DATE May 15, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Daniel Schacter discusses memory functions and
malfunctions as detailed in his book, "The Seven Sins of Memory"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Memory is very imperfect, and those imperfections can drive you crazy, whether
you've forgotten the name of someone you work with, forgotten where you put
your keys or can barely remember the details of a life-changing experience.
My guest, Daniel Schacter, has spent about 20 years investigating how memory
works. His new book is about how the mind forgets, remembers and distorts the
past and what we're learning about that from new medical technology. He
proposes that there are seven different types of memory malfunctions, which is
why he titled his book, "The Seven Sins of Memory." Schacter is chair of
Harvard's psychology department.
Here's a typical memory problem: You leave home, then halfway down the
street, you wonder, `Did I lock the door? Did I turn off the coffee pot?' I
asked Daniel Schacter what it takes to make a memory of an everyday task.
Mr. DANIEL SCHACTER (Author, "The Seven Sins of Memory"): One of the nice
things about our cognitive system is that it allows us to do a lot of everyday
tasks on automatic. However, memory very much requires attention and what
psychologists call `elaborative encoding' in order to establish a memory of a
new event. So you've got to attend to that event, relate it to things that
you already know in order to lay down the kind of information that you can
later consciously retrieve. And if your mind is off somewhere else, you're
not attending to the event, then you're not going to establish a memory that
you can later retrieve.
GROSS: So if you're, say, very busy, and you're doing several things at once,
are you less likely to remember things and more likely to be absent-minded?
Mr. SCHACTER: Absolutely. That's probably the most--or one of the most
common sources of absentmindedness, and it's been shown over and over again
in laboratory studies that when you divide attention, you have people doing a
number of things, one of those things is trying to learn a list of words or a
series of pictures or whatever the experimenter shows them, that when you
divide attention, you have a devastating effect on later memory.
GROSS: Let's get to another problem of memory, which is transience, the fact
that memories fade or become inaccurate over time. A good example that you
give in your book is a research project that was conducted in California about
how well people remembered where they were when the O.J. Simpson verdict came
down. Would you describe the study?
Mr. SCHACTER: Yeah. That was a very interesting study. What they did is,
they asked some university students, several days after the verdict, to write
down their memories of how they had heard about the verdict, where they were
and so on and so forth, on the assumption that memories at this point, after a
couple days, would be pretty accurate. The interesting part of this study
occurred when they brought these students back later, about 15 months later,
and now they asked them again, `How did you hear about the verdict?' And what
they have--what they found is that only about half accurately recalled how
they found out about the verdict. And when they brought them back again
nearly three years later, less than a third of the students now accurately
recalled what they remembered. So there is a dramatic fading of memory over
time, and they even distorted their memories and started to remember details
that were actually inaccurate.
GROSS: Why do memories fade or become inaccurate over time?
Mr. SCHACTER: There are probably a number of reasons. One has to do with
interference, so we have many other experiences that may be similar in some
ways, and we may--and so any individual experience may be harder to pull out,
because you're now trying to pull it out from a whole collection of similar
experiences which may interfere with it in some ways. There may be some room
for just passive decay or weakening of information over time. We know that
memories are stored in neural connections, connections between neurons, and
there's some evidence from studies of animals that those connections may
spontaneously weaken over time. So it's probably not so much time itself, but
what happens in the time interval.
Now another important thing to keep in mind about transience is that it
differs in very interesting ways from absentmindedness. They both are forms
of forgetting, but people often confuse them, and I think that the confusion
can sometimes lead people to worry, perhaps needlessly, about developing
conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. In a condition like Alzheimer's
disease, we see greatly accelerated transience, that is, patients have great
difficulty holding on to information for more than a few minutes. This can be
a very dramatic kind of condition. It's nicely illustrated in the recent
movie "Momento," which you may have seen...
Mr. SCHACTER: ...where the main character can't establish--can't make new
memories and hold on to them. That is very characteristic of a condition such
as Alzheimer's disease. But people often get worried that they're developing
this condition, when in fact what they're suffering from is absentmindedness,
failures at the interface between attention and memory, and not this
accelerated transience that really is a serious sign of decline.
GROSS: Well, let's talk a little bit more about transience, about forgetting
over the course of time the details of what happened, or what happened to you,
and that can be really disturbing when you don't even remember the story of
your own life over time, you know. Are there ways of keeping those memories
more alive without writing a journal, so that--I mean, that's one technique.
You write a journal, you've got it recorded. Even if you don't remember, the
book does. But short of doing a journal, is there a way of kind of
reinforcing an accurate memory in your mind so that it endures over time?
Mr. SCHACTER: Yes. There are basically two ways to go after it. One is at
the time of initial encoding trying to elaborate on an experience as it's
occurring, trying to link incoming information to things that we already know.
Now that's a lot of work for most of us to go around--we can't go around every
minute of our lives trying to actively relate incoming information to things
we already know, making up images, stories and associations. But to the
extent that we can, that will increase the durability of the memory over time
and help to counter or fight off transience.
The other thing that we can do that is kind of like a notebook but without
actually writing things down is just bringing memories to mind frequently,
particularly in the days or weeks after they occur, those things we want to
remember. Memories benefit greatly from rehearsal and repetition. And, in
fact, I think probably a major determinant, if not the major determinant of
the durability of a memory has to do with how often we think about and talk
about the event later on. Those events that we tend not to talk about become
increasingly less accessible; those events that we do think and talk about
become more accessible.
GROSS: So talking with a friend or someone in your family over and over again
about a significant event will really actually serve a function, which is to
keep that event alive in an accurate way in your memory.
Mr. SCHACTER: Absolutely. Particularly if you start talking about the event
soon after it occurs when memory tends to be more accurate.
Mr. SCHACTER: One of the things we know, and it's nicely illustrated in that
study of the O.J. Simpson trial--one of the things we know about memory and
how it changes over time is that memory tends to be more literally accurate,
more reproductive soon after an event occurs. We have access to more of the
details. Then as time passes, memory becomes more reconstructive. We lose
the details and we hold on to the general sense or gist of what happened. So
if you want to rehearse and retrieve memories and keep them alive, you want to
start pretty soon because those details rapidly become inaccessible.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Schacter. He's chair of
the psychology department at Harvard, and author of several books about
memory. His latest is called "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets
Let's get to something I, myself, call proper noun disease and that you call
proper name anomia. Anomia means `without name.' And this is basically where
you know a person or you know the title of something; you just can't remember
what that name is. And struggle though you will, you can't remember that
name. And it's not like you don't know it, you just can't get it. Well,
describe that phenomenon a little bit more.
Mr. SCHACTER: Well, this is what I call the sin of blocking, and it's the
third of the forgetting-related sins, along with transience and
absentmindedness. And blocking occurs when information is available in
memory, as you describe, we have a cue present--it may be a person's face or
some description of that person--and we're doing our best to remember, we're
paying attention but we simply can't get to the information. We may feel as
though it's on the tip of our tongue. We remem--we may remember all kinds of
things about the person or place we're trying to remember, but we just can't
get to the name.
So blocking can be very frustrating. It's a very normal phenomenon, occurs to
all of us, tends to increase with age. And we've learned a little bit about
parts of the brain that are involved in this phenomenon, in part by studying
patients with brain damage. And there are certain patients who have selective
difficulties in coming up with names of people and places. And many of these
patients tend to have damage in a part of the brain known as the temporal
lobe; kind of sits next to your ear. And up toward the front tip of the
temporal lobe, these patients often have damage. So some of us believe that
this part of the brain plays an important role in allowing us to retrieve
specific information about the names of people and places.
GROSS: Now here's something that's very confusing about this phenomenon.
Sometimes even though you can't remember their name, you know it starts with
the letter V or you think you know there's three syllables, or you'll be able
to think of somebody else's name that has one of the same syllables as this
person's name but you still can't get to this person's name. What is that
Mr. SCHACTER: Well, that is, you know, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of
the blocking phenomenon, that so much partial information can be available.
And although we don't fully understand it, our best guess is that the name
itself is kind of stored separately from the different kinds of constituent
information that go into--that are related to it. So, for example, if I tell
you that someone's name is John Baker, I'm not telling you anything about that
person. If I tell you that someone is a baker, there's an immediate
connection to all kinds of thing that person does, where that person might
work and so forth.
So proper names tend to be more isolated from other kinds of information. And
this may be the reason why we're able to retrieve all these different kinds of
information but still not get to that proper name 'cause it's kind of stored
in an isolated manner.
GROSS: One of the disturbing things about this particular form of blockage is
that sometimes you'll reach for a name and not only, you know, aren't you
coming up with it, but it's like you're looking into a void. You know? It's
like you're looking for this name and there's nothing there. There's this big
blank. And that's such a frustrating feeling.
Mr. SCHACTER: It is. And one of the interesting things we've learned about
this kind of name blocking is that the feeling you're describing becomes
increasingly common as we get older. So when you look at tip-of-the-tongue
states and name blocking in younger adults, let's say, college students, the
more typical finding is that you have access to all this partial information,
as we were just discussing a minute ago. You may know the first couple
syllables. You may know various things about the person. But as you get
older, it becomes more common for the blocking state to feel like just drawing
a total blank and not having access to all this partial information. So that
is one of the signatures of blocking as we tend to get older.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Schacter. He's the
chair of the psychology department at Harvard University, and the author of
several books about memory. He's led many research experiments about memory.
His new book is called "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Daniel Schacter is my guest. He's the chair of the psychology
department at Harvard and the author of several books about memory. His
latest is called "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and
Let's get to another fault of memory, which is suggestibility; that, you know,
the mind is prone to suggestibility so that we might have a false memory or
even make a false confession. You know, basically remember something that
never happened. Would you describe this phenomenon a little more?
Mr. SCHACTER: Yes. Suggestibility occurs when, as the result of being
probed, for example, with leading questions, we come to remember events that
never occurred. It doesn't take all that much in order to implant a false
memory through suggestion. One example I give in the book involves an
airplane crash that took place outside of Amsterdam a number of years ago. It
was a terrible crash in the suburbs. There was tremendous media coverage of
it. It was a plane that crashed right into an apartment building and it left
devastation in its wake.
Several months after this happened, a group of Dutch psychologists asked
people from their university community about what they remembered about this
crash. And among the questions they asked was a very simple one: Did you see
the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building? And
over half the respondents to this question said yes. Then they did a
follow-up study and two-thirds of the people who were in that study responded
yes. And these people were able to provide details about the speed and angle
of the plane when it crashed into the apartment building; you know, whether it
was on fire before it actually hit the building; what happen to the plane
after it hit the building and so on and so forth.
Now what's interesting about this is that there wasn't any television film of
the moment when the plane hit the building. Now they may well have remembered
some news footage of what happened after the crash and sort of grabbed onto
that information and built around it and built this memory of an event that
Now this is particularly important suggestibility because it has ramifications
in the legal context. When law enforcement agents, for example, have a hunch
about who a suspect in a crime might be, or where a crime may have occurred,
if they ask leading questions, you may come up with the same kinds of memories
that these Dutch researchers came up with in their study of the airline crash.
GROSS: Sometimes there are things that we really want to forget: traumatic
events, negative memories, stupid things that we did. And often those are the
things that really stick with us and keep coming back whether we want them to
or not. As a psychologist who specializes in memory, do you think that there
might be something adaptive or beneficial about our inability to forget things
that we want to forget?
Mr. SCHACTER: Absolutely. I think this might be the clearest example of the
adaptive value of these memory sins. One example I give in the book of how
overwhelming the persistence of memory can be comes from the baseball pitcher
Donnie Moore, who pitched for the California Angels back in the 1980s. And in
the sixth game of the 1986 American League playoff series against the Boston
Red Sox, the Angels were on the verge of winning the pennant. There were two
outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. They were up by a run. Donnie Moore
was pitching. There was a batter, Dave Henderson, up for the Red Sox, he had
two strikes on him. The crowd was up cheering in California, thinking they
were about to win the pennant. Moore's teammates were up in the dugout
dancing around. Two outs; looked like he had him struck out. Moore throws
the next pitch, Henderson hits it out of the ballpark; the Red Sox win the
game and go on to the World Series.
Donnie Moore became haunted by that memory. His life became taken over by
that awful memory of what he had done, eventually leading to depression,
divorce and, at the end, suicide. Now while there must be more than just that
single memory to account for all that that happened to him, it's an example of
how extremely disabling the persistence of memory can be. His teammates, when
interviewed years later, at the time of his suicide, said his memory for that
pitch killed him.
And yet if we think about this kind of persisting memory for a traumatic
event, it's a feature that we want in our memory systems. We want our
memories to hold on to threatening events, events that could threaten our
survival. So it may be one of the most adaptive features of memory that, in
fact, we have special machinery that is devoted precisely to storing these
emotionally rousing events in a way that will persist over time. But the cost
of that, the cost that we pay is the disabling sin of persistence.
GROSS: Daniel Schacter, thank you so much for talking with us about memory.
Mr. SCHACTER: My pleasure.
GROSS: Daniel Schacter is chair of Harvard's psychology department. His new
book is called "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Singer: Remember the night, the night you said, `I love you.'
Remember? Remember your vow, by all the stars above you. Remember? Remember
we found a lonely spot, and after I learned to care a lot, promise that you
GROSS: This is NPR Public Radio.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, reporting from a country where the phones and roads had
fallen apart. Civil servants were left unpaid and the rule of law was
virtually non-existent. We talk with Michela Wrong about her new book, "In
the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Journalist Michela Wrong discusses her book "In The
Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Journalist Michela Wrong has witnessed what happens under a dictatorship
when the rule of law falls apart and anarchy and absurdity take over. That's
what she found in the Congo. She says that under the rule of Mobutu Sese
Seko, it became a paradigm of all that was wrong in post-colonial Africa.
She's been reporting from there on and off since 1994, when the country was
still known as Zaire. The Congo is still in chaos, Mobutu was overthrown in
1997 by Laurent Kabila. Kabila was assassinated early this year and replaced
by his son, Joseph. Michela Wrong now writes for the Financial Times and has
also reported for Reuters and the BBC. Her new book is called "In The
Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's
Congo." She told me some of the things that had gone wrong under Mobutu.
Ms. MICHELA WRONG (Staff Reporter, Financial Times): Well, I think the
obvious things are the corruption was absolutely rife. I mean, it was a
byword for sleaze, the whole country. And then you have a sort of
non-functioning state system in which there were servants sort of receive $8 a
month for their salaries or don't get paid at all. Then you have an army
which is preying upon the public instead of protecting them. The one force
that everyone is terrified of is their own army. They think they're going to
go berserk. They hold people up in roadblocks. And then you have a sort of
economic system that's just sort of collapsed and a place where private
companies don't want to go and invest, people don't have decent health
services or education. Those are all the elements that I sort of think of as
a typical failing state in Africa. And they were very much present in
GROSS: You say that no other president had plundered his economy as
effectively or lived the high life to such excess. You credit Mobutu as being
the inventor of modern kleptocracy. What was his approach to plundering
his own economy?
Ms. WRONG: Well, I think, sort of, Mobutu's approach to the economy was,
essentially, the approach of, sort of, a child in the sweet shop, where he
just took and took and took but he didn't understand and this was something
that none of his officials seemed to understand either, that something like
a copper industry will not continue to function unless you invest in it and
you train people and you get new equipment and you spend a bit of money. So
if you just take and take and take, in the end, it just collapses. And, of
course, in Mobutu's case, there was this element of extraordinary greed where
the proceeds of the copper industry and the diamond mining industry, they were
just going straight into his private bank account.
GROSS: In 1994 when you first went to Zaire which was later renamed the
Congo, the government and the infrastructure had already collapsed and people
were virtually living in anarchy. The health-care system, the education
system, Social Security, the post office, rule of law had all virtually
collapsed. And you say that when the infrastructure gave out, systems were
put in place, some of which only the rich could use like a new telephone
system. But would you describe that new telephone system. This will give us
a sense of what it was like.
Ms. WRONG: Yes, I mean, I think now we're so used to mobile phones, but when
I went out in '94, certainly in Britain, nobody was using them. And most
European countries certainly weren't either. And I was astonished to see that
there was this extremely effective, very efficient system of mobile phones in
Kinshasa being used by the elite. It was Telecell, and it had been set up
by an American who had realized that basically nobody could communicate with
each other because the state system had crumbled away, had been installed by
the Belgiums, never maintained. The land lines were corroding and they were
also being cannibalized by people who sort of cut up the wire and sell it.
So he had set up this mobile phone system. And I always thought it was a real
insight into Zaire because if you could afford to, you could buy your way out
of chaos. So, you know, roads were falling apart, so people had four-wheel
drive. The water was contaminated. You drink mineral water. I mean, there
was always this sort of sense that there was a class of hugely rich people who
could just, you know, side-step the whole thing.
GROSS: Did you ever meet President Mobutu when he was alive?
Ms. WRONG: I never had a sort of one-on-one interview, but I was sort of
around. You know, I sort of followed him on walk-abouts around the airport
and, you know, he was sort of with his cane which was supposed to be a magic
cane and he was lifting it above his head and walking around with his wife,
walking around the airport and then holding press conferences. But by the
time I got there, he'd become almost a recluse. I mean, he spent very little
time in the capital. He was up in the jungle estate he had, the palace of
Gbadolite which was a good two hours flight away. So he was a difficult
man to get to see. He was afraid. He thought he'd be assassinated if he
spent too much time in Kinshasa.
GROSS: Mobutu often looked really kind of ridiculous in photos. Would you
describe his look.
Ms. WRONG: Well, I mean, he never really got over the 1970s. He had
invented this jacket called the abacost which meant--it stood for aballu
costume(ph) as in down with the suit because it was supposed to be a revolt
against Western sort of colonialization. And he was very fond of that jacket,
and although it used to be obligatory for all Zairians to wear it, and then
that was dropped when they introduced multiparty democracy. But he sort of
liked to wear it anyway. So he did look like somebody from the 1970s who'd
been transported to the 1990s, definitely.
GROSS: And didn't he sometimes wear like a pillbox hat.
Ms. WRONG: Oh, yes, I mean, there was always that--I think if you look at
African dictators, they always have a sort of symbol that they like to attach
themselves to that makes them instantly recognizable. It's as though they
don't have the self-confidence to really believe in the power they have. They
have to have a symbol of their power to show around, that this is me, you
know, the `I am the king.' And with him, you know, there were the heavy
sunglasses, the heavy black rimmed glasses, the pillbox leopard skin hats and
the cane. Those were the key three items.
GROSS: Was President Mobutu popular in the Congo? He had stolen his
country's riches. He had created anarchy, you know, throughout the country.
Did people like him?
Ms. WRONG: Well, I think he went through an extraordinary sort of rise and
fall in popularity. By the time I got there, he was loathed and he was
regarded almost--I mean, it was a sort of--he had a satanic type of stature.
I mean, anything that went wrong, anything that any sort of appalling event
that happened, it was Mobutu was behind it even if you couldn't really see a
link, then everybody blamed it on him. And I think the diplomats had a bit of
the same tendency. I mean, he was regarded as this sort of evil genius behind
But if you go back and you find out and you talk to people about the 1960s, he
took power twice--1960, he then handed it over to civilian government; 1965,
he came and he was there to stay. And really he was enormously popular
because they had had a series of disastrous years in which they had civilian
politicians who had been scratching each others eyes out. The army had
mutinied. There was a sense in the country--there had been succession
attempts. The country seemed to be falling apart. And then there was this
young guy who was simple, who was forceful, who was brave who brought the army
under control. He was enormously popular.
They were very grateful for him taking over. And he maintained that for quite
a long time. He was a very gifted public speaker. I've spoken to Zairians
who went to listen to his speeches and they said, you know, rather in the way
that Hitler used to kind of charm his audience, only Mobutu did it with humor.
He would crack jokes. He was a very clever at using the local Lingala
language. He would sort of humiliate ministers who were unpopular already
in public. He'd get them on stage and sort of make fun of them. And he would
seduce the crowd. And that effect really did last for a very, very long time
until the economy started to go into recession and he became afraid of his own
GROSS: What part did America play in putting Mobutu in power and keeping him
Ms. WRONG: Well, Mobutu had been talent spotted very early on in Brussels
when he'd been there with Patrice Lumumba who was the prime minister of the
time. And the CIA had spotted him and thought this guy is really promising.
And Patrice Lumumba was sort of flirting with the Soviet Union, showed rather
worrying Communist tendencies. So they had sort of decided that Mobutu was
their man. And definitely there was more than a nod and a wink and that he
was getting sort of financial help from various embassies during those years
when he was just head of the army.
But really I think the US' role in keeping Mobutu in power was--it stretched
over decades rather than just those years after independence because they were
always there to hold his hand. He was taking tea at the White House. They
were sending money through Zaire into Angola, so they needed Mobutu as a
friend. So there was the funding going through. Then there was the US
influence on the World Bank and the IMF. They made sure that both
institutions kept leaning to Mobutu. He had an incredibly powerful friend
there, a friend who made sure that Western troops would be sent in when it
looked like there were going to be succession attempts on Zaire. So it
stretched on really for decades.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Michela Wrong. We'll talk more about the Congo
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Michela Wrong is my guest. She's a journalist whose new book is
called "In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in
Mobutu's Congo." And she's been covering the Congo off and on since 1994.
How was Mobutu overthrown?
Ms. WRONG: Well, it's a long story, but essentially there was a rebel
movement propped up by Rwanda and Uganda in the east that rose up and marched
all the way to Kinshasa. And what was sort of amazing was that people like
myself, journalists and diplomats, were saying, `Well, you know, they say
they're going to march on Kinshasa. They'll never get there. You know, have
you seen the distances? Have you seen the state of the roads? And, frankly,
you know, there is still an army in Zaire which will stop them.' And what
happens is that the Zairian army sort of evaporated. They just never fought a
battle. All they did was they retreated and they would rape and loot the
villages if they went back. And the whole sort of army imploded, and the
rebels just marched into Kinshasa. I was there when that happened. And
everybody'd been expecting an absolute blood letting. And, in fact, it was
very peaceful because at the last moment, Mobutu's presidential guards who
everyone had expected to make a sort of massive last stand in Kinshasa, they
just changed into track suits, got rid of their uniforms and took the boat out
of Kinshasa to Brazzaville. And so the city was largely won without almost
a shot being fired.
GROSS: Where were you when Mobutu was overthrown?
Ms. WRONG: Well, I was in a hotel with a lot of other journalists in
Kinshasa watching these presidential guards because it turned out that the
hotel we were staying in, the Inter-Continental, we hadn't realized that--we
decided to go there because we thought it would be the safest place to be so
that we--because it's right next to the river. So we thought we would be able
to run to the embassies which were on the riverbank and we knew that they had
high-powered boats and that we'd be able to get out if necessary if things
really turned nasty.
And what we discovered on the day that the rebels marched in was that, in
fact, Mobutu's presidential guards had all been staying in our hotel or at
least they'd been putting up their families there. And, therefore, they were
using it as a rallying point. And so there was a rather sort of unpleasant
couple of hours where we were looking out of the window and seeing all these
men with Kalashnikovs and sort of rounds and rounds of cartridges draped
around their shoulders and wondering if they were going to make a last stand
in our hotel and that we'd, in fact, picked the worse possible place to be in
But what happened as I said was that they went through--instead, they had it
all planned. They weren't going to fight. They didn't think it was worth it.
And they just changed into track suits so none of them--suddenly they went
from being, you know, military men to being civilians. And they took their
families, their wives and their children and their luggage and just walked to
the river, got in boats and got out of there and that was it.
GROSS: What's it like to stay in one place to cover a story like that when I
think the natural impulse would be to flee?
Ms. WRONG: Well, I think that the trouble is--at the time, I was working for
the Financial Times newspaper, and they were saying, `We would like you to
leave,' and without sort of stating a massive showdown about it. I was
saying, `I really don't want to go.' And I think that you're so
intellectually curious to know the end of the story. You know, you feel that
you've seen something of what was there at the start. You want to see it
through. And you just don't want to miss that. So in the end, it's much
harder to tear yourself away. And I'm so grateful that I didn't leave then
because I just wanted to be there.
GROSS: Was that a frightening time when people who were running around drunk
and looting? Did you feel in danger covering that?
Ms. WRONG: Well, I think there was a sense that--there were a couple of
hours where the whole thing could have got completely out of control. But
what we understand happened was that the Western embassies who were in touch
with Kabila who was the head of the rebel movement actually sort of phoned him
and said, `Get a move on. Get into Kinshasa fast. Mobutu has left. He's
taken the plane to Battelete. You've got to get in there fast.' And they
were saying, `But our forces are completely exhausted.' And they said, `Well,
you know, please speed it up because they were still walking.'
And I think any--the most dangerous point in the city is when you have one,
you know, power is moving out and another power hasn't yet come in. And it
only lasted a couple of hours. So there was--the looting began but it was
stopped pretty soon.
GROSS: And what changed when Laurent Kabila took over?
Ms. WRONG: Well, essentially this is what is so depressing because I think
Kabila ended up making Mobutu look very good because he wasn't capable of
changing the system. He wasn't capable of relaunching the economy which was
desperately needed. And then he ended up having a second rebel uprising
against him organized also by Rwanda and Uganda behind these rebel movements.
So essentially very, very soon he was in even more desperate straits than
Mobutu with half of his country out of control, half of the country being held
by these various rebel movements. And he was bartering off and selling off
all sorts of estate assets, mineral resources to Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia.
So Kabila made Mobutu look good which at the time we didn't think was
GROSS: Laurent Kabila was assassinated at the beginning of this year. His
son took over. Is anything different now?
Ms. WRONG: Well, I get the impression that everyone is hoping that what
Laurent Kabila didn't achieve, you know, Joseph Kabila can begin to do
more seriously. And the priority obviously is to stop the civil war, but I'm
a little weary. I think it's not clear to me that he can deliver. He's under
30 years old. He's completely dependent on Angolan and Zimbabwean forces to
stay in power. And I don't think the corrupt figures that were behind Laurent
Kabila, his father, have gone away. So they're going to be wanting to stay in
Kinshasa, make a lot of money from the mineral resources, and they haven't
disappeared. So I'm very dubious about this whole new regime.
GROSS: What's the state of the civil war now in the Congo?
Ms. WRONG: Well, that's a very good question. I mean, with Joseph Kabila
coming into power, there's been a new sort of impetus for peace. It's been
very much encouraged by the US, and Belgium and Germany, Britain are all sort
of saying, `Let's really sit down. Let's get this Lusaka peace process,'
which had been suspended under Laurent Kabila, `let's get it effective.' And
we have had some troops being pulled back. Uganda in particular has been
pulling back troops. So I think there is hope, but I'm a little worried that
the hope is not going to be fulfilled.
GROSS: I think there's a big debate that continues to go on about how much of
Africa's problems in the states in which there are great problems can be
attributed to colonial rule and how much of the responsibility African
leaders have to take on themselves and African people have to take on
themselves. The Congo is an interesting place because of the rule of King
Leopold of Belgium, a very kind of corrupt and terrorizing rule. Tell us a
little bit about his role in the colonial era.
Ms. WRONG: Well, yes. I think if you look at Congo's history, it's been
brutalized time and time again. And I used to find, you know, that when I got
there, I used to be exasperated by what seemed to be the political perversity
which was the political perversity of the local people. And then, you know,
when I was researching the book, it was really the moment where I began to
think, `My God, you know, I'm amazed that they're even as gumptious(ph) and as
enterprising as they are,' because, first, you'd had slavery and you must
never forget--I mean, central Africa was devastated by their experience of the
slave traders from eastern Africa. And then in the wake of that, very soon
after that, you had King Leopold's rule which was probably the most brutal
rule on the African continent. I mean, he was after rubber because the
pneumatic tire was about to become the great Western product. And there was
wild rubber in abundance in Congo and he wanted it. And he used most brutal
techniques to get it out of Congo.
One of the--I mean, people--the sort of famous pictures that came back after a
couple of years were the pictures of people--baskets full of severed hands and
these were the hands of villagers because Leopold's mercenaries would just go
in there, and if a village hadn't come up with its rubber quota, then the
young men would have their hands chopped off and they would be taken back and
they would show these to the Belgium officials to show that they had done
their job properly.
And it's absolutely--if you think of that sort of taking place year in, year
out, there were millions of orphans being created, the areas of Congo that
were being burnt down and just sort of raised to the ground by these mercenary
troops that he had recruited. It's absolutely devastating. And I think you
can never forget that. When you wonder why, you know, Congo, Zaire, is the
way it is today, that just left such a deep imprint on people's collective
GROSS: Well, Michela Wrong, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Ms. WRONG: Thank you.
GROSS: Michela Wrong is the author of the new book "In The Footsteps of Mr.
Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo."
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg literally. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Commentary: Use of the word `literally'
TERRY GROSS, host:
`She literally bit my head off.' That's the kind of sentence that has
language critics figuratively climbing the wall, but our linguist Geoff
Nunberg isn't sure what all the fuss is about.
Some time around the beginning of the 18th century, people started to use the
adverb `literally' to indicate that they intended their words in the strict
literal sense. As in: `After six weeks of fasting, he was literally dying of
hunger.' And as best as I can figure, it was no more than a week after that
that somebody had the idea of using the word in a figurative way as in: `She
literally bit my head off.'
Writers have been stretching literally ever since then. Thackeray wrote, `I
literally blazed with wit,' and Dickens described the character in Nicholas
Nickleby as `literally feasting his eyes.' And in later years, the list grew
to include Joyce, Fitzgerald and Nobokov, not to mention Jean Staffard who
wrote at one point that her cat had started having literally millions of
But despite those illustrious antecedents, that loose use of literally has
come in for a hard time from the language critics. Intolerable, an assault on
the language, a false coin that makes honest traffic in words impossible.
Those are surprisingly vehement condemnations for what is, at worst, a pretty
minor infraction. Granted the use of literally can have inadvertently comic
effects when a football announcer says, `They literally hammered the
quarterback into the ground.' That's the kind of sentence that the old New
Yorker liked to run as a news break at the bottom of the page.
But where's the harm in it? After all, if I'm starving is an exaggeration,
then I'm literally starving is just a bigger exaggeration. What would the
critics want you to stay: `I'm figuratively starving?' Where would be the
fun if every exaggeration had to wear a warning stripe on its sleeve? When
you think about it, the objection to the loose use of literally is very odd.
It amounts to saying that literally is the only word in the English language
that you're never allowed to us in a figurative way.
But then language critics themselves have always been an innocently literally
minded lot, the kind of people who believe that you can draw a neat line
between literal and figurative meaning and stick scrupulously to one side of
it. That notion has a powerful appeal on American life and not just as it
touches grammar. That came home to me when I was reading a recent book by the
anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano called "Serving The Word" which is a look at
the American affinity for literalism in all its forms, from the pulpit to the
There may be differences between religious fundamentalists and legal
textualists but they both start with a faith and literal meaning, a kind of
inland waterway where you can steer your words at a safe remove from the
squalls of metaphor. That illusion of safe passage probably has a lot to do
with another 18th century invention, the dictionary. When you run your eyes
down those neat columns of entries, it's easy to think you can pull the
meanings of words out of context and arrange them in clear glass boxes.
But lexicographers know better than anybody else that it's all smoking
mirrors. In his preface to the first great English dictionary, Samuel Johnson
wrote that, `The meanings of words can no more be ascertained in a dictionary
than a grove in the agitation of a storm can accurately be delineated from its
picture in the water.' That's the problem I have with the critics who get
down on people for using literally wrong. I have trouble knowing when it's
being used right.
As soon as you try to pin literal meaning down, you realize how spectral it
is. Language is shot through with figurative speech, most of them so
pedestrian and run of the mill that they pass us right by. That's all that
literal minded means in the end. You can't hear the metaphors coming out of
your mouth. Still, literal meaning is one of the grand illusions that makes
modern life possible.
The other day I spent a half-hour on the phone with United Airlines having an
animated conversation about the meaning of the phrase: `Seven-day.' And I
realized that when it suits my purpose, I can be as much as a literalist as
Jerry Falwell or Antonin Scalia. There are no relativists on a waiting list.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.