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

Amazingly, he responded within 90 minutes, saying that if I lived anywhere close to UCI, he would be interested in meeting with me. That was a watershed moment in my life. How fortunate that I lived right up the highway from him, only an hour away in Los Angeles.

Though I was nervous and even scared about reaching out to the scientific community, the clarification and validation the scientists have given me about how my memory works, and that it is so unusual, has been a source of significant comfort. I am also greatly heartened to have learned that it turns out that the ways in which my memory is so different shed a good deal of light on many important mysteries about memory—and also about forgetting. My hope now is that the study of my memory will not only hold answers to long-standing questions about how normal human memory works but may lead to significant findings about the tragic disorders of memory loss.

The work I've done with Dr. McGaugh and his team has already helped me to see not only my own life in new terms, but also the lives of others and how memory plays such a powerful role in everyone's life. I've realized with more clarity, as I've reflected on my life in the process of writing this book and been exposed to findings in a broad range of memory science, just how profoundly our memories assist in constructing our sense of who we are and of the meaning of our lives. Whereas people generally create narratives of their lives that are fashioned by a process of selective remembering and an enormous amount of forgetting, and continually recraft that narrative through the course of life, I have not been able to do so. I came to realize in a flash of insight one day that whereas memory generally contributes to the construction of our sense of self, in my case, in so many ways my memory is my sense of self. I do have a storehouse of memories that are more important to me than others and that I travel to often in my mind for comfort and as a refuge, but I have all the other days there too, impressing themselves on me all the time. It's as though I have all of my prior selves still inside me, the self I was on every day of my life, like her or not, nested as in a Russian doll—inside today's Jill are complete replicas of yesterday's Jill and the Jills for all the days stretching so far back in time. In that sense, I don't so much have a story of my self as I have a remarkably detailed memory of my self.

Paring that down to cut out the mass of daily events and focus on the ways in which my memory has operated and has shaped my life has been a strange, sometimes mind-boggling experience, but one for which I am grateful because it has given me more clarity about the forces that have shaped my life.

I have always been a private person, and the decision to venture into the open about my memory was wrenching for me. But I've decided to tell the story of my journey because my work with the scientists has helped me to understand so much better that the way my memory works can throw useful light on what memory means in everyone's lives.

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