Speak, Memory

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – December 8, 1997

Speak, Memory

Remember when remembering was something you didn’t need a laptop
or a therapist for?

 MEMORY, ALL KINDS of memory, is exploding. Since
the early eighties, when I switched from merely typing words to processing
them, the memory in my desktop computer has got four hundred thousand per
cent bigger. Back then, almost all mechanical communication took place by
phone, entirely evanescent; now, however, much of the best chatter is by
microprocessed fax and E-mail, stored indefinitely in bottomless computer
memories. Our telephones remember whom we just called; computers remember
the last three hundred Web sites we visited. A whole new fin-de-siècle
TV genre—videos:
funniest, scariest, deadliest—exists entirely as a function of the
proliferation of dirt-cheap electronic memory.

As artificial memory has expanded, we have come to
think of our own brains as computers, and of each individual’s memory as infinitely accessible,
full of retrievable terabytes of juicy information dating back to childhood.
According to this cyber-Freudian idea, human memory is not itself selective
but only selectively accessed. Thus, during the last decade many minds have
proven vulnerable to hackers—that is, to the psychotherapists who encourage
patients to “remember” lurid fictions as actual facts from their
own lives. During Patricia Burgus’s treat-ment for depression in the
late eighties and early nineties at a hospital in Chicago, for instance,
psychiatrists used drugs and hypnosis to help her “recall” that
she had sex with John F. Kennedy (an incident nowhere to be found in Seymour
Hersh’s “The Dark Side of Camelot”), belonged to a satanic
cult, and ate human flesh. Burgus eventually realized that she had not been
a devil-worshipping cannibal after all, or one of J.F.K.’s floozies,
and two weeks ago she got a $10.6-million settlement from her former caregivers.

In this age of fungible memory, many of the most
exciting “recovered” episodes
turn out to be fabrications—like the sexual-blackmail contracts between
President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe that Sy Hersh discovered were spurious
and left out of his book, and accounts of White House meetings that Robert
Reich embellished for his recent memoir, “Locked in the Cabinet.” It
was the recovered-memory vogue that helped turn an obscure 1991 fiction (Kathryn
Harrison’s “Thicker Than Water”) into best-selling 1997
fact (Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss”). But a lot of entirely
bona-fide memories have been recovered this season as well. The unearthed
cache of videotapes that show President Clinton schmoozing campaign donors
was damaging not just because of the money-for-influence spectacles the tapes
recorded but because the tapes existed at all: indiscriminate electronic
recording of Presidential conversations in the White House smells bad—Watergate
Lite. Soon after the Clinton videos turned up, in fact, so did a fresh new
batch of Watergate transcripts, as if the national hard drive contained a
single “Scandal, White House, tapes” file, and clicking on 1996
democrats caused 1971 republicans to pop open as well. The recovered Watergate
memories don’t depict Nixon as a satanist—not officially, anyway. “The
Jews, you know . . . are stealing everything,” Nixon says to Haldeman
on one of the newly transcribed tapes. And, another time, “You
see, the I.R.S. is full of Jews.”

That same week, we learned that Clare Boothe Luce,
the yin to Nixon’s
yang, had kept handwritten notes of her several LSD experiences during the
early sixties. While tripping, the former Ambassador and congresswoman noted
her intention to “Capture green bug for future reference.” She
had the bad-trip epiphanies (“The futility of the search to become
one. Do you hear the drum?”) as well as the good-trip epiphanies (“Mountains
in distance seem . . . more relaxed. . . . Nature can do nothing awkward,
or tasteless.”)

Why did she keep the notes secret? She realized that
a person in her position—the
wife of the editor-in-chief of Time, Inc.!—ought not to be seen endorsing
acid. In that sense she was the first among tens of millions of Americans
to cope with a peculiar problem of the late twentieth century: Mrs. Luce
chose to recover her memories posthumously, several decades after the fact,
just as baby-boomer parents who took drugs decades ago dissemble about the
subject now, choosing to practice selective memory until their children are
older.

Bill Clinton, when asked if he remembered smoking
marijuana, made his most celebrated and telling public utterance, his version
of Nixon’s “I
am not a crook” or Reagan’s “I don’t recall”: “I
didn’t inhale” had the requisite hair-splitting, the desire to
please everyone, and the convenient slipperiness of memory—especially
pre-home-video memory. Recovered memories have consistently caused trouble
for Clinton (Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, James McDougal). Now former Presidential
counsellor George Stephanopoulos is writing a memoir of his White House service,
and although it has been widely reported that he hired a “memory consultant” to
help him, Stephanopoulos says no, he’s doing it the old-fashioned way.
He told me, “I’m having no problems reconstructing memories.”