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Context Is Everything: The Nature of Memory
Reviewed by DAVID V. FORREST, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:2073-2073. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.12.2073
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New York, N.Y.

By Susan Engel. New York, W. H. Freeman & Co., 1999, 180 pp., $23.95.

This book is not, as one might guess from its subtitle, like Rosenfield’s popular The Invention of Memory(1), which is about memory as a brain function revealed by neuropathological states and as abstractable modularities for neurocomputational modeling. The brain is mentioned in passing on page 5, and I quote: "Several parts of the brain have been identified for their role in one kind of memory or another." A more accurate subtitle would have been "The Nurture of Memory." The author, formerly a professor at Bennington College in Vermont and now lecturer at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., has pasted together an amiable and sometimes repetitive discussion of the subjective and developmental nature of autobiographical thinking, a phrase she has borrowed from Jerome Bruner. There are frequent references to cognitive psychologists, without footnotes to impede the breezy text but with a section of notes in the back of the book if you care. There are many more references to the literature of autobiography, autobiographical fiction, and the media, including a final section about "a curious event unfolding as this book is being written" (p. 163), the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair, which was apparently too irresistible to omit as an example of supposition from fragments in the media and of how our satisfaction with our nation and our politics will affect how we remember the facts. For example, relying on Tim O’Brien and Robert MacNamara, the author, who was born in 1946, appears to recall Vietnam as an unmitigated shame.

Trained in developmental psychology at The City College of New York, Susan Engel has written on the narratives of children, and the current book is most interesting when it focuses on the autobiographical accounts of children. We learn that 16-month-olds are interested in parental references to the past, 18-month-olds can recall incidents from the past, 3-year-olds participate in reminiscing, and 5-year-olds don’t yet have a template for autobiography. The 5–8-year-olds the author studied can dictate autobiography to a college student, and 10-year-olds can describe the past in subjective terms. Girls’ autobiographies include emotional descriptors and the experiencing "I" more than boys’. I was disappointed that the author does not explain why all girls seem to write autobiographical diaries and boys occupy themselves with drawings of battles and anatomy.

Our subjective memory is most susceptible to cognitive dissonance when it involves our self-concept. Autobiographical memory is not only subjective but also intersubjective. Most of the book demonstrates over and over how people do not construct autobiographical memories on their own but, rather, in the context of relatedness to others; this is the context of the title.

The author suggests five motivations for autobiography—persuasion, disguise, transcendence, self-justification, and invitation to peek. Her example for persuasion is Frederick Douglass, who wrote his autobiography three times, in 1845, 1855, and 1881. Each was less experiential and more polemical about abolishing slavery. For disguise she chooses Philip Roth, whose autobiography, she claims, tries to throw readers off the track of his novels, which "practically scream autobiography" (p. 131). For transcendence, it is Jamaica Kincaid, trying to escape a hurtful relationship with her mother. For self-justification, the author chooses Kathryn Harrison, who had a sexual relationship with her father as a young adult. Finally, for an invitation to peek, she chooses as an example Frank McCourt (rather than, as one might expect, Esther Williams [2]). Engel herself also reveals more than we need to know about herself, her "fat and soft" (p. 2) grandmother, and her relationships.

All this makes for a tolerable lesson plan, perhaps less for a psychiatrist or psychologist than for the general reader or student of literature and writing. Although not written from the standpoint of a therapist, the book could serve therapeutic purposes. Many patients can benefit from writing their own story. The author (p. 161) quotes Tim O’Brien’s statement that "stories are for joining the past to the future" (3, p. 40). Patients can find a continuity in their life and their purposes in constructing an autobiography in psychotherapy, whether or not they actually write it down, but doing so can be additionally beneficial, especially in older patients (my favorite patient memoir was completed by a woman in her 90s). In patients who are troubled with recent memory loss, writing down a continuous account of the past, making use of the relative preservation of remote memory, verbal memory, and implicit writing skills, can offer a way of holding on to treasured experiences, our only real estate.

This book reminds us that what we think we know of the past has been constructed intersubjectively, and it suggests ways in which the patient can renegotiate an autobiography with others who share memories and contexts.

Rosenfield I: The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain. New York, Basic Books, 1988
 
Williams E: The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography With Digby Diehl. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999
 
O’Brien T: The Things They Carried. New York, Penguin, 1990
 
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References

Rosenfield I: The Invention of Memory: A New View of the Brain. New York, Basic Books, 1988
 
Williams E: The Million Dollar Mermaid: An Autobiography With Digby Diehl. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999
 
O’Brien T: The Things They Carried. New York, Penguin, 1990
 
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