On October 28, 2017, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival’s (CHF) 2017 program entitled ”Belief,” and presented in partnership with the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, Founder and Artistic Director of Facets Multimedia Milos Stehlik joined documentary filmmaker/Northwestern educator Debra K. Tolchinsky in conversation at the Pick-Laudati Auditorium of the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive on the Evanston Campus of Northwestern University.
Started in 1990, CHF is an annual series of lectures, concerts, and films. This year’s festival takes place at various Chicago-area locations between October 28 and November 12, and focuses on how humanity has come to understand ideas of “belief.” Stehlik opened the program and the evening by noting it was “dedicated to our faith and trust in people, our institutions and the future”. He was an informed and skillful questioner, drawing out opinions and information, and moderating the Q and A session with the audience afterwards.
Tolchinsky is currently on leave from Northwestern, making a film about the nature of memory, focusing on how memories can fail to capture facts and become distorted over time in various important ways. Memory can also be influenced and manipulated. One of the subjects of Tolchinsky’s film, Penny Beerntsen of Wisconsin was also the subject of a Netflix program, “Making a Murderer”, launched in 2015.
The facts of Beerntsen’s travail and subsequent developments include:
In 1985, while jogging alone on a beach in Wisconsin, she was attacked and brutally assaulted in an attempted rape by a stranger. Immediately thereafter, working with law enforcement personnel, her statement and a sketch of the assailant was prepared and Ms. Beerntsen was shown a collection of photographs as well as a live lineup. Only one individual- whose photo looks eerily reminiscent of the sketch-was in both the photos and the live lineup; Beerntsen identified Steven Avery as her attacker. He was convicted and served 18 years of a 32-year sentence, constantly appealing and declaring his innocence. Ultimately, in 2003, based on a single pubic hair recovered after the crime, DNA evidence conclusively proved Steven Avery was not the man responsible for the crime and he was freed from prison.
Avery’s legal problems are far from over- he’s been subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Teresa Halbach and has initiated civil rights cases against the law enforcement hierarchy- but he seems to have accepted Beerntsen’s apology. However, she has been tormented with guilt, not the least of which due to the fact that the true offender, one Gregory Allen, apparently sexually assaulted other women while Avery was locked up.
The issue remains, however: police/sheriff actions notwithstanding, how did Beerntsen get it so wrong? The upcoming film aims to answer these questions- at least in part.
Tolchinsky explained that her forthcoming documentary, True Memories and Other Falsehoods will examine the Beerntsen/Avery case, among others, explore how memory is formed and demonstrate how easily it can become contaminated by details. The suggestibility of traumatized individuals is one aspect of memory research as is how trauma itself affects the physical mechanisms necessary to create memories. Clearly, there are psychological factors as well. The filmmaker met Beerntsen at a symposium for honorees of wrongful conviction, was struck by her story and inspired by the way the former victim “had taken what happened to her and was trying to do something positive about the tragedies”.
The audience saw a 15-minute excerpt from the upcoming full-length documentary. It was beautifully crafted and enthralling. After the viewing, Stehlik exclaimed, “It’s so intimate!” We see Beerntsen today, taken to the scene of the crime, which she doesn’t recognize, saying, “It looks so totally different now”! We can empathize with her guilt and confusion, but from this reviewer’s point of view, it isn’t difficult to understand why Beerntsen “fingered” the wrong man. To this day she doesn’t recognize the true culprit as her attacker; in her mind, it’s still Avery. When you listen to her account of the incident, it is apparent that more is at work in her inability to record events properly than the subsequent actions of law enforcement personnel.
The victim’s own words, recorded on film, framed in emotional language, but uttered in an almost matter-of-fact way, contain clues. Brilliant editing of these segments by Tolchinsky and Lindsay Utz reveals that Beerntsen, while averring that she was determined to remember what her assailant looked like, actually concentrated on her last interactions with her children, how her husband would have to raise them alone, and then deliberately focused on Allen’s leather jacket, looking for the knife he claimed to have. These efforts, it can be argued, purposely distracted and removed her from what was happening, similar to the dissociation or fugue state related to Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder), in which the mind takes a leave of absence from reality. In her curiously detached account of the assault itself, she also mentions how she was repeatedly strangled to the point of unconsciousness; the physical and mental effects of that also certainly affected her ability to recall events, as did fear and emotional guarding.
Tolchinsky’s completed documentary will focus on the phenomenon of wrongful or tainted memory within the criminal justice system, explore how those affected cope, and underscore particular investigative protocols that could prevent future errors. She notes, “The consequences of memory contamination through false confessions and false identification can be particularly severe, but the implications extend beyond the criminal justice system. Thus, although the documentary focuses on issues in one highly consequential domain, the relevance of the topic is more widespread.”
The audience seemed fascinated by the film and in agreement with the filmmaker’s goals, albeit too ready to blame the entire mistaken identity accusations on law enforcement’s admittedly serious missteps. We look forward to seeing further enlightening examples of individuals with memory distortions in the completed film, as well as learning concrete ways of coping with subsequent efforts to “recreate” memory. Parenthetically, one particularly intriguing aspect of the discussion with Tolchinsky was her assertion that she had deliberately distorted certain elements in the film such as eye color. She said, “There is a relationship between film and memory. Film is continual dream, continual memory. It embeds a story in us which becomes a communal memory”.
For information and tickets to the many wonderful events of the 2017 Chicago Humanities Festival, “Belief”, go to chicagohumanities website
Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of Debra K. Tolchinsky