Monday, February 21, 2011
The Woman Who Can't Forget
The title: The Woman Who Can't Forget
The author: Jill Price
Publication: Free Press, 2008
Got it from: The library
I was first introduced to the story of Jill Price in the November 2007 edition of National Geographic, when she was an anonymous scientific study called AJ, and at the time I was fascinated. Price has the incredible ability to remember every single day of her life. Give her a date and she can tell you exactly what she did that day, what the weather was like, who she saw and even what day of the week it was. In her memoir, she talks about being constantly bombarded with memories all day long and even at night when she's trying to sleep. It isn't so much that she is trying to remember (although her brain scans reveal obsessive-compulsive tendencies), it's that her brain is unable to forget.
Price's memory was so unusual that scientists had to invent a term, hyperthymestic syndrome, to describe it. Since then, only a few people have been been diagnosed with it, including actress Marilu Henner. Price describes it as a burden, and I can see why. Imagine if you could remember every hurtful thing anybody has ever said to you, every mistake you've ever made - and then imagine having to relive the emotions that went with it every time. We've all had experiences where a certain smell or a song has triggered a memory, but for Price those triggers occur all day long. Although she says she would never give up her gift, I can only imagine what a nightmare it must be to live with. Understandably, she suffers from long bouts of depression and low self-esteem.
What made this book particularly riveting to me is that I also have an extraordinarily strong autobiographical recall. I think everybody is particularly good at memorizing something, and I don't think I'm unique, but I certainly feel unusual. What really took me aback was when Price drew diagrams of the ways and shapes she sees time. My jaw almost dropped to the floor and I started getting goosebumps, because my personal diagrams were almost identical! (I'm sorry I can't reproduce the diagrams here). Scientists say the way she views time is unusual - for instance, her decades read from right to left, and her year is laid out in a circle, both the same for me - and that it may be one of the keys in how she remembers. I wouldn't be surprised.
Of course, I don't remember anywhere near as specifically as Price does, and thank goodness because I remember too much as it is. You know how most people say things like, "I don't remember how old I was when..." or, "I can't remember what year it was when..."? That doesn't happen for me. I always remember the year, usually the month and sometimes the day. Give me the name of a movie I've seen in theatres, and I can tell you exactly what year it was. Conversely, give me a year and I'll tell you the movies I've seen in them. I even remember the years for a ton of movies I haven't seen. I'm always biting my tongue at work when a patron comes to me and asks, "I want this movie, but I don't know what year it was made." It's from 1996! This works for books too. I have read thousands of books over the years, and I can pretty much remember every single one of them. Major plot details, usually the titles and often the authors. It drives me nuts when patrons can't remember if they've read a book, only to discover they read it six months ago. I can remember books I read sixteen years ago!
Does this make me some sort of memory genius? Heck, no. And it may all have something to do with what scientists call the memory bump, in which more memories are stored of the years between ten and thirty than any other time in one's life. Unlike Price, I don't think my memories are going to get any stronger or more vivid as they age. And that's fine with me. After all, being selective about memories is how you form your sense of identity, and I'm more than happy to not think about the sheer hell that was being an adolescent. Still, I couldn't help but feel some kinship with the author when she talks about the first time of being self-aware, or how she empathizes with children because she remembers all to well what a difficult thing it is to be a child. Amen, sister.