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

"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

Table of Contents

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


From the Prologue

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!

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