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  • Jean Hill Misremembering Kennedy November 30, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    What lying dogs we are! Beachcombing is referring to humanity’s extraordinary ability to warp and deform both our immediate perception of the world and also our memories of those perceptions. You don’t believe Beachcombing? Then take the extraordinary case of Jean Hill (obit 2000).

    Jean – aka ‘the Lady in Red’ – was an accidental witness at one of the twentieth century’s most traumatic events: the shooting of President J.F.Kennedy, 22 November 1963 (note to self, yet another missed anniversary…). JH, in fact, was standing mere metres from the leader of the free world when his head was stoved in by a bullet.

    The nature of the event in which JH was caught up means that she is that rare thing, a witness whose testimony can be tested. After all, there are dozens of photos and videos – including the Zapruder video – from those key minutes that survive with Jean on – so we can compare physical images against her memories. And interest in the Kennedy killing has meant that her words have been carefully recorded over the years – so that we can see to what extent she has changed her story.

    Now what do we learn about how human memory works?

    Her earliest description appears in the Dallas Times Herald, 22/1963/17, the day of the killing. She had gone to see Kennedy with her friend Mary Moorman (pictured right).

    ‘The President and his wife were looking at a little dog on the seat between them as I looked down on them…Then the President looked up and just about that time grabbed himself across the chest and looked like he was in pain. He fell towards Jackie across the seat. She said, ‘My God! They’ve shot him.’ and fell across him. I would say that the shots rang out and everybody started screaming and falling down.’

    JH also claimed that she had heard four to six shots rather than the canonical three and she believed that shooting had come from ‘the Grassy Knoll’ (a phrase she seems to have coined). Indeed, she said that she started after a man who ran away in (or from?) that general direction. Afterwards we know that she went to the press room at the sheriff’s office and told her story.

    Beachcombing for present purposes could not care less whether she was right or wrong about those extra shots – sufficient to say, conspiracy theories (e.g. the idea that there were several Kennedy shooters) are usually fictive attempts to make sense of a messy and complicated world, while Beachcombing is almost as contemptuous of those who believe that the state always tells the truth.

    However, Beachcombing will point to some immediate and definite distortions in this early account. (i) There was no small dog in the president’s car – JH had perhaps seen some flowers or a child’s toy and (ii) Jackie Kennedy did not scream out the words ‘My God! They’ve shot him’. In other words JH, in a trying situation, had subconsciously filled in some gaps in her memory.

    Nothing unusual about this, of course. Beachcombing certainly fills in gaps all the time, especially after opening bottles of wine. What is depressing is the way that these initial unreliable memories then deteriorated over the years.

    18 March, 1964 Jean was interviewed by the Warren Commission. It was already her fourth or fifth substantial interview and by now there are clear signs of ‘secondary elaboration’, attempts to give a narrative to what had happened. Jean remembered that the friend she had came with, Mary Moorman, dropped to the ground while she stood – in fact, in pictures and the video Jean is clearly seen sitting on the ground as well, presumably in shock. There is also the first on-the-record statement by JH that the man she had followed was Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer. This would have been extraordinary, not least because Ruby was at the offices of the Daily Morning News when Kennedy was shot.

    In 1964 JH had said that she had not seen any shooting from the grassy knoll, but by 1978, in an interview for a book by British author Anthony Summers, JH recalled that ‘The President was killed and then, of course, pandemonium reigned and I looked up, and at the time I looked up across the street I saw smoke like from a gun coming from the parapet, that built-up part on the knoll.’ It is inconceivable that she would have forgotten this detail in 1963 or 1964, especially given how important the Grassy Knoll almost immediately became in the Kennedy mythos. She had ‘learnt’ a new memory as she was convinced shooting came from that general area.

    By 1988 her memory had become still more specific: ‘As the series of shots rang out, I thought I saw someone firing from the grassy knoll, from the fence behind there…I heard the shots ringing out. I looked – of course – I was looking around. My friend Mary got down on the ground and said ‘Get down, they’re shooting’. But I was too caught up in the moment and all this is taking place so quickly. And there was a rifle blast from behind the fence on the grassy knoll.’ She also insisted that a Secret Serviceman (of the man in black type) stopped her forcefully and took her in for questioning, while, in fact, she had, as mentioned above, been taken to the press office at the sheriff’s centre.

    In 1989 the memory continues to grow new shoots: ‘I saw a man fire from behind the wooden fence. I saw a puff of smoke and some sort of movement on the Grassy Knoll where he was. Then I saw a man walking briskly in front of the Texas School Book Depository. He was the only person moving.

    By the early 1990s, JH had become a name in Kennedy Assassination circles, being asked to come and speak at conferences and on television, especially in relation to Oliver Stone’s JFK that featured her character and that she claimed to have watched seven times.

    Beachcombing would advise against seeing JFK even once but that is another story…

    The Kennedy killing was by now a major if not the major part of her identity and two new elements entered her retelling. First, she described how she had been threatened to keep quiet. And, second, she explained how only now had she decided to come forward and speak – this despite the fact that she had been interviewed numerous times since 1963.

    Further details were also coming to the surface. When she was taken to the grassy knoll for a documentary for Stone’s JFK she stated:  ‘..the man was shooting from just this side of the tree, that large tree, and that’s where I saw the shots come from’. In 1992 she co-authored a book JFK: The Last Dissenting Witness insisting on an old theme, that the man running away from the knoll had been Jack Ruby.

    Beachcombing imagines memory as an act of distancing: he probably stole this idea from Borges. Every time we remember, we do not remember the original moment but our last memory of that moment and slowly the original gets left further and further behind. This may account for a feeling that Beachcombing knows painfully well: the manner in which many oft revisited events – undoing a bra strap for a first time, working out a crux in fifth-century Latin, tasting melanzane alla parmigiana… – become like damaged video tape with half-worn images. It may also explain why rarely remembered events retain a certain clarity and surprising details.

    Beachcombing is certain that Jean Hill was sincere and if she was – to use the phrase with which he began this post – a ‘lying dog’ it is because all humans unintentionally are: true liars like the truly ugly or the truly stupid are a rare sub-category.

    But how depressing! A woman is caught in thirty important seconds of history and within thirty years she has completely rewritten her recollections.

    If our memories were for sale in a shop they would come with a health warning and, at most, a six-month guarantee.

    Beachcombing would advise all interested readers to visit Peter R. Whitmey’s fascinating, far more extensive and better informed examination of JH’s recall.

    Any other examples of treacherous memories? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    4 Dec 2010: Jill has been educating Beachcombing on the nature of memory with this fascinating article from the Smithsonian. Well worth a read. Thanks Jill!