The tyranny of memory

Jill Price can remember everything that she saw, said or had happen to her from Feb. 5, 1985 onward:

“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory,” she says. Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”

She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

And so it can happen that Price, as she sits in this restaurant, suddenly feels like a four-year-old girl again, who was supposed to visit the makers of “Sesame Street” at a studio with her kindergarten class. Her father, an agent who represented the creator of the Muppets, had organized the outing. But when the date approached, Jill contracted tonsillitis and was unable to go along.

“In retrospect, I know, of course, that it was not a big deal,” she says, nervously twisting her necklace. “It sounds ridiculous, but when I remember it I experience that same boundless disappointment and rage that I felt back then as a young child.”

Since the ability to forget or overlook things– or simply to let the passage of time dull old wounds — is a crucial part of maturity, it’s no surprise to learn that Jill Price’s affliction sent her into oceanic depths of depression. She finally connected with the head of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine, where she and others with similar conditions are under intensive study.

Reading about Price (and it’s a fascinating article), one inevitably thinks of “Funes the Memorious,” the celebrated 1942 short story by Jorge Luis Borges. In that story, an Uruguayan boy is paralyzed in an accident and develops a godlike memory that preserves every detal of every moment, from the feel of his blanket to the shape of the clouds at a particular moment. The effect is to obliterate his personality and, paradoxically, make true understanding of the world an impossibility. Funes cannot think in abstractions or generalities: his mind is a constant churn of particulars. Even a person talking to Funes is without a fixed identity: the perception of the person changes from instant to instant. The man who literally remembers everything is also a man who literally understands nothing.

I also end up remembering Memento, the devilishly constructed 2000 film about a man who cannot form new memories and must live in an eternal present. Since that present involves grief for a murdered wife, the man’s situation is grim indeed, and it underscores the scene posted above, in which the protagonist asks how he can be expected to heal if he cannot experience the passage of time.

Sometimes I think the only way to understand the world is to read Oliver Sacks.

I don’t want to lean too hard on these literary and filmic comparisons: Jill Price’s condition is a real-life burden, not an imaginary problem for a fictional character. But memory is the cornerstone of identity, and therefore our humanity, so it’s only natural that the more ambitious artists would want to play with those concepts. What’s especially interesting about the article is the realization that while the loss of memory can annihilate one’s identity, too much memory can have nearly the same effect.

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