally in order to examine the conception of memory underwriting this phenomenon. Nonetheless, in setting forth how "multiple personality provided a new way to be an unhappy person" (1995, 236), he likewise demonstrates how tightly even it depends upon the connection between personhood and responsibility: "One has to have a certain integrity, a certain wholeness, to have intentions at all. The language of alters was providing descriptions in which disassociated actions could be said to have centers, personalities, or at any rate personality fragments, which had enough of the features of a person that actions could be ascribed to them, fragment by fragment" (1995, 237). Moreover, if multiple personality involves, in some sense, the explosion of responsibility, then schizophrenia appears to involve its eclipse. As Lysaker and Lysaker explain, "The systematic delusions [symptomatic of this disease] form an unassailable starting point around which one revolves, and not vice versa" (2005, 14). This is why "the felt experience of self-destruction" (Lysaker and Lysaker 2005, 11) is central to the phenomenology of schizophrenia. Furthermore, I have also been struck by the fact that the explosion in diagnoses of multiple personality, the exponential increase in eating disorders, and [End Page 321] the possibility of being "born again" are all roughly contemporaneous in North America. While I am at present unable to offer a thorough explanation for this, my suspicion is that the culprit is perfectionism. After all, if I can disavow aspects of myself of which I disapprove—whether it be through splitting, self-starvation, or miraculous transformation—I can sustain the fantasy of perfection.
This is, in part, why I have made appeal to Mann's "Immediate Family" in my attempt to understand the nature and workings of memory. These exquisite photographs of obviously well-loved children nonetheless do not depict a conventionally perfect family. Instead, they realize Mann's ambition to allow "my lens [to] remain open to the full scope of their childhood" (2015, xi). As such, they make manifest her understanding of the artist's defining obligation: "The artist's job is to make the commonplace singular, to project a different interpretation onto the conventional" (2015, 153). This is an objective that, I believe, is one equally worthy of the efforts of philosophers. That is why my aim in this essay has been to complicate the picture we have of how recalling childhood experiences informs adult self-understanding. Memories, like photographs, not only serve to console us but illustrate how easily the past can be embellished and distorted. [End Page 322]
. My heartfelt thanks go to the participants of the 2018 American Philosophies Forum Conference, "Memory, Mood, Hope, Action"; to two anonymous referees for the journal; to Kelsey Tyler of the Gagosian Galleries; and, most especially, to Sally Mann.
1. Indeed, Mann's memoir epitomizes Robert E. Innis's conception of self-reflection as "mediation of immediacy, an immediacy that is weighted down by and made thick with the winding trajectories of our lives" (this issue).
2. Mann now believes that this injury, the first of several serious brain injuries, contributed to Emmett's developing schizophrenia in early adulthood (personal correspondence).
3. In the same paragraph where Mann dismisses her photography-asinoculation theory, she admits that "still, and not surprisingly, I concentrated on Emmett" (2015, 120). Perhaps this helps to explain why my two favorite photographs in this series are of Emmett, photographs made perhaps even more poignant today because of the fact of his suicide a few years ago.
4. This explains the title. As Mann reports, "No one was more relieved [by its success] than Emmett, who had given up all those afternoons to the demands of the light—and of his mother" (2015, 126).
5. It should be noted that the critical letters were matched by an equal number of laudatory letters.
6. Regarding the related concern about the children's consent, Mann explains that "when the publication of 'Immediate Family' was discussed, each child was given the possible pictures and asked to edit out any that he or she didn't want published" (2015, 140).
7. I do not know a single adult who does not remember being a young child and mucking around outside in the summer without a stitch on. (Some of this, of course, was to avoid wear and tear on our clothes.) If this is not quite so common now as it once was, my hunch is that this has to do with our becoming aware of the dangers of sun exposure.
8. It should also be noted that Mann herself had not received National Endowment for the Arts funding.