Memories Are Made of This — October 20, 2013, Sermon

This sermon, from October 2013, asks how we can be sure of anything — in our lives, or in our faiths.


Many of you know that I have done some storytelling – true stories from my own life. I’m going to start this sermon with a story, a true one, but from someone else’s life. I have chosen it because of its vivid images that I don’t think you’ll ever forget, and of course that’s appropriate for a sermon about memory. They will be upsetting images.

The main character in my story is a woman named Penny Beerntsen. I have no idea what religion Penny identifies with, if any, but she’d make a good Unitarian Universalist. She has a strong commitment to justice, to personal responsibility, to treating people with dignity and respect, and to figuring out how to live ethically and do the right thing.

The story starts in 1985, when Penny was about 35. She and her husband Tom had met in seventh grade in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a small city on Lake Michigan. They had moved around a bit, but now they operated Beerntsen’s Confectionary in the heart of the city’s historic downtown. It was an old-fashioned candy store and ice cream parlor that had been opened by Tom’s grandparents in 1931.

On nice summer afternoons they would duck out of the store and take their 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son to the beach at Neshotah Park, a 15-minute drive away. One July Monday, after they found a good spot on the beach, Penny removed her T-shirt, left Tom to watch the kids, and started her usual six-mile run along the lake shore, barefoot in her bikini.

Just beyond the public area of the beach, the shoreline turns heavily wooded. It was there that she saw a scraggly man wearing a leather jacket even though the temperature was in the mid-80s. “Nice day for a jog,” he said to her.

“Yes, it’s a beautiful day,” Penny replied, and she jogged on.

When she returned 15 or 20 minutes later, the scraggly man had walked further away from the public beach, into the more wooded section. This time he had a different look on his face, and Penny knew she was in trouble. He started toward her.

With the man just about 10 feet away, she angled into the water. And that was a mistake, because the water slowed her down and the man overtook her. At 5-feet-2 and 105 pounds, she was no match for him. She yelled for help to a sailboat 200 yards from shore, but the man tightened his grip on her windpipe, told her to shut up, and dragged her over the dunes and about 50 yards into the woods.

He ripped off both parts of her bikini and gave her a number of orders, many of which she refused, and that infuriated him. With her lying on her back and him above her, they exchanged more words, he began beating her and she managed to kick him in the groin. She thought also about remembering his face and preserving all the evidence she could.

“Now you’re going to die, bitch,” he told her, and he choked her and pounded her head against the ground. They exchanged more words, and every time she refused his demands he choked her to the point of unconsciousness. She worried that her children’s last image of her would be a bloody, naked body. When she awoke from one final blackout, the man was gone, and she managed to crawl toward the water.

She couldn’t make it all the way to the lake, but she sat on the dunes, dazed, until a young couple came walking along the beach. They put a towel around her and walked on either side of her back toward the public park. Her husband Tom had realized something must be wrong, so he had gotten his parents to take the kids. He was walking along the beach toward Penny, and they found each other.

An ambulance was waiting by the time they made it back to the parking lot.

Steven Avery
Steven Avery

In the hospital emergency room, Penny gave a description of her rapist – caucasian, sandy brown hair, short fingers — and asked the sheriff if he had a suspect in mind. He said he did. Later, the authorities laid nine photos alongside her hospital bed, and she assumed that the suspect must be among them. She picked the one that looked closest to the way she remembered her rapist. Then the next day, she identified the same man in a lineup. The hair stood up on the back of her neck when she saw him.

That man, the one the sheriff suspected, is Steven Avery, who had a background of bizarre behavior. He had convictions for burglary and for throwing his own cat into a fire. He had flashed one woman – his cousin – and pointed a rifle at the face of another, a neighbor who was also the wife of a deputy sheriff.

At Avery’s trial, 14 alibi witnesses said that he was with his family at the time of the rape, and he had a store receipt showing he had made a purchase far enough from the crime scene that he would have needed a Star Trek transporter to get there and back. But most of the alibi witnesses were family members, and the certainty of Penny’s identification had a huge influence on the jury. She was 100% certain and looked Steven Avery right in the eye as she identified him. Steve was convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

That was a great relief to Penny, but she continued to be in a deep depression. Here’s how she describes this period of her life:

I felt I’d disrupted the lives of my husband and children, and I shut down emotionally. Then one day I read about a young woman, ten years younger than me, who had gone out jogging and been murdered. As I heard how her strangled body had been found in a swamp, I realized that I’d been given a second chance, whereas she had not.

At about the same time I heard a talk on Restorative Justice by a man called Dr. Mark Umbreit. He talked about how liberating it can be for victims to let go of their anger and hatred, and suddenly I felt a huge weight lift. At the next break I headed out to the state park where the assault had taken place. For the first time I wasn’t afraid.

I trained to be a mediator in juvenile crimes, and subsequently started speaking in prisons on victim impact panels, usually to men who had committed very violent crimes. I thought I might be able to help them feel empathy toward their victims. What I didn’t realize was how much of my own healing would come through these men. Many had grown up in horrendous circumstances, and I came to see them as human beings with mothers, wives and children.

As so many of us do, Penny turned her trauma into an opportunity to help others.

In the meantime, Steven Avery filed appeal after appeal, and got denial after denial. Penny attended all the appeals, wondering why Steve was so persistent. Then in 2001 the Wisconsin Innocence Project took Steve’s case, and a year later they filed a motion for the release of biological material for DNA testing. The technology had changed and smaller amounts of material could be analyzed. This time the judge granted the motion.

Things dragged on for months and months, but eventually two hairs taken from Penny’s body on the day of the assault were found to have enough DNA to test, and the results came in. Penny got a call from her lawyer with a request to meet right away. One of the tested hairs was Penny’s. The other was neither hers nor Steve’s. The DNA profile was run through federal and state databases, and that hair belonged to Gregory Allen, who was serving a 60-year sentence for a brutal rape in 1995, ten years after his attack on Penny.

Gregory Allen
Greg Allen

Greg Allen was known as the sandman, because he liked to come up to woman on sand, and he had been convicted for a rape before Penny’s on the same beach. But for whatever reasons, the sheriff identified Steve Avery as the suspect and Penny settled on his image. Greg Allen’s picture had never been shown to her, and Steve’s was fixed in her mind as her assailant.

Here’s how Penny describes her feelings after her lawyer told her the news: “I wanted the earth to swallow me. If I wrote down every good deed I had done from the time I was born, it would not be enough to overcome this bad deed.” To add to the eeriness of it all, Greg Allen was scheduled to attend one of Penny’s victim impact sessions in prison about two weeks after he was identified as her rapist.

Steven Avery was released after serving 18 years and one month for a rape he did not commit, and he became something of a local celebrity. A state legislator created a Steve Avery fund, and a beauty shop gave him a free makeover. But his image was still the one that made the hair stand up on the back of Penny’s neck. She could swear that she had never seen Greg Allen in her life, and she was at a loss for how she could make things right again.

As she puts it: “I sunk into another deep depression and feeling utterly powerless, wrote Steve a heartfelt apology letter. In it I stated that I felt like an offender and offered to meet with him. I’m so grateful that he agreed.”

A year and a half after Steve’s exoneration, they met in a small office in the State Capitol. Steve gave her a hearty handshake and said he didn’t blame her; he blamed the police. Penny asked to apologize to his parents, who were in an adjoining room. Steve thought his mother could handle it but his father was too bitter. Eventually, though, they both came in to the room. Finally, as the meeting was coming to an end, Penny walked over to Steve and asked if she could hug him. Again, we’ll listen to Penny’s words:

He didn’t even answer but just grabbed me in a big bear hug. Then I whispered, “Steve, I’m so sorry.” And he said, “Don’t worry, Penny; it’s over.”

That was the most grace-filled thing that’s ever been said to me, because of course it isn’t over for him. I was totally overwhelmed. He didn’t use the word “forgiveness,” but I think his generosity of spirit has allowed me to start moving forward.

You may be wondering why I have gone on in such detail with such a brutally emotional story. That’s because I’ve been setting you up for what comes next.  The brutality and the emotion are not over.

Two years after Steve’s exoneration and just a half year after Penny and Steve’s meeting, Penny got another call from her lawyer requesting an immediate meeting. A 25-year-old freelance photographer named Teresa Halbach was missing after leaving her home for an assignment photographing a car that Steve Avery was putting up for sale. Steve was, of course, suspected, and he did a pretty good job of rallying his supporters. There was considerable sympathy for him now in the community, even after Teresa’s car was found hidden and her remains were found burned not far from where Steve lived. Penny was quoted as saying she was certain Steve was not capable of such a vicious crime.

Steven Avery became the first person in the U.S. – and maybe still the only person – ever arrested for murder after being exonerated in another serious crime. He continued to deny the murder and get some sympathy from Penny and the rest of the community until his 16-year-old developmentally delayed nephew Brendan Dassey confessed to being Steve’s accomplice. Brendan’s after-school activity the day Teresa disappeared was to join Uncle Steve in raping and killing a woman tied up in Steve’s bed.

Once again, Penny was left questioning her judgment – questioning what her senses tell her. She was certain twice and wrong twice and even wonders if her mistaken identification and Steve’s 18 years in prison played a role in Teresa’s death.

Penny Beerntsen lives in Chicago now and spends considerable time volunteering, including work on wrongful convictions and on forgiveness. Steven Avery is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole plus 10 years in a high-security prison in Boscobel, Wisconsin.

The story says a lot about memory, about emotion, and about certainty. I can identify a little bit with the way Avery continued to evoke fright in Penny even after she knew he was not her attacker. In 1977, my office in the Mobil Building in New York City was on the sixth floor directly over the lobby. I heard what I thought was a backfire, but a co-worker and I decided to go down to the lobby to see what had happened. The lobby was filled with smoke, and when we stepped out onto 42nd Street, we saw broken glass and the hysterical woman who had just witnessed a man killed by a bomb.

For months after that, any sudden loud noise – just a door slamming, for example – terrified me. My brain had associated the effects of the bombing with the sound I had believed was harmless at the time.

Brain researchers tell us that remembering is like that. This isn’t really the word’s etymology, but when we re-member it’s as though we are bringing together various members of the thought into one coherent memory, and the members – the various bits from various parts of our brain – change over time.

The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who has made a career out of studying false memories, puts it this way: “When we remember something, we’re taking bits and pieces of experience – sometimes from different times and places – and bringing it all together to construct what might feel like a recollection but is actually a construction. The process of calling it into conscious awareness can change it, and now you’re storing something that’s different.”

It reminds me of the paradox in quantum physics that observing something can change it. Remembering something can change it. In Penny’s case, when she was shown nine photos after she knew that one of them was indeed the suspect, she picked one because it was the closest to looking like the man she remembered. Over time, that image, and the image of the man she also then identified in a lineup, became integrated into her memory of the assault. By the time of the trial, she was 100% certain.

Remembering something and expressing it with detail, confidence and emotion doesn’t mean that it’s true, Loftus says.

In experiments she has done, the way a question is asked helps determine the content of the memory. She showed people videos of an automobile accident and then asked some of them whether there was broken glass after the cars hit each other, and she asked others whether there was broken glass after the cars smashed into each other. Guess which group was more likely to remember broken glass even though there was none.

In a study of 300 convicts who were exonerated by DNA evidence, three quarters were because of faulty memories – faulty identifications.

And, of course, in the inevitable research on mice, scientists delivered an electric shock at the same time as they stimulated a memory of a place the mice had been previously. The mice because afraid of the place they had been previously instead of the place where they were shocked.

So why am I talking about all of this in a sermon? For two reasons. One is simply to reinforce the idea of a questioning, ever-evolving faith. If we can’t be certain about our own memories, how can we be certain about the big religious questions? I’ll quibble just a tiny bit here with our Unitarian Universalist fourth principle, which is to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I’m fine with promoting the search, but I’m not so sure that truth and meaning can ever be found. Our UU faith lives within the search.

The second connection that I see between religion and the mechanics of memory comes from John Manwell’s Easter sermon last spring. He talked about Bible stories as coming from people’s memories years after – maybe generations after – the event. Often in our liberal faith we look at stories in the Bible for their figurative meaning. So the story of the loaves and the fishes becomes a lesson in sharing resources instead of a miracle. I like John’s way better – to see the stories as memories, memories molded by the passage of time and the yearnings of our souls.

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