Book Jacket cover of White Gloves by John Kotre, Ph.D.

White Gloves 
How We Create Ourselves Through Memory

W.W. Norton Paperback, 1996
Free Press Hardcover, 1995
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This is a book about "autobiographical" memory, our link to generations past, indeed to our own past. Is this kind of memory accurate? How does it work? What does it mean? And what is the power of stories handed down from the past, like that of my grandfather's white gloves?


White Gloves is available in German (published by Hanser), Japanese (Kodansha), and Portuguese (Mandarim). A German paperback, retitled Der Strom der Erinnerung, was published by Deutscher Taschenbuch.

"Fascinating. . . Should interest just about everyone concerned with the remembrance of things past."
-- Michiko Kakutani, Pulitzer-Prize Winning 
    Reviewer for the New York Times

(See Full Review)

"A wide-ranging and often touching study. . . . Unequivocally a good and rich book."
-- Michael Dirda, Pulitzer-Prize Winning
Reviewer for the Washington Post

"A wonderful book.... Kotre writes so well readers may feel they are reading a novel."
-- John Robinson, Reviewer for 
Contemporary Psychology

"One of those rare books written for the elusive intelligent layperson without any sacrifice of complexity."
-- Robert Zussman, Reviewer for
Contemporary Sociology

"A fascinating and often moving account of the part which both real and false memories play in our lives."
-- Anthony Storr, Oxford University,
Author of Solitude and Feet of Clay

Table of Contents

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Prologue: The White Gloves

1.    The Whereabouts of Memory
2.    Is Everything "In There"?
3.    Like a River
4.    The Autobiographical Memory System
5.    Memory in the Young
6.    Memory in the Mature
7.    "In the Beginning"
8.    Memory Inspirited

Epilogue: The Tackle Box



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The White Gloves

There's a pair of white gloves that live in my memory. I can see them now, lying on top of some old clarinets in the cramped, dusty attic of my grandmother's house, back in the niche where the roof meets the floor. Nearby is a black clarinet case with a cracked skin. The case itself is open, and you can smell the must in its lining. Everything in the memory is gray, save for the light from a small window at the end of the attic. Although I see the gloves only in memory--I have never done so in actuality--I know they are spotlessly white. 


The gloves became part of my memory nearly a decade ago, during a turning point in my life. They originated in the words of my father, words lost among thousands of others that are part of the story of his life, a story I had tape recorded years before. Ten years ago I was in my mid-forties, and it was then that I first listened to the tapes I had made. The gloves were only a detail in my father's story, but for some reason they spoke to me, and I felt a great release of emotion when, in my mind, I put them on. They seemed to cleanse me of guilt and confirm a path, seemed to connect me to a mythical ancestor who sacrificed himself for me. There was life in them, my grandfather's life. 


I never met my grandfather, and for most of my life never even knew his first name, but I do remember that my father once told me I looked like him. I was standing on the back stairs of my house and my father was in the yard, looking up at me. He said my grandfather was tall and thin, like me. My dad was shorter and stockier, physically stronger. I didn't pay much attention to his comment, though I was pleased by it. Later, when I saw the only picture I have of my grandfather, I was pleased again. He was a handsome man in his twenties and the woman standing behind him was beautiful--my grandmother in her physical prime. The wide-eyed infant in the white gown was my dad; he had a look in his face that he could have today, at seventy-nine, his mind diminished and nearly gone. In the picture, my grandfather holds him firmly in his lap with his right hand. 


My grandfather died before I was born. From my father's story, I learned that it was of a lung problem. Years of breathing dust from the coal he shoveled into a furnace at the public gas company were compounded by a traffic accident that broke his ribs. He lingered for a few years after the accident but died before he was fifty. In my memory, the whiteness of the gloves stands against a background of the black coal dust that killed him.


That wasn't the way my grandfather's life was supposed to end. It had begun in Hungary, in a region where the spoken language was German. As a youth, my grandfather played the clarinet in what was probably a military band. "I think his whole soul was music," my father said; never before did I hear him talk about someone's "whole soul." Before he was twenty, my grandfather was playing, writing arrangements, and touring Europe. When he came to the United States in 1912 and then sent for his wife, he tried at first to make a living with what he loved. But musicians were "a dime a dozen," and after about a year, he gave up and got a job making bricks. What I remember from my father's story is the absolute decisiveness with which my grandfather took that step. The clarinets were put away, not very carefully it seems, and with them the white gloves that were part of his uniform. It was his wife, my grandmother, who wanted to keep them. I doubt my grandfather ever picked them up again. As a child poking around in my grandmother's attic, I had come across the clarinets, but not the gloves. At the time I had no idea who the instruments belonged to or what they meant. I didn't know a thing about my grandfather.


What did it cost him to lay down his music and turn to bricks and then to coal in order to support his family? What part of him died at that moment? My dad told me his father would play at home only once a year, on Christmas Day, and it would not be the clarinet, but the accordion. There were times he would listen to his children practicing on the piano or to music playing on the radio. Every now and then he would bolt up in his chair and cry out, "Falsch!" Someone must have missed a note. But it seems as though the only way he could let go of something he loved was to make a complete break. If he could not make music, he would not, except in rare instances, even listen to it.


The break he made lasted for several generations. Neither my father nor I can carry a tune, and though I enjoy and am moved by music, I do not know it. (My sons, fortunately, are different.) And my father's temperament is far from artistic. He was a practical, hard-working man, a laborer with strong hands and short, thick fingers. He took over my grandfather's role in the family after he died. He went to work for the same company and was with them all his life. He was a family man, involved with his children and invested in them. He held them firmly in his hands, doing what his own father did after his music was silenced.


I grew up in my father's family and in a Jesuit high school was taught the riches and the discipline of classical literature. More important, I was exposed to the stuff of the spirit, though I would never have said it that way as a teenager. Eventually I became a psychologist, always interested in seeing, always trying to put into words what I saw. Not a "scientific" psychologist, not a "clinical" psychologist, but one who wanted to make portraits of individual lives. An artist, if you will, if only in temperament. In my mid-forties, my life changed dramatically. My children grew up, my marriage died, I received a large grant that turned my work life upside down, and I met a new woman. In many ways I was alone, and at that moment, I listened to the story of my father's life. 


I am still amazed at my reaction to the white gloves, still in awe of the power the image has today. I've tried replaying the tape to find the source of that power. Here are my father's words, edited only slightly: "The gloves were made out of suede. My mother couldn't get her hands into them because the fingers were long and slender. The thing that was bad was that after he worked at the brickyard doing manual labor, he couldn't fit into them any more. And he was a very proud man." From a technical standpoint, the recording of my father's voice isn't that good. Nor do the gloves play much of a role in his life story. He had no idea at the time, and given the present state of his mind, he never will have any idea of what they have meant to me. So their power isn't to be found on the tape. 


Where is it to be found? In me--in the use I made of the memory at a critical moment in my life, in the use I still make of it. Back then the gloves confirmed a decision to go through with a divorce, to choose life over a deadening sense of responsibility. They connected me with a kindred spirit, a resource I never knew existed in my family. In my grandfather I found roots for something in me that seemed to have sprung out of nothing. I think I understood what it meant for him to sacrifice his "whole soul." I saw that my father sacrificed too, living his life in a way that enabled me to have mine. Ultimately, I put the gloves on because they fit. No one else in the family has fingers like mine. No one else has the same temperament.


Back then, all these thoughts came in an instant. But more were to follow over the years. Often the gloves have returned with their whiteness to ease the guilt over choices I have made and help me cope with the small deaths that permit life. I have to separate from people, people I work with, people I live with and love, to pursue my soul. The gloves make my hands clean and tell me what to do: start fresh, stick to the soul, get going. It's been eighty years since my grandfather put the white gloves aside. If only he knew how much they have mattered today!


This book is about autobiographical memory, and it's dedicated to the man who reached out from the past to touch me. Autobiographical memory is memory for the people, places, objects, events, and feelings that go into the story of your life. For many years, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers have dealt with this kind of memory. So have lawyers, police, politicians, interviewers in the media, teachers, clergymen, and lovers. I have worked with autobiographical memory, too, but in a different context. I have recorded the stories of people's lives and put them, or parts of them, into books, audio programs, and on one occasion a public television series called Seasons of Life. And I've wondered again and again about the mystery of memory, about mental pictures from long ago that warm the face of one storyteller, moisten the eyes of another, and bring the "shakes" to a third. Are these memories photographic, or even remotely accurate? And, accurate or not, what do they mean? What do the memories speak of and how do they speak?


What, for example, lies in the past of a woman in her late thirties who finds it difficult to breathe whenever she gets into a situation that is even mildly threatening? Her ears start to ring, sounds become distant echoes, her eyes dim, and she feels very much alone. Then part of her starts to float away, going off to the side where it can watch her. What events occurred in her past, why do they seem to be stored in her body, and why does the feeling of dissociation come back unbidden? We hear so much these days about "repression" on the one hand--and, on the other, about "false memories" that are "implanted" by therapists. What is the status of these concepts? We are told how beneficial it is to "recover the child within." Is such a thing even possible?


What about the little things that endure? Once, on a summer night, a girl of eleven or twelve held her baby toe and asked her mother why it was "squished in." It was bedtime, and her mother had just come into her room to tuck her in for the night. Her mother took a finger and pushed on the side of the toe just the way a shoe would. She explained that the girl's shoes had done it, and she added that the same things had happened to her own toes. It's a gentle, reassuring memory, says the girl at thirty-eight. But why, when she has forgotten so many incidents from childhood, does this one stay in her mind?


How powerful is the fear of losing a memory, or never having one? A man in his late twenties peers out of a window on a rainy day, thinking of a younger brother who was killed in a car accident just six weeks before. The man notices how the water disappears into cracks in the ground. Suddenly he is filled with panic. He cannot remember a thing about his brother, cannot even picture him. He rushes to his parents' home and digs out the family photo album. He is reassured that memories of his brother will not disappear. Another man the same age remembers times as a boy when his great-grandfather, once a minor-league baseball player, saw him play ball--and play well. He remembers his great-grandmother's lemon meringue pies, the best he's ever had. These are cherished memories, but there's a hitch. The young man was adopted into his family only after his great-grandfather had died, and only after his great-grandmother had stopped baking because she was in a nursing home. The man's family tells him that he has turned their stories about his ancestors into memories, but he insists they are genuine recollections.


Finally, what beliefs about memory were going through the minds of United States senators in the fall of 1991 as they questioned a law professor who had come forward with charges of sexual harassment against a man being considered for the position of Supreme Court Justice? The professor remembered being disgusted and humiliated by the explicit nature of what the man had said eight to ten years before. Though it was difficult for her to say the words in public, she did so, and in graphic detail. She talked about "sex with animals," "pubic hair," and "Long Dong Silver." "He made a comment I vividly remember," she added. "He said that if I ever told anyone of his behavior, that it would ruin his career." For his part, the man denied he ever said any of those things. He recalled nothing of what she alleged, and no other witnesses to the conversations existed. Did the senators really believe that, even if there were no lying, autobiographical memory could preserve the details of what was said in conversation a decade before?


In the 1970s, a new breed of memory researchers ventured forth from their laboratories to shed light on phenomena such as these. Abandoning research on nonsense syllables and word lists--on memories of a few minutes' duration--these scientists began to investigate such real-world phenomena as legal testimony, diaries, and recollections of historical events. Proceeding independently, researchers on the brain were finding that the principal organ of memory is not what we thought, that it revises itself over and over in the course of a lifetime. In still another branch of psychology, scholars interested in narrative were reminding us of the storied nature of human thought and insisting that we pay attention to the human drive to make meaning. Taken together, this work calls for a dramatic shift in our basic beliefs about autobiographical memory, a shift that will have profound implications for everyone from lawyers to lovers, for everyone who needs to know what memory can and cannot do. 


Not everyone believes in the "old" view of memory, but research shows that a solid majority of people do. They believe that every experience of their life is stored somewhere in their brain; even if they cannot remember a particular incident, they assume that some special techique can call it forth--in its true, original form. But the new breed of researchers is saying this isn't so.


 My goal in this book is to present the science of autobiographical memory without losing touch with its spirit. In Washington, D.C., there's a memorial to great Americans, a simple wall of polished black marble etched with the names of those who died in the Vietnam War. Depressed in the ground, the memorial is lost among the other great monuments in the area. But anyone who comes upon it feels there is life in that stone. A man who lost someone in the war once described what it was like to find his loved one's name among all the others. You see the name carved on the wall, he said, but you also see your own reflection in the marble. When you lift your hand to touch the name, you also see a hand from the past reaching out to touch you. There is no better symbol of a meeting in memory, no better statement of what the journey in this book is about.


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