memory keeping and memory loss, part 1

Can you imagine waking up in the morning and not knowing where you are because you’ve lost your memory while you were sleeping? Can you imagine how confusing that would be?

It sounds like the plot of a movie, and it is. But it also happens in real life.

I’m currently reading Before I Go To Sleep by S.J Watson, which was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman last year. I didn’t see the movie and don’t know anyone who did (the lack of buzz suggests it wasn’t as good as Memento, the crazy backwards memory loss thriller released in 2000, a presumption that the star ratings online support). I’ve been waiting to read the book for ages and so far it’s quite good. I have no idea who is lying to whom but there are a whole lot of secrets and lies waiting to be revealed.

Every morning when Christine wakes up she experiences a panicked moment of not knowing who the man she is sleeping next to is, or where she is, or how old, or really, who she is. She has lost access to her memories, but she’s able to make new ones, unlike some people with amnesia. The only problem is that going to sleep seems to reset her mind each day and nothing that she’s learned or experienced the day before remains. Sometimes she wakes up with no memory of her adult life, other mornings there are glimmers, and each day she remembers different things, only to forget them again the next day. It’s only once she is given a journal to write in (and has someone to call her each day and remind her that she is keeping a journal and tell her where it is) that she can start to carry over enough information to start piecing together what has happened to her.

I’m a couple of days into her journal. I think it’s going to be a pretty good thriller.

But it reminded me of a true life story I heard a couple of years ago on this scrapbooking podcast. Jackie Wood spoke of her experience with amnesia, waking up 3 times in her life with big chucks of memory lost to her. It wasn’t caused by an accident or trauma, and the memories were not “gone” as such, but she had no access to them. It happens to her about every 4-5 years or so. The most recent time she woke up one morning and didn’t recognize where she was. Her husband explained what was going on and reassured her, and then gently probed to find out how much time she had lost. It turned out that the daughter she thought was 5 was actually 13 years old, and she couldn’t remember any of the previous 8 years. And so far, a few years later, those memories haven’t come back. When she had lost years before she did end up recovering access after some time (although her most recent loss has wiped out the memories of the last 2 times it happened). Since there is no physical reason for her amnesia there is hope that she may remember again, but it’s also highly likely that she will lose memories again.

In the comments someone mentioned that their mother has the same form of amnesia (transient global amnesia, or TGA) but in her case she only loses hours of time, finding herself standing in a parking lot not sure how she got there or where she had been.

Imagine if Jackie had lost the years that included her daughter’s birth. Imagine waking up and not remembering that you had a child. In the novel the character doesn’t remember her husband (probably for sinister reasons, but still). Imagine waking up next to someone and not knowing your history. Imagine having to trust someone so completely.

Memory is such a tricky thing. It isn’t linear. It is fallible. I was writing this post with a fragment of memory that told me I’d shared this podcast and story on the blog before. But no. I can’t find any sign of that. I think perhaps I shared it on Facebook. Or perhaps with a friend who has an interest in memory and memory keeping. There was only a fragment of truth in my memory.

Memory keeping is what this podcast is all about. Usually it’s about the business of writing down stories and taking photos and decorating pages, but in this case it got deeper into the philosophical. What would you want to remember if you lost your memory? What would you wish you had documented?

Jackie Woods was a scrapbooker and memory keeper from way back, so she had albums to look through to recapture some of what she lost (what her daughter looked like at 7, 9, 12 years of age, what kind of parties they had thrown, what vacations had looked like). And her husband reached out to her friends and family to share their memories and fill in the gaps. But what about the everyday? The bits that were lost where the littlest things, the mundane and ordinary and every-single-day things that we take for granted.

Of course they’re also the things we think little of. They are so everyday that we assume they’ll stay the same forever, but life moves on and we realize we don’t go there or do that any more, and in fact we can’t remember what it was really like at all because we haven’t thought of it in years. The hours each day at home with a baby – the other guest remarked that she can’t remember how she used to fill all those hours – it was a blur (of tiredness, mundane, sameness). We all lose memories every day and don’t even notice what we have lost until we try to retrieve it.

Jackie is consciously memory keeping to help herself the next time she wakes up with lost years. It won’t be the same, looking through an album. But she wants to capture more of those little things, now that she knows what it hurts most to lose memories of. (She uses the Project Life system and approach). And most importantly, she is celebrating every day, marking small occasions as well as big ones, making sure her she is there for her family today, even if she wakes up not remembering it tomorrow.

There are so many aspects to this story. I recommend the podcast. Jackie has a blog but it’s about what she does to celebrate life, not about her memory loss – after all, there’s not much to say about something you have forgotten. The other panelists have some good questions and thoughts about memory and memory keeping after they get past the stunned “wow”s of imagining losing so much memory.

And so far I also recommend the book Before I Go to Sleep. I’m getting into the meat of it now but until the shit hits the fan and we see how it all gets resolved I’ll have to withhold final judgement. Interesting premise though, and so far it reads really well.

I’ll be back in a jiffy with Part 2 of this long blog post which is about journal burning. (Ooh, controversial!) It came up during the podcast and I started writing a bit about it, but it turned out to be a bit long to leave in this post.

Until then,


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5 Responses to memory keeping and memory loss, part 1

  1. Emily says:

    I’ve seen 50 first dates with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore but I didn’t know it could really happen. The flood of images at the end, of a whole life summed up in a couple of minutes, made me bawl. I can’t even imagine.

  2. juliegagen says:

    Love this post! Also, just another reason why it’s so important to keep yourself in your documentation – photos and words. I can’t imagine the experience in real life.

  3. Amanda Rodgers says:

    I’ll have to listen to the podcast, this is very interesting.

  4. Jackie Wood says:

    Such a great post about the importance of memory keeping. I had no idea when I began scrapbooking almost 20 years ago that it would end up being such a lifeline for me in the future. Our everyday moments and routines define so much of who we are, I will forever treasure our family albums.

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