Interrogating Memory

What do I mean by “interrogating memory?”

Besides, that is:

The phrase itself was inspired by critical cinematic and artistic analysis – ideas, themes and motifs are often “interrogated” for deeper meaning. It also ties in nicely with my love of detective fiction, film noir and true crime – one must “interrogate” people and clues to learn the hidden truth.

Here are the five basic elements of interrogating memory; for more elaboration, I invite you to read the Preface and Introduction to my book.

Actually, I urge you to read the entire book.

I. Fact-checking

As I observe in the Preface, “At one level, interrogating memory is just a fancy term for ‘fact-checking.’”

In an age where bad actors deliberately spread misinformation on social media, and when our “tribal” partisanship often determines our sources of information, it is more essential than ever to get the basic facts correct. This is why I belabor seemingly insignificant details – both on this website and in my books – because too often “facts” are reflexive regurgitations from a favorite website or commentator.

This is also why I wrote a Notes on Notes section at the front of the book. It is a capsule guide to some of the best non-biased sources of information out there – and I conclude by noting “the details and endnotes are not beside the point: they are the point.”

II. Meticulous curiosity

Important as details are, however, they are merely the building blocks of larger, more interesting stories. To tell those stories, one needs to search for and accumulate additional details.

I learned this – or, rather, relearned this – as soon as I began to write Interrogating Memory. As many of you know, the book began with the idea – inspired by a July 2017 conversation with my wife Nell in our Brookline kitchen – to turn my essay Film Noir: A Personal Journey into a full-length book. Doing so, however, required some historic context, specifically the history of my Jewish family in Philadelphia.

As soon as I began to write that history, however, my academic and research training kicked in. Even as I started to investigate my genetic family, I realized how little I knew about the family which had raised me. Happily, all at the same time, I was acquiring information from genetic testing, exploration of adoption records and a wide range of information sources. I began with various online “white pages” websites and basic Googling – but I was soon wandering down the incredible historical and genealogical rabbit holes of Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com. I also began to dive into my own carefully-preserved archives.[1]

There were pitfalls, of course:  conflicting dates of birth, similarity of names, incomplete records. Not every question will receive an answer.

III. Everyone has a story to tell

But…the stories you can piece together are incredible.

I am reminded of two things here.

The first is the moment in The Public Eye when The Great Bernzini, the 1940s New York tabloid photographer played by Joe Pesci, tells a police officer, “Everybody wants their picture took. Everybody.” The second is what Yale Professor Edward Tufte once told my classmates and me: if your data are boring, you probably have the wrong data.

Each of us has interesting stories to tell, so long as we are willing to…

  1. Do the careful research necessary to uncover the relevant details,
  2. String those details into a compelling narrative, and
  3. Frame that narrative within a larger social and historic context.

This is what I mean by “contextualized introspection,” and it is essentially what I do in my first essay on this website, in which I tell two different versions of my life story – each factually correct (so far as I knew then) – but framed very differently.

IV. Willingness to learn the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

I open the Preface with this scene early in the film Lost Highway:

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) talks to two police detectives about mysterious videotapes he and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) have received in the mail. One detective asks if they own a video camera.

“No. Fred hates them,” replies Renee, to which Fred adds, “I like to remember things my own way.”

When pressed, Fred elaborates: “How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”

The remainder of the film reveals the surreal lengths Fred will go to remember things his own way. Too often, as I learned writing Interrogating Memory, folks are like Fred: they want to remember things their way, not the way they really were. I, however, chose to be the very video camera Fred despises, putting all memories – mine and others – under a hot lamp and giving them the third degree, using lux to find veritas—light to find truth—in the words of Yale’s motto.

Indeed, I write later in the Preface that my book “…is a call to seek the truth no matter the cost to our preconceptions. In the language of Bayesian statistics, we need to update our priors regularly with new information.”

To reestablish our democratic and societal equilibrium, each of must “update our priors”: question – regularly, thoroughly and honestly – everything we (think) we know, every story we tell, every fact we share.

We must ruthlessly interrogate our own memories.

V. Critical thinking

When I studied epidemiology as a doctoral student, what fascinated me most was its epistemological underpinnings: at their core, epidemiologic methods deal with how we know what we know. While epidemiology deals specifically with measuring the association between a prior “exposure” and a future “outcome” in a given population over a specified period of time,[2] the valid measurement of that association requires careful data collection, precise study design, clear-eyed consideration of counterfactuals, and a series of validation steps that continually force the researcher to question – to think critically about – any conclusions being drawn.

I spend a lot of time in Interrogating Memory addressing the development of my own critical thinking skills – describing how a highly-gullible young adolescent desperate to make sense of a world over which he had scant control slowly became a highly-trained adult skeptic doing his best to evaluate all information critically.

And even then I recently had to think critically about a conclusion I thought was correct.

In short, then, this is how I summarize “interrogating memory” in the Preface, coming about as close to poetry as I ever do:

[It] could be considered the love child of psychoanalysis (patiently probing memories) and the epistemological underpinnings of epidemiology (questioning and verifying everything), raised on a steady diet of persistence and a genuine love of history and mystery.

Or to put it even more simply, it is using every technique in your critical toolbox to answer the question, “Hold on, is that really how it happened?”

I myself had to relinquish beloved “stories” because they did not stand up to scrutiny, given everything I was learning. But, as you will learn reading Interrogating Memory, there were many more stories I first learned in the process.

The journey is way more than half the fun.

Who else is interrogating memory?

Larry Harnisch. A key inspiration for what I now call “interrogating memory” was Larry Harnisch’s live-blogging of the book The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, The Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles. Like many readers, I had been impressed by Donald Wolfe’s apparent careful documentation, writing this in an e-mail to then-girlfriend Nell: “This is the book I am reading now. As I’ve said, I suspect I will disagree with Wolfe’s conclusions, but his documentation appears to be impeccable.”[3]

By December 2010, I had reached a very different conclusion – “[H]ow gullible was I?” – thanks to Harnisch’s detailed skewering of basic “facts” presented by Wolfe. Then a copy writer for the Los Angeles Times, Harnisch had begun to research the murder of Elizabeth Short in 1997, when he wrote a “50th anniversary” article about the case. A promised book still awaits publication.

Harnisch curates a terrific website chronicling aspects of Los Angeles history, written by someone for whom fact-checking is second-nature. This 2021 article outlines Harnisch’s own experiences with interrogating memory.

And here is the original point-by-point rebuttal of Wolfe, interrogating memory at its most elemental and exemplary.

Movies Silently. I recently began to follow the tenacious and erudite Fritzi Kramer on Twitter (@MoviesSilently). On her Movies Silently website, Ms. Kramer writes about silent films with the same unbridled enthusiasm I bring to my own essays; we are each driven by devotion to the material. Her film reviews go beyond basic summaries of characters, plot and setting to revel in fascinating, often-newly-uncovered details. She refuses to take anything in the historic record for granted, digging deep into any archive she can find for new facts and insights. Best of all: she suffers no fools gladly, calling out basic inaccuracies and calcified conventional wisdom with equal glee. Her essays are a joy to read.

The Book Shelf

These titles particularly inspired me as I developed the notion of interrogating memory:

I. Skepticism and Critical Thinking

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – and Some Don’t by Nate Silver

The Skeptic’s Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions by Robert Todd Carroll

The Bermuda Triangle Mystery – Solved by Lawrence David Kusche

II. Epidemiologic Methods and Thinking

Essentials of Epidemiology in Public Health by Anne Aschengrau and George R. Seage III

Epidemiology: An Introduction by Kenneth J. Rothman

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson

And…if you are feeling particularly feisty:

Modern Epidemiology, Third Edition by Kenneth J. Rothman, Sander Greenland and Timothy L. Lash (Fourth Edition released December 29, 2020)

I want to learn more!

Please feel free to contact me for more about interrogating memory or to chat about a particular project you have in mind.


[1] Well – filing cabinet drawers containing manila folders filled with bits of paper and other detritus from my past I deemed important enough to survive multiple moves.

[2] Sometimes formulated as assessing the determinants, distribution and frequency of disease

[3] “Hello Dahlia,” February 23, 2006