Book Excerpt: 'The Woman Who Can't Forget'

As I grew up and more and more memories were stored in my brain, more and more of them flashed through my mind in this endless barrage, and I became a prisoner to my memory. The emotional stress of the rush of memories was compounded by the fact that because my memory worked so differently from the norm, it was incredibly difficult to explain to anyone else what was going on in my mind. I had a condition that had never before been diagnosed, and as much as I would try to explain how my memories assaulted me, my parents couldn't really grasp the nature of what was happening.

My mother would tell me not to dwell on things so much, and I'd try to explain that I wasn't dwelling, that the memories just flooded my mind. But that didn't make any sense to her. Nobody could understand, including me, and in time I was so frustrated by trying to describe the experience that I simply gave up and began keeping it almost entirely to myself.

Though I hate the idea of losing any of my memories, it's also true that learning how to manage a life in the present with so much of the past continually replaying itself in my mind has been quite a challenge, often a debilitating one. I have struggled through many difficult episodes of being emotionally overwhelmed by my memory through the course of my life. Then finally I decided I had to reach out and try to discover whatever I could about what was going on in my head and why. By a stroke of what now seems to me divine providence, I went online and did a search for "memory," and to my great good fortune, the first entry that came up was to Dr. James McGaugh, a leading memory researcher affiliated with the University of California at Irvine (UCI).

I had been sure that my search would send me to some Web site all about memory and that I'd read about other people like me. Little did I know just how unusual my condition is. Though nothing on the Web could explain my memory, the next best thing it could have done was to take me to Dr. McGaugh. He is one of the foremost memory experts in the world and the author of over 500 scientific papers on human memory. His list of awards and honors was impressive, and I saw that he had lectured at a host of universities and institutions around the world. I can't say that I understood much of what I read about his work—the titles of the papers alone were daunting—but as soon as I found him, I thought, "This is the man who's going to tell me what's going on."

Even so, I felt some trepidation about contacting him. Would he be interested in me? Would he have time for me? I would be contacting him out of the blue, and he was clearly a very busy man. It took me three days to compose an e-mail to him, but at last, on June 8, 2000, I sent it off:

Dear Dr. McGaugh,
As I sit here trying to figure out where to begin explaining why I am writing you and your colleague, I just hope somehow you can help me. I am thirty-four years old and since I was eleven I have had this unbelievable ability to recall my past. I can take a date, between 1974 and today, and tell you what day it falls on, what I was doing that day and if anything of great importance occurred on that day. Whenever I see a date flash on the television I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was and what I was doing. It is non-stop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting....

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