A Drink To Remember

Alison Winter
Memory: Fragments of a Modern History
(University of Chicago Press, 2011)

Memory: Fragments of a Modern History begins with a provocative question: “I am more intimately acquainted with my own memories than anyone else can possibly be. Am I, then, the best authority on them?” The answer is no. “We have become the first culture in history to subject memory—the basic recording mechanism on which both self and society rest—to the authority of the sciences.” To say that memory succumbed to scientific authority in the 20th century does not, however, mean that science managed to displace legal authority. Criminal justice systems had long since claimed the power to judge the veracity and validity of an individual’s memory. In order to fully claim its newfound authority science was forced to prove itself in court.

Winter’s modern history of memory therefore starts with a murder trial. In 1906 Richard Ivens was accused of strangling Elizabeth Martha Hollister. He signed a lengthy confession and then recanted. A false confession was not so out of the ordinary. A false memory however, “meaning a good faith confession that had no basis in experience” was unheard of, and this is what Ivens was claiming. The defense argued that the police had used “hypnotic techniques” and that Ivens had “temporarily come to accept their assertions as his own memories.” It was later argued that Ivens had been put in a suggestible state by an accidental flash of light off of the barrel of a gun, mimicking a “mirror hypnotizer” or “hypnoscope.”

The Ivens case thus became the focus of an ongoing debate about “the malleability of memory and the nature of suggestion.” It drew the attention of two important psychiatrists: J. Sanderson Christison and his colleague, Hugo Munsterberg. Christison testified on Ivens’s behalf and Munsterberg saw the case as an opportunity to launch a wider campaign for the expert evaluation of witness testimony.

For a legal system dependent on witness testimony—one that furthermore assumed a jury’s ability to interpret this testimony—the possibility of false memory was a serious threat. The presence of psychiatrists in courtrooms is now commonplace and hardly disturbing, but Christison’s claims were deeply troubling to a society confident about memory’s inherent stability. Hypnosis and false memory suggested that “every human being ... was a few short steps away from dramatic memory derangements.” Not only did false memory threaten individual subjectivity, it posed significant problems for “long established legal conventions ... for evaluating the credibility of testimony. The oath witnesses took, for instance, suggested that the alternative to truthful testimony was deliberate falsehood. The new psychologists threatened this comforting idea.”

About a decade later medicine offered a solution—a drug that could guarantee truth. Truth serum, scopolamine, arrived on the forensic scene from an unlikely place. Dr. Robert Ernest House, an obstetrician from Houston, Texas, had been using scopolamine on his patients to produce “twilight sleep” during labor. He noticed that his patients were able to make truthful statements while in this deep state of unconsciousness.

Truth serum directly contradicted the concept of memory put forth a decade earlier. It presented a sort of chemical hypnosis during which the patient, according to the earlier logic, should be incredibly vulnerable to suggestion. Yet, it claimed the exact opposite—that memories procured while under the influence of scopolamine and similar drugs, were more trustworthy than those of an entirely conscious patient.

The idea that altered states revealed truth was not a new one. Trances were a popular topic throughout the 19th century and as Winter points out, “mesmerists did sometimes claim that an entranced mind had special access to ... information.” Furthermore, by the time truth serum made its appearance psychoanalysis had succeeded in promoting the idea that “the mind could store autobiographical information that was accessible only under special conditions.” Truth serum’s popularity was due in part to the fact that it fit neatly with previously established beliefs about how memory worked, such as the relationship between trances and truth or Freudian notions of repression.

For law enforcement, truth serum offered a foolproof way of establishing the validity of witness testimony without the intervention of expert witnesses. The bias against psychiatry that ultimately led to the failure of Hugo Munsterberg’s campaign a decade earlier was precisely what made truth serum appealing. According to Winter, it made “expert evaluation altogether superfluous. Rather than calibrating veracity or detecting mendacity by subtle traces, it offered to guarantee truth, short-circuiting the role of the expert in decryption.” By the mid-1920s psychologists had produced volumes of experimental evidence that a truth serum was impossible, yet it continued to have a wide popular appeal. It offered “a kind of social astringent to a society deeply concerned with corruption in powerful institutions, public and private.” Eventually, however, truth serum became part of the very corruption that it promised to prevent. It was associated with a number of questionable practices for obtaining witness testimony and fell out of legal and popular favor.

Truth serum’s respectability was restored during World War II when it was used in a therapeutic context to treat soldiers suffering from battle exhaustion through “narcoanalysis.” Psychiatrists and the criminal justice system had different reasons for using truth drugs but they shared a conception of memory as permanent and accessible. It was assumed that the memory itself was permanently recorded but could be difficult to retrieve, especially in the case of trauma. Amytal, it was believed, worked because it chemically bypassed repression and made it easier for patients to access painful memories that might otherwise remain buried in their psyche. Psychiatrists had been using barbituates, hypnosis, and other methods to help civilian patients recover traumatic memories throughout the 1920s and ’30s. The expansion of psychiatry that resulted from the number of people who had entered the field during World War II brought these methods back to the civilian population at a much larger scale after the war.

Hypnosis and truth drugs, as well as their counterpart brainwashing, were unsurprisingly popular during the cold war. On the one hand these methods increased anxiety about the reality of communist brainwashing. On the other, they offered a promising and comforting means of obtaining crucial information from the enemy. The film The Manchurian Candidate,as well as popular news items about Pavlovian conditioning experiments conducted by communists, made forensic hypnosis well known in non-professional communities.

The practice of forensic hypnosis spread and gained both psychiatric and legal validity from the 1950s through the 1970s. “By the late 1970s,” Winter writes, “many police, lawyers, psychotherapists, witnesses, and defendants came to see it as a golden key to unlock an otherwise inaccessible past and make it clearly visible to the institutions of the law.” Hypnosis was even approved by the American Medical Association in 1958. So in 1989, when Eileen Franklin Lipsker suddenly remembered the murder of her childhood friend, the public was more than familiar with the idea of repressed memories. The accused George Franklin was eventually convicted for the murder based largely on Lipsker’s testimony.

The 1980s saw a rash of accusations of childhood abuse based on repressed traumatic memories. Winter’s refusal to speculate on social causes is a little disappointing in this context—because gender is such a major factor in these struggles for legal and social power. But her intention was clearly not to use recovered memory as a point of departure for cultural analysis. Her discussion of the “memory wars” serves the equally important function of solidifying one of the book’s implicit claims: that the relationship between psychiatry and the law has become increasingly incestuous. For the “memory wars” were more than a collaboration between psychiatry and the law. They were a conflation of therapy and litigation whereby lawsuits came to be seen as a necessary part of the healing process. Launching in turn, a series of lawsuits by the “survivors” of accusations.

While truth drugs and the popular imagination suggest that memory is permanent and static, cognitive psychologists have consistently held that memories are reconstructed every time they are accessed. Despite this dispute, one thing has remained notably consistent until recently. “One of the most tenacious themes of 20th-century memory research was the idea that people tormented by the memories of terrible experiences could benefit from remembering them,” Winter points out. 21st century research has rejected this assumption and directed its attention toward experiments with pharmaceutically induced memory editing or dampening. Research focuses on PTSD sufferers from the most recent war, and claims that soldiers who received propranolol “reacted less strongly to ‘traumatic imagery’ than those who did not.”

Winter writes that seeing the history of memory as a debate between authenticity and reconstruction “would be to miss the point. Each new project mined earlier ones ... and then used them to make something that fit its own situation and needs.” The author does not address what these situations and needs might be, but we might indulge in some speculation ourselves, and ask why memory dampening is so appealing to us, when the last century was obsessed with its accuracy and retrieval. There is the obvious desire that soldiers, and by extension the public, might forget what war is really like. But forgetting might have more general cultural resonance as well. At a time when everything is recorded, when the Internet suggests an unlimited capacity for remembering, a desire to forget makes perfect, even poetic sense.

We must not be too complacent about this, however. If we learn anything from Winter’s book it is that memory is a social as much as an individual phenomenon. It forms a unique discursive nexus where legal, psychiatric, individual, and cultural authority is constantly negotiated. As appealing as a little amnesia might be we would do well to recall the words of Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”


R. H. Lossin