Woman Who Can't Forget Amazes Doctors
Jill Price Tells Diane Sawyer, 'I Walk Around With My Life Right Next to Me'
What would you do if you couldn't forget anything in your life? For most of us, our memories fade as we age, and only the occasional song, smell or photo will take us back to a particular time and place.
But for the woman formerly known to the world as simply "A.J.," her memory is so powerful that it dominates her life. She sat down with ABC News' Diane Sawyer recently to reveal herself publicly in the hopes that others with unusual memories like hers will come forward and be studied.
In her first television interview, 42-year-old Jill Price told Sawyer, "I am in the moment, but I also have, like this split screen in my head. I always explain it to people like I'm walking around with a video camera on my shoulder. And every day is a videotape. So if you throw a date out at me, it's as if I pulled a videotape out, put in a VCR and just watched the day. As it happened. From my point of view.
"I walk around with my life right next to me," she said.
Price, who lives in California and works as an assistant at a religious school, has been remembering her life like this almost every day since she was 14. At times, it seems as though her gift is like a party trick — ask her about the last episode of "Dallas," and she'll immediately tell you that it aired on May 3, 1991. The day of the Lockerbie plane crash? "December 21, 1988," she replied instantly. Ronald Reagan's death? "June 5, 2004."
Price remembers what she was doing on those days, just as she relives every moment of her life, good and bad. It's not just the look of her first crush that she remembers, it's the painful sting of rejection. Price acknowledges that it can be paralyzing.
Eight years ago, she reached out to memory specialists at the University of California-Irvine for help. Dr. James McGaugh led a team who studied her for six years, and says he was stunned.
"She wrote down the dates of the last 20 Easters, and she was off, I think, by two days on one of them," he said. "And she's Jewish!"
McGaugh and his team tested Price with questions from a master list in an historical almanac, asking her when Elvis died, or about episodes of her favorite TV shows. Dr. Larry Cahill works with Dr. McGaugh and questioned Price about a Christmas special on "Murphy Brown."
"The Christmas episode was my personal jaw-dropping moment," he said. "I corrected her. I said, 'Well, actually my list here says it was a Brady Bunch Christmas special.' And like that, she corrects me. 'No, that was the week before.' Just like that. And later, we found out she was right and my book was wrong."
Price sometimes elaborated, as in the instance of Elvis' death when she was 11 years old.
"When I found out he died, my mom and I were pulling into our driveway," she said. "And I had just come back from the first orthodontist visit."
At the age of 10, Price began to keep almost daily diaries, which she then saved — thousands of pages filled with her impossibly tiny handwriting. McGaugh and Cahill were able to rely on these extensive manuscripts to fact check Price's memories of a certain date.
"We turned to the diary, untied the ribbon and looked at it, and we verified that she was correct for every single event that we checked on," said McGaugh.
'It's Just Really My Life'
Brain scans have now shown that parts of Price's brain are three times the size of those in other women her age. In 2006, the UC-Irvine team published a research paper about Price, proposing a new medical condition for her called hyperthymestic syndrome, meaning that she has a superior memory.
McGaugh says that the enlarged parts of Price's brain are areas also associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
"Collecting and hoarding are cardinal signs of obsessive compulsive disorder," he said. "All of these support this memory system. And we think it's part of the same thing. But we don't think it is an accident that the tendency to collect is both for objects and for memories. We think these are related, and we think that the brain does it. And we want to figure out how."
But Price and her doctors point out that her memory only applies to her own life.
"I would get totally stressed out if I had to memorize a poem, or if I had to memorize a monologue for drama class, I would completely freak out," Price said. "Because I can't do what they do. I can't look at a phone book and memorize names. I don't do that. It's just really my life."
Cahill also refutes the suggestion that Price could simply be memorizing facts from her journal.
"Silly explanations are offered, like, she thinks about her life all the time. And therefore, memorizes her life in this amazing capacity," he said. "That's silly. There aren't enough hours in the day. Do the math. There's not enough hours in the day for her to be able to create this artificially."
Time Heals No Wounds
Many people think that Price's gift may be a dream, but she says "it's good and bad" and can sometimes feel like being a prisoner of her own past.
"She was not easy," Price's mother Roz said of her childhood. "And that's because everything that was going through her head she couldn't explain."
"There were things I would think to myself, 'Why doesn't she just get over that?' said her brother Mike. "And I realize now that … a year passing for something, for me, you know, I've forgotten it already. But, obviously she doesn't."
Price's experience serves as a reminder that our lives and happiness may be shaped not only by what we remember, but by what we choose to forget.
"I still feel bad about stuff that happened 30 years ago," Price said. "And I really live it and feel it."
"It makes me crazy. Somehow I've survived this. I don't know how I've done it, but somehow I figured out a way to live this and survive it."
Part of what helped her survive, she says, was her relationship with her husband Jim Price, whom she met in 2002.
"He just got me, right from the very beginning," she said. "And we laughed all the time and he just, he was my best friend."
But just two years after they got married, Jim Price, a diabetic, died of a stroke at the age of 42 — another day to relive in full pain over and over again.
"We can say time heals all wounds," said Price's mother. "Doesn't for her."
Looking to the Future
In her book, "The Woman Who Never Forgets," Price says that she's trying to learn to look forward, and laugh at her difficult gift, inspired by her husband.
"I feel like he is here," she said. "I feel like he is my angel. I feel like he is sprinkling me with fairy dust. "
"She has not had an easy time," said her mother. "And she's come a long way. And it's difficult. And she's my hero because of it. I don't think she knows that. She will."
At the same time, the doctors are continuing their quest, hoping that Price can assist Alzheimer's patients and others by helping to answer a question as old as human consciousness — how do we retrieve memories?
"I don't want to go too crazy here, but it could … profoundly influence how we think the brain stores memories," said Cahill. "We're extremely excited. This has the chance to be very big. There has never been anything like this before."