8 Great Amnesia Books

Why are amnesia stories so popular? What can they teach us about memory?

Posted Feb 19, 2019

In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia, novelist Jonathan Lethem observes that, “Real, diagnosable amnesia—people getting knocked on the head and forgetting their names—is mostly just a rumor in the world. It’s a rare condition, and usually a brief one. In books and movies, though, versions of amnesia lurk everywhere.” Think Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), Memento (2000), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), 50 First Dates (2004); think just about every daytime soap opera ever produced, or any number of cartoons for children. The amnesia plot is often criticized as a cheap plot device, a lazy way to transform a character or create false mystery. But not all amnesia stories are created equal. In the right hands, an amnesia story can become a sophisticated reflection on memory. Each of the eight amnesia narratives I'll discuss here achieve just that, each in its own way.

1. Jonathan Lethem, ed. The Vintage Book of Amnesia (2000)

Lethem's anthology collects amnesia stories that do more than use it as a plot device. As he tells it, he looked for “fiction that, more than just presenting a character who’d suffered memory loss, entered into an amnesiac state at some level of the narrative itself—and invited the reader to do the same.” In other words, these are stories that explore amnesia to experiment with storytelling, including fiction and nonfiction by Shirley Jackson, Oliver Sacks, and Jorge Luis Borges. These stories represent the range of literary experiments with memory. Jackson's story reads like an episode of The Twilight Zone, an eery philosophical commentary on amnesia as a tool for exposing the mutability of identity--and culture's attempts to insist we pretend to be and feel static--a common theme of soap operas, comic books, and superhero movies. Sacks explores questions about elements of identity preserved and destroyed with memory loss. Borges documents the torment of remembering too much--and, conversely, reminds readers that forgetting is an essential component of memory.

2. Susanna Corkin, Permanent Present Tense (2013)

Suzanne Corkin’s Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesiac Patient, H. M. (2013)—the much-studied amnesiac known as H.M. in the scientific literature—ends with a remarkable scene. Corkin, along with neuroscience luminaries V.S. Ramachandran and Larry Squire and philosophers Patricia and Paul Churchland, watch as Molaison’s brain is dissected into 2,401 very thin slices, photographed with meticulous care and preserved for future research. For half a century, Molaison was a neurological celebrity: “Henry was famous, but did not know it. His striking condition had made him the subject of scientific research and public fascination. For decades I received requests from the media to interview and videotape him. Each time I told him how special he was, he could momentarily grasp, but not retain, what I had said.” While Molaison did not retain explicit memory, Corkin maintains that “he gradually built up a sense of familiarity for me.” In other words, some kind of implicit memory shaped their relationship--and Molaison's identity. Memory, she reminds us, is composed of many brain functions. It's not a single system. Even with memory loss as severe as Molaison's, intimacy and connection are possible, traces of continuity and recognition detectable. 

3. Oliver Sacks, "The Lost Mariner" (1984)

In “The Lost Mariner,” Sacks establishes a narrative pattern that reflects cultural assumptions about the equation of identity and memory. Jimmy, his subject, suffers from retrograde amnesia, a result of Korsakov’s syndrome. Sacks opens his essay with an epigraph from My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel (1983): “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” The epigraph is a narrative foil. The fragility of memory is terrifying to Buñuel. Nonetheless, in his memoir the surrealist is careful to acknowledge that memory blends with imagination—and that identity is a composition of “my errors and doubts as well as my certainties.” When Buñuel adds imagination to the equation, he hints at the idea that memory is not singular. Sacks's portrait of Jimmy challenges Buñuel's equation. In a poignant moment, he observes Jimmy in chapel and notes the degree to which his identity is expressed when he experiences moments outside time. 

4. Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

The ghost in Toni Morrison's beloved represents collective cultural trauma. Her characters may be tormented by her. They may wish to escape her. But they must learn to live with her. Morrison reminds us that trauma shapes both memory and history--even as they shape each other, through generations. As Morrison writes in her essay "The Site of Memory," "My job becomes how to rip that veil drawn over 'proceedings too terrible to relate.'" Morrison's novel rips the veil in a very particular way, deftly balancing the hard material facts of the racist legacy of slavery and the surreal psychological experiences that legacy manifests in the lives of her characters. 

5. Alix Kates Shulman, To Love What Is: A Marriage Transformed (2009)

Shulman writes with an urgent need to understand memory research after her husband Scott suffers memory loss due to a head injury. This history of research is where Shulman turns as she struggles to adapt to Scott’s amnesia. Shulman summarizes the consensus in memory research: “Science has firmly established that memory is unstable and unreliable, that whenever you summon up a recollection of the past you are liable to change it slightly until, with the passage of time, it may no longer represent what actually happened.” The mysteries of memory complicate her relationship with Scott—and inform her moving account of contemplating his death and doing what she can to honor his wishes. Shulman questions simple correlations between memory and independence, partly because while his memory continues to deteriorate, he expresses his identity on a daily basis. They have conversations, eat together, and renew their sexual relationship. After a lengthy meditation on the meaning of this renewal—and the history of their sex lives—Shulman asserts, “My passionate purpose is to stimulate his brain and help him heal, while for him, unable for the most part to lay down new memories, whatever we do must be for its own sake."

6. Maud Casey, The Man Who Walked Away (2014)

Casey’s Albert is based on the nineteenth-century wanderer Albert Dadas--a fugueur, to use a nineteenth-century diagnosis for people who forget their lives, enter a fugue state, and wander off. Casesy's fictionalized Albert finds himself in an asylum, under the care of The Doctor, whose “moral medicine” involves a holistic approach to healing. In sessions with The Doctor, Albert experiences flashes of memory: “‘In Saint-Étienne, I remember lying in a hospital with a cold compress on my head, given quinine sulfate to cure a toothache,’ Albert offered yesterday as it rose up into the light of his memory—the cold compress, the quinine, the toothache, and Saint-Étienne disappeared.” These memories are largely sensory, and they return him to moments when the urge to roam overcomes him, as when he walks “through a town whose name he never learned, filled with the delicate fragrance of the rosewater manufactured there, walking until the earth’s tremor rumbled through his feet and up his shins, until his bones expanded, until his blood circulated astonishment, until, finally, there it was, the urge to walk, and he was lifted into oblivion.” The Doctor comes to recognize the value Albert finds in the astonishment and oblivion that characterize his fugue states. They become his identity.

7. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant (2015)

Ishiguro’s protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, wander too—but in search of memory, even when they are ambivalent about its power. They are a long-married Briton couple who go walking in search of their adult son. Throughout, they are ambivalent about regaining memories of their relationship, their region’s history, and their son’s whereabouts. In one typical passage, Axl ruminates on this ambivalence: “Should Querig really die and the mist begins to clear. Should memories return, and among them of times I disappointed you. Or yet of dark deeds I may once have done to make you look at me and see no longer the man you do now. Promise me this at least. Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory’s returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?’” Despite these worries and questions, they join the warriors in a quest to slay the dragon, Querig, whose breath creates the amnesiac mist. Along the way, the novel weighs the pros and cons of remembering and forgetting. Ishiguro won't tell you what to think, but he will tell you what to think about.  

8. Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868)

A case of drug-induced temporary amnesia propels the plot of Collins's nineteenth-century thriller. Just about all the characters in The Moonstone are on drugs. A laudanum-induced hypnosis turns its honest protagonist Franklin Blake into an amnesiac jewel thief, after a bout of sleeplessness caused by giving up tobacco. Other characters regularly alter their minds with opium, smelling salts, and alcohol. At one point, after taking a sip of coffee, a character's "brain brightens." Like his equally famous amnesia novel The Woman in White (1860), the story unfolds via several narrators, often in the form of legal testimony or diaries. That's where questions about memory get interesting. It may be a convenient plot device to rob Blake of his memory, but it also raises questions about the accuracy of the memories that build the novel's plot. Can we trust this jumble of memories to add up to the truth? By the end, the implication is that collective memory is the key. No single character's memory can be trusted, but together, they add up to a solution that restores social order and reminds us how fragile it is.  

Ninocare / Pixabay
Source: Ninocare / Pixabay

Does all this great amnesia writing add up to anything cohesive? Can we generalize about the insights or how they function in culture? Probably not. But a few themes persist: the relation between memory and identity; the necessity of forgetting; the inevitable distortions of memory; collective memory; how memory shapes politics and social life. Sometimes writers draw directly on memory research in psychology and neuroscience; other times, they come at similar questions from other directions. If the literature and the research share anything, it's that commonsense explanations of memory may be misleading, the realities of memory counterintuitive. 

Psychologist Karen Brandt argues that “the act of forgetting is a most necessary affair.” In her essay, “Directed Forgetting,” a synthesis of memory research focused on the role of forgetting (both unintentionally and intentionally), she concludes, “Without the ability to forget, our minds would be cluttered with needless and unwanted thoughts and facts. The research on unintentional forgetting demonstrates that we forget the details about learned material rather quickly and instead retain the gist of our knowledge. However this fact does not appear to impede our everyday lives; not many of us remember the details we learned in the Highway code to pass our driving test and yet we are able to drive successfully without impediment on a daily basis. Furthermore, unintentional forgetting actually benefits us by eliminating memories that are no longer relevant to us, including those that could impede our ability to function.” There is a common sense element to Brandt’s account. If we remembered everything we experienced, we’d have a hard time getting through a day. But who’s to say what’s “no longer relevant to a given person”? In some ways, what we remember determines what’s relevant.

For the past two decades, Cristina Alberini, a neuroscientist and trained psychoanalyst, has been conducting research at that’s extending memory theory’s edges in multiple directions—in ways that complement literary experiments with memory. Alberini's research ranges from environment and phenomenology to genes and proteins. In 2019, most people with even a passing interest in memory will have a sense that it has something to do with synaptic activity. Many will have read or heard that the hippocampus is involved in memory consolidation—or the making of long-term memories. Most will know very little about how gene expression or protein synthesis shape memory. Alberini doesn’t claim to connect all these dots, but she is making them the focus of careful examination. In one article, she describes gene transcription as “a highly regulated process that involves the combined interaction of chromatin and many other proteins' sophisticated response to multiple environmental conditions,” including learning and development, a child’s bonding with its mother, or stress. Alberini's work demonstrates a couple of important themes: 1) We still have a lot to learn about memory and 2) Recent research demonstrates pretty clearly that memory is not singular, but dynamic. 

Alberini’s article on memory enhancement (co-authored with Dillon Chen) illustrates the stakes of understanding the fine-grained details of memory’ physiology. Alberini notes that a range of memory-enhancing drugs and cognitive activities have been developed in recent years, and while she endorses their therapeutic possibilities, she also warns that “Given that memory formation is such a dynamic process, gaining a more complete understanding of the anatomical and temporal dynamics of the molecular and systems changes required after learning and retrieval to consolidate memories will enable researchers to develop the most specific and efficacious memory enhancers.” Negative consequences of enhancing memory might include the indirect enhancement of painful memories or memory “dysregulation”—at least partly because, as Alberini has been known to observe, forgetting is an integral part of remembering. It's the story of Borges's "Funes" all over again. 

References

Alberini, Cristina M. “Transcription Factors in Long-Term Memory and Synaptic Plasticity.” Physiological Reviews 89, no. 1 (January 2009): 121–45.

Alberini, Cristina M., and Dillon Y. Chen. “Memory Enhancement: Consolidation, Reconsolidation and Insulin-like Growth Factor 2.” Trends in Neurosciences 35, no. 5 (May 2012): 274–83.Brandt, Karen. "Directed Forgetting." In Sebastian Groes, ed. Memory in the Twenty-First Century: New Critical Perspectives from the Arts, Humanities, and Sciences. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Finsterwald, Charles, and Cristina M. Alberini. “Stress and Glucocorticoid Receptor-Dependent Mechanisms in Long-Term Memory: From Adaptive Responses to Psychopathologies.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 112 (July 2014): 17–29.

Kandel, Eric R. In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Nalbantian, Suzanne. Memory in Literature: From Rousseau to Neuroscience. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.