Two-Minute Memoir: Total Recall
My own memories constantly comfort me—and haunt me, too.
By July 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
I have the first diagnosed case of hyperthymestic syndrome—the continuous, automatic, autobiographical recall of every day of my life from age 14 on. My memory started to become shockingly accurate in 1974, when I was 8. Since 1980 it has been near perfect.
Give me a date, and I will tell you what I was doing. November 14, 1981, a Saturday: My dad's 45th birthday. That night a school group I was joining, the Rasonians, was initiating new members.
July 18, 1984, a Wednesday: A quiet summer day. I picked up the book Helter Skelter and read it for the second time. February 14, 1998, a Saturday: I was working as a researcher on a television special—a job I loved because I'm a TV fanatic—and went in to work to pick clips.
My recall also works the other way: If you ask me about an event, again from 1980 onward, as long as I heard about it, I can give you the date and day of the week it happened. The end of the FBI siege on the Branch Davidian compound: Monday, April 19, 1993. The final episode of MASH: Monday, February 28, 1983. It was raining in L.A. that day. The next day when I was driving my car, the windshield wipers stopped working.
The day the Chinese army brutally suppressed protests in Tiananmen Square: Sunday, June 4, 1989. My aunt Pauline had just passed away, so we were taking my grandmother to lunch at Eddie Saul's Deli to break the news to her.
My memories are like scenes from home movies, constantly playing in my head, relentlessly flashing forward and backward through the years, taking me to any given moment, entirely of their own volition. The emotion of them isn't dialed down; they are exceptionally vivid. It's not as though I'm looking back on the events with the distance of time and adult perspective; it's as though I'm actually living through them again. The emotional stress of the rush of memories is compounded by the fact that because my memory works so differently from the norm, it is incredibly difficult to explain. My mother has always told me not to dwell on things so much.
I was born in 1965 in New York City to a close, loving, and protective Jewish family. Actually, "protective" doesn't even begin to describe it. When I was 4, I had my tonsils out at Roosevelt Hospital, and my maternal grandmother insisted we take a taxi home, even though we lived in the apartment building across the street.
I was distraught to learn when I was 8 years old that we were going to be moving to Los Angeles. My father was offered a job at Columbia Pictures, as an executive in charge of television production, a dream opportunity for him.
It was after this move to L.A. that the first big change in my memory happened, and my mind started to fill up with more memories. Scientists don't know why things changed at this time—whether it was due to some sort of physical development that was genetically programmed into my brain's growth or whether it was somehow triggered by the emotional trauma of the move.
I began to act as the historian in my family and among friends, "refereeing" disputes about when something happened. "No, it wasn't in July of 1998 that you went to Italy; that was August 1996." "Grandma didn't come to visit in January that year; she came on March 14."
Learning how to manage a life in the present with so much of the past continually replaying itself in my mind has been a challenge, often a debilitating one. In June of 2000, I finally decided to reach out to someone who I hoped could tell me what was going on in my head. I went online and did a search for "memory," and to my great good fortune, the first entry that came up was Dr. James McGaugh, a leading memory researcher affiliated with the University of California at Irvine.
Dr. McGaugh and his team put me through dozens of cognitive tests and interviews, the results of which they published in the brain-science journal Neurocase. Since my memory is for dates and cultural or news events combined with the events of my own life, Dr. McGaugh identified my disorder as distinctively autobiographical in nature. In fact, I'm horrible at memorizing facts. Many people assume that school must have been a breeze for me. But my memory was actually more of a hindrance than a help. My grades were mostly C's.
In their paper, the researchers referred to me as "AJ" to preserve my anonymity, but the person I was reading about was most certainly Jill. When I first read it, I began to cry, because they had captured so accurately all I had told them, and had verified it in such detail. I felt truly understood for the first time in my life.
The process helped me realize the powerful role that memory plays in everyone's life. Whereas other people generally create narratives of their lives by selective remembering and an enormous amount of forgetting, and then continually recraft those narratives through the course of life, I have not been able to do so. I came to realize in a flash of insight one day that whereas memory generally contributes to the construction of a sense of self, in my case, my memory is my sense of self.
Dr. McGaugh also conducted MRI brain scans on me, which were then sent to specialists. The hope was that they would find anomalies that would lead to further pinpointing of what may be the structural reasons for the way my memory works. Not only did they identify more than two dozen areas that are a good deal larger than normal, but some of them are extraordinarily large. As one researcher said, they are so large that it's "like the difference in size between Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of us." My hope now is that they will find clues in their further studies that will lead them down fruitful paths for treating or preventing memory loss.
All parents try to understand what's going on in their kids' minds, but no matter how hard an adult tries, a child lives in a world that adults left behind long ago. My memory has made me acutely conscious of that disconnect. In a wonderful irony, after having hated school myself, I am now the administrator of a school with kids from kindergarten through seventh grade.
This past fall, one of the younger girls came into my office. I could see that though she was trying to hide it, she was very upset. She told me that her mother had not arrived yet to pick her up. When her mom appeared at the door a little bit later, she ran to her and blurted out, "I thought you were dead!" I knew all too well the terror she was feeling, because I remember that time of life so well. I try every day to bring that awareness into my work.