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3/1/11

Memory Doctors & Angel Factories


We like to think that memory is true, that our beliefs and conduct are shaped by that truth, but we can be--and we are--led to lives shaped by false memories, either by outside influences or by ourselves. An article, "The Memory Doctor," and a book review of Children of The Gulag, demonstrate the ability of governments and media, including our own, to reconstruct our views of the past and thus of our own lives and future.

First this, an article titled "The Memory Doctor," by

In 1984, George Orwell told the story of Winston Smith, an employee in the propaganda office of a totalitarian regime. Smith's job at the fictional Ministry of Truth was to destroy photographs and alter documents, remaking the past to fit the needs of the present. But 1984 came and went, along with Soviet communism. In the age of the Internet, nobody could tamper with the past that way. Could they? . . . We aren't the first to try Orwell's idea on real people. Elizabeth Loftus, an experimental psychologist, has been tampering with memories in her laboratory for nearly 40 years. Photo doctoring is just one of many techniques she has tested. In an experiment published three years ago, she and two colleagues demonstrated that altered images of political protests in Italy and China influenced Italian students' descriptions of those incidents. We wanted to see whether similar tampering could work in the United States. More

And this from Children of the Gulag,by Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky, the inside story of what really happened to children in the gulags.

The picture showed a group of children standing around a holiday tree, with neatly dressed caretakers in the background. I looked at the picture, and agreed that yes, the children were not starving, and yes, the caretakers did look professional in their white uniforms. But there was a problem with the photograph: all of the children in it were dressed alike. All of them had shaved heads. They were not smiling. And thus the effect of the photograph on me was precisely the opposite of what the former nurse had intended. The children looked exactly like little prisoners—which, in fact, is what they were. Their nursery lay within the perimeter of the zona, the prison zone, and would have been surrounded by mud and barbed wire.

Yet the former Gulag nurse was unwilling, or unable, to see the horror of this. I looked at the picture and saw sad children, growing up in a terrible place. She looked at the picture and saw the greatness of the Soviet state, which took care even of the children of criminals.

Of all the odd things about the Soviet Union, perhaps the oddest was the way in which official propaganda—which told people what the world was supposed to look like—so often triumphed over everyday experience, which revealed that things were different. More

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