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remembering to forget

On Tuesday 25th September 2012 at 10pm on Channel 4OD I watched a documentary called The Boy Who Can’t Forget. I ate lamb steaks with porcini mushroom pasta on the side off a black plastic tray on my lap. I watched it an hour later than shown because I had been watching the new period drama Paradise.

The programme featured a twenty year old student called Aurelien who can remember every day of his life – what day of the week it was,what the weather was like, whether his sister’s friend came over for a tea, and on and on and on.  He can remember the most banal details – what date the first series of Big Brother started and the dates on which every contestant was evicted, for example. He underwent brain tests and scans and met up with experts to determine if he was doing it as a party trick or had learnt some sophisticated way of remembering like those people who can recite Pi to the nth place or the phone directory. 

Aurelien is one of a very few people known to scientists who have something called superior autobiographical memory. Whilst he was an interesting case study, I was more drawn to the story of American Jill Price who also ‘suffers’ from this condition. I say suffers because she talked about being tormented by it, saying that memory has ruled her life.  She remembers all the hurts, the slights, things she said or did she regrets twenty or thirty years ago which have no bearing on her life now but she still goes over and over as if it was yesterday. Imagine that. She is wary of talking to the media since being burnt by an article which claimed that she was just obsessed with her past and it was some form of OCD. She keeps journals – she had literally hundreds of them – not in a bid to remember but to ‘stop her going crazy.’

I remember finding a pile of my stepgrandmother’s diaries when she died and being intrigued to read them to shed any light on this woman that I could never quite fathom. But they just detailed the weather and what she’d eaten. I used to keep a Five year diary where you could see on any given page what you had been doing at precisely this time last year and the years before that but it was too depressing to see myself going round in the same thought patterns year in year out.

People say I have a good memory and I suppose I do but maybe not as good as my friend’s. My friend can remember the first time she met me. I was sat at the top of the stairs, on a landing, with my teddies in a circle. I had a toy tea set and some Quality Street and I gave her one of the large gold pennies wrapped in foil saying ‘it’s my favourite, but you can have it.’ We must have been about two.

Back in the documentary, Aurelien talked about the importance of photographs to trigger memories and how he always makes sure someone is taking a permanent record of an event. I recently got a box of 35mm slides found in my late grandmother’s possessions and excitedly took them to have them processed. When they came back I found I could remember nothing at all of the times they depicted. A total blank. Although I did vaguely remember the shiny black shoes I was wearing with a double strap but would I have remembered them without the photo? And yet reading Jane Rusbridge’s The Devil’s Music, there was a scene where children were making snowmen out of toilet rolls and cotton wool and filling them with sweets and suddenly a whole load of memories came flooding back.

Author Vanessa Gebbie in the workshop a couple of weeks ago, talked about memory being like a daisy chain. You remember one thing and then another is linked to it. I have been practising exercises in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird writing reams and reams of pages about first teachers, schooldays – but perhaps to weave them in to fiction somehow. Maybe I’ll give some of those memories to a character, dishing them out like sweets.

My father’s memory has splintered and shattered. In scans, his frontal lobes are as white and fuzzy as a snowstorm.  He had no idea at all when it was his wedding anniversary or my mother’s recent birthday or the anniversary of my sister’s death. I wonder if forgetting for him is some sort of blessing.   

The programme ended with a touching scene of Aurelien having a picnic with his boyfriend who said he could grow quite jealous of his ‘gift’  because whereas Aurelien will remember the good days that they spend together for ever, they’ll slowly fade out of his own memory. The voiceover asked if we could all somehow be trained to do this, would you want it? It’s that whole Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind dilemma. Would you erase even the most painful memories of your life if you could? Is remembering a blessing or a curse?

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. claire #

    Really touching Alison…..

    September 27, 2012
  2. Alison – What a fascinating documentary that must have been! I’ve heard of these cases and I always wonder what it would be like to always remember every single detail of one’s life. Not sure I can quite imagine it.
     
    And such an evocative, touching description of your own family members too…

    September 27, 2012
  3. Jada #

    I remember reading about the american woman and being fascinated but thinking what a curse as well. To never forget….I wouldn’t want to be unable to forget. And what does it say about your humanity, to be able to remember when everyone else has let things slip into the watery ether that most of us possess for memory? Are you more human or less? Are you a chronicle? A curse? I have enough memories I don’t want. I can’t imagine having to carry more.

    September 27, 2012
  4. Great post, Alison and such a fascinating question. I actually have a very good memory for events and stories from right back to childhood but an absolutely appalling memory for facts – you do NOT want me in your quiz team. So, I guess, if I really could choose, I would like a few more brain cells in that department if any are going spare please?
    By the way, I loved Hotel Paradise. I wish I’d carried on watching after it though, the documentary sounds right up my street.

    September 29, 2012

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