Cambridge Postcard


In Unknown White Male--a new documentary about Doug Bruce, a
35-year- old man who woke up one morning on the New York City
subway with no idea who or where he was--a Harvard psychology
professor named Daniel Schacter plays a supporting but crucial
role. He serves as the film's memory expert and, in between scenes
of Bruce being reintroduced to his family and friends, Schacter
appears on-screen to explain that Bruce likely suffers from an
extremely rare condition known as retrograde amnesia. Unknown White
Male has been greeted with rumors that Bruce is faking his memory
loss and that the film is a hoax. But most reviewers have given
both the man and the film the benefit of the doubt (Roger Ebert:
"Unknown White Male is either (a) factual and authentic, or (b) the
most convincing mockumentary ever made"). That, in no small part, is
thanks to Schacter's persuasive performance. His authoritative tone
and his ability to explain the vagaries of memory in impressively
clinical terms, not to mention his Harvard affiliation, lend weight
to Bruce's seemingly implausible tale. Now, on the heels of his
big-screen debut, Schacter is preparing to vouch for the memory
difficulties of another, albeit better known, white male. In
January, Scooter Libby hired the Harvard psychology professor to
help with his Plamegate defense.On a recent afternoon, Schacter, a balding man with deep-set eyes
and a furrowed brow, sat in his office on the eighth floor of a
building just north of Harvard Yard. His bookshelves were lined
with titles like The Handbook of Memory Disorders and
Neuropsychology of Memory; hanging from the walls were
reproductions of memory-themed paintings by prominent artists,
including Magritte and Dali. It was as if the memory expert had
sought to create an environment in which, were he ever to forget
that he is a memory expert, he would be instantly reminded of that
identity. Schacter refused to discuss Libby's case or his
involvement in it. "I really should not comment on anything to do
with that," he said. But he agreed to talk about his work in more
general terms, and, as he spoke, it wasn't difficult to discern how
he might be able to help Dick Cheney's former chief of staff beat
back obstruction of justice, perjury, and false statement
charges--and stay out of the slammer.

According to Schacter, there are "seven sins of memory" (which is
also the title of his most recent book), or seven common ways in
which people's memories can malfunction. And, while Schacter
himself wouldn't say so, it seems that at least three of those sins
could serve as an innocent explanation--an alibi, if you will--for
why Libby told a grand jury and FBI agents that he first learned of
Valerie Plame's employment with the CIA from reporters. In fact, it
appears that Libby conveyed that information to reporters after
learning of Plame's CIA status from other government officials.

One such sin is "transience," which, as Schacter explained, is the
forgetting that occurs with the passage of time. He pointed to a
study by a Danish psychologist who, moments after learning of
Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme's assassination, recorded that he
had heard the news on his radio while eating breakfast by himself.
Several months later, when the psychologist tried to recall for the
study how he learned of Palme's assassination, he was already
misremembering certain details--reporting, for instance, that he had
been with his wife when the news came over the radio. "All these
things," Schacter said, "are modulated to some degree by time."
Seeing as how Libby didn't speak to the FBI and the grand jury
until months after his conversations with reporters, the sin of
transience could be invoked to argue that he simply misremembered
the details of how he learned of Plame's CIA status.

A second memory sin that might be useful to Libby's legal defense is
one Schacter dubbed "absent-mindedness," which typically occurs
when a person is doing too many things at once--or is focused on
one particular thing and is therefore paying insufficient attention
to form accurate memories. A person not remembering where he placed
his car keys while he was preoccupied with thinking about a problem
at work is one example of absent-mindedness. But Schacter ticked
off other, more extreme examples, including a study--"done right
here on the eighth floor"--in which participants were shown a film
of a circle of people passing a basketball. While watching the
film, the participants were supposed to keep track of the number of
times the ball changed hands. In the middle of the scene, a person
in a gorilla suit suddenly walks through the circle beating his
chest. The remarkable thing is that only half of the study
participants noticed the gorilla. "That study," Schacter said,
"shows when attention is sharply focused, it's surprising what can
occur outside the focus of attention and apparently not register."

Which is a point Libby's lawyers made, in so many words, in a recent
court filing. "Mr. Libby was immersed throughout the relevant
period in urgent and sensitive matters, some literally matters of
life and death," they argued. "[I]n the constant rush of more
pressing matters, any errors he made in his FBI interviews or grand
jury testimony, months after the conversations, were the result of
confusion, mistake or faulty memory, rather than a willful intent
to deceive." Or, to put it another way, Libby was so focused on
national security issues and terrorism that he didn't even
notice--or failed to remember the exact details of how he learned
about--the chest-beating gorilla Joe Wilson and his wife.

The third sin that could serve as Libby's get-out-of-jailfree card
is the one Schacter called "misattribution"-- remembering aspects
of an experience correctly but attributing those aspects to the
wrong source. For instance, if a person reads an interesting
article in The New York Times but then, in recalling that article
for friends, tells them that it ran in The Washington Post, that
would be a case of "source misattribution." This, of course, is
essentially what Patrick Fitzgerald has accused Libby of committing.
Fitzgerald just has another name for it: perjury. But Schacter
struck a less accusatory posture, explaining that the real victim
of source misattribution is the misattributor himself, since he's
often quite convinced that he's telling the truth. "I think, in
general, [source misattribution] can be pernicious because you have
the possibility for high-confidence errors, because the person's
memory is right about some aspect of the event," Schacter said.
"It's not uncommon for source misattributions to result in
high-confidence, inaccurate memories."

Schacter noted that high-confidence, inaccurate memories are hardly
unusual in the political realm. A couple of years ago, he wrote a
New York Times op-ed trying to puzzle out why Richard Clarke and
Condoleezza Rice had such different recollections of the Bush
administration's response to terrorism issues. And then there was
the he-said, she-said dispute between Clarence Thomas and Anita
Hill. The most famous instance of an inaccurate memory in politics,
Schacter said, was that of Richard Nixon's White House Counsel John
Dean, who, like Libby, was asked to recall conversations for an
investigation into political wrongdoing. Dean provided such
detailed recollections of his Oval Office conversations with Nixon
and other officials that he came to be known as the "human tape
recorder." But, when actual tapes of those conversations surfaced,
it turned out that Dean's memory wasn't so accurate. He remembered
the gist of the conversations, but not the details. "Sometimes he
didn't even remember the gist accurately," Schacter noted. These
were likely innocent mistakes, he continued, the sort anyone might
make when performing the difficult task of trying to recall past
events. But then Schacter remembered an alternative interpretation.
"Of course," he said, "there's always going to be the question, in
a case like that, as to whether some of it is intentional."

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