You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Books of Forgetting

Why we can't stop writing about what we can't remember

Maurice ROUGEMONT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Six years ago, Michael Kinsley—not, at the time, working for the magazine—popped by the headquarters of The New Republic, where I was then an intern. He needed a place to work for a stretch and ended up in my cramped office (that’s right, interns in an office!). He kindly offered me a cookie. He spoke on the phone about William F. Buckley, Jr., who had died that day. Three days later, his remembrances were published in The New York Times, including the time Buckley dropped his trousers and urinated in front of him in a parking garage. 

The thing is, I didn’t remember any of that, or barely anything; who remembers the time they were offered a cookie six years ago? (Perhaps I would have fared better had bodily functions been involved.) After reading a recent article by Kinsley in The New Yorker, I remembered that I had met him and turned to my trusty Gchat archive. A few searches later, and I had it: a veritable liveblog of Kinsley’s actions between 1:52 p.m. and 3:14 p.m., tapped out to my then-boyfriend, one poorly punctuated line after another. The reconstructed anecdote was much more complete than what I could have offered by relying solely on my memory, which would have been along the lines of: one time Michael Kinsley came to The New Republic’s office and I met him. Gripping stuff, that.

What qualifies as a memory in an age when technology provides unprecedented options for the recording of information? Semantic memory—the ability to recall state capitals, say, or when William F. Buckley, Jr. died—has become increasingly irrelevant, usurped by Google as the data-sifter par excellence. But narrative and autobiographical memory are something altogether different. When I read over my Gchat, I remembered the event—the look of the office, my feelings for that boyfriend—in a way that the terse words on the screen couldn’t supply. But what if I couldn’t add in those details myself, couldn’t overlay my sensory and emotional perceptions onto the factual record? Would the knowledge that the event occurred suffice for me to claim this as my memory?  

Brain on Fire 

A rash of new literature grapples with the problem of memory in an age when technology has both overcome and highlighted the limits of the human brain’s recall. By exploring the intersection between memory, memoir-writing, and science, these books concern themselves not with standard memories—those fungible grab-bags of emotional resonance and sense perception—but with the shadows surrounding those impressions, the edges that the authors can’t quite grasp. These books and essays ask how understanding the brain’s mechanics can change the experience we have inside our heads.  

Answer to the Riddle Is Me 

The paths to a fragmented memory are legion. Susannah Cahalan’s best-selling memoir Brain on Fire chronicles her month-long plunge into psychiatric distress as a rare disease wreaked havoc on her mind. (She relied on medical records and interviews with everyone from doctors to family members and other such evidence to piece her experience back together.) In another recent memoir, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia, David Maclean recounts waking up on a train platform in Hyderabad with no idea of who he was or how he got there. An allergic reaction to the anti-malarial drug Lariam left Maclean hallucinating in a foreign mental institution, without even a sense of his own appearance. (He recounted this in a segment on “This American Life.”) There are the memoirs of dementia: Gerda Saunders’s Telling Who I Am Before I Forget: My Dementia, from which this recent, much-talked about essay about being diagnosed with microvascular disease, a leading cause of dementia, was adapted. “I’ll report my descent into the post-cerebral realm for which I am headed,” she writes. 

Untamed State 

And then there are novels tackling similar subject matter, such as Roxane Gay’s latest, The Untamed State, which chronicles unreliable memory and PTSD in the aftermath of a brutal kidnapping. In Kinsley’s New Yorker article, he discusses having Parkinson’s through the lens of cognitive testing, deep brain stimulation surgery, and other glimpses into the world of neuroscience. The latest addition to the genre of the un-remembering memoir, approached through the chemistry and mechanics of the brain, is historian Clifton Crais’s History Lessons: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain. “Our preoccupation with trauma and memory helps explain the emergence of memoir as our defining literary genre,” Crais writes. Certainly he’s correct that the memoir industry is doing just fine: Ben Yagoda, author of a 2010 history of the genre, notes that sales of memoirs went up 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. “If Proust were writing today,” James Atlas declared in 1996, "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" would be a memoir.” (The mind reels.)

But he’s also pointing out the contours of a particular sub genre. If memoir is the defining genre, “Alzheimer’s and PTSD have become the metaphors of our time.” Crais, a New Orleans native, was prompted in part to pursue his memoir by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, but the impulse to probe blurry trauma is broader: Two wars have made an entire generation intimately familiar with PTSD, and now we wait and watch while an aging population faces inevitable decline. (As Kinsley notes, 18 percent of baby boomers are predicted to develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia; by 2050, scientists predict 1 in every 85 people will be affected worldwide.) These are the “twin poles in our national conversation on trauma and memory,” Crais writes. “Either we can’t forget, or we can’t remember.” 

Crais’s ruminations on society’s shared relationship to the past—inflected with his training as a historian—are interesting in their own right, but he is also focused on a more personal narrative. He peers deep into his neural substrate to make sense of his own memory crisis; a traumatic upbringing has left him with chronic childhood amnesia, “a mere neurological condition” rendering him incapable of remembering more than flashes of his younger years. Unable to write a straightforward account of anguish (misery memoirs, as the genre is known), Crais uses his professional training to delve into the records of his past, as well as pursuing neurological explanations. Why, he wonders, can he remember in stunning clarity an image of his mother lying on the bathroom floor, having just tried to kill herself, but nothing of the events surrounding it? “Neuroscience invites me to consider how this all unfolded inside my head,” he writes, “why one past feels as if I could touch it at any time, while another seems forever just below the horizon of memory.” 

Neuroscience has seen explosive growth in the last two decades, and along the way it has garnered something of a bad rap. (Look no further than Jonah Lehrer.) Overblown reports of the burgeoning science’s promise caused backlash against “brain porn” and a willingness to swallow all things “neuro” without adequate scrutiny. However, there can be no doubt that a greater understanding of neurobiology has provided scientists witha better understanding of the physical developments that underlie mental disorders. 

Writers such as Crais are bringing us one step closer to seeing the conscious mind within the living brain by mixing the familiar tools of memoir with neuroscience. In History Lessons,he re-collects, in a very literal sense, his childhood: Interviews with older siblings, and even his distant mother (now a reformed alcoholic), help to fill in gaps in his chronology, as do psychotherapy and trips to former homes and schools. But to understand not what went wrong, but why, Crais returns again and again to neurobiology, eloquently blending what he learns about his brain with its practical implications: 

The hippocampi play a central role in the creation of declarative and autobiographical memory, upon which we create the notion of our selves through the remembrances of life’s minutiae: the taste of bouillabaisse one afternoon in southern France, a lover’s smell, a child walking away to kindergarten. They account for the uncanny way a smell or a taste awakens lost time. This capacity to reflect on and organize experience in space and time—to recall the past, tell stories, make associations, create histories—is our brain’s most recently evolved memory system. Without it there would be no history, no art and literature, no civilization. 

Crais has endured some truly nightmarish events, including attempted filicide. You would be forgiven for wondering if forgetting those horrors is actually a blessing of sorts, but it is his lament over his amnesia that forms some of the book’s most moving passages. “History is memory’s impoverished replacement. I thought that if I worked hard enough memories might begin revealing themselves from the recesses of my brain like some ancient relic from the sea,” he writes, and the realization that this will not—could not—happen is a crushing blow. His mind, he learns, is not repressing memory, as an earlier age of psychoanalysis might have thought; his overwhelmed immature brain simply “shut down,” unable to record the trauma of neglect for future perusal. It is profoundly sad to realize the memories for which he longs are irretrievably gone; it is impossible not to hope that despite all odds, his past will be returned to him.

“Autobiographers flush before examining their stools,” wrote William H. Gass, and the tendency exists even this super-sensitive mode of memoir to skip the boring bits in the search for self-justification. But these memoirs serve a valiant role: they force questions of memory and illness out of abstraction and into a temporal context, demonstrating how the search for identity, the struggle for sanity, and our comprehension of our own minds will change as scientists look more deeply into the dark recesses of the brain. “We are comfortable with the idea that physical health is not just a single number but a multiplicity of factors,” Kinsley concludes in his New Yorker piece. “That’s where we need to arrive about mental problems.”

Perhaps the most engaging element of these books of memories lost and memories found is their focus on questions instead of answers (forgetting everything seems to shake one’s sense of certainty). “Our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents,” Kazuo Ishiguro wrote in his novel When We Were Orphans. “There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.” We do not yet have answers to our biggest questions about memory, but with the help of science and narrative, we are slowly discovering the path we will take toward them.