By Lisa Malice, Ph.D.
Working memory allows people to temporarily hold a limited amount of information in their heads, ready for immediate use. Critical for learning, problem-solving, and other mental processes, it allows a person to retain multiple pieces of information to use for the moment, such as reading conversing with others, or gathering information when multiple options must be considered in decision-making. With anterograde amnesia, none of these behaviors, and many more, are difficult, if not impossible.
Although anterograde amnesia in real life is no laughing matter, 50 First Dates, the 2004 movie starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore, offers a delightful story of a brain-injured woman and the man who falls in love with her. She wakes up every morning with her mind wiped clean of the events of the previous day, or any day since the car accident that claimed her memory. The title reflects the persistent efforts Sandler’s character makes to connect with the memory-challenged woman and win her heart. He does, and in the end, they find happiness and continuity of life using notes, a video journal, and the support of family and friends.
The caveat here, however, is that 50 First Dates does not convey a realistic portrayal of anterograde amnesia. People inflicted with anterograde amnesia don’t make any memories. They can meet you for the first time, then turn around and forget you exist entirely. But who cares? I don’t. The plot of 50 First Dates is unique, funny and romantic, with a perfect cast of comedic actors.
Anterograde amnesia is more accurately portrayed—and brilliantly so—in Memento. The award-winning 2000 film based on a short story features Guy Pearce as Leonard, a man on a desperate quest to remember and track down one of two thugs who raped and murdered his wife, then beat Leonard and left him for dead. Notes, Polaroid photos, and self-drawn tattoos replace Leonard’s mind as the storehouse for the clues he uncovers. What is unique about the neo-noir mystery/thriller is the non-linear structure, part of which tells the tale in reverse, prompting medical experts reviewing Memento to praise it as the most realistic and accurate film depiction of anterograde memory loss.
The difficulty in portraying anterograde amnesia carries to the written page, but among the best is Alice La Plante’s Turn of Mind (2011). The psychological thriller tells the story of Dr. Jennifer White, a retired orthopedic surgeon, who is losing her ability to form new memories due to an ever-worsening case of dementia. When her best friend—and occasional nemesis—is found dead with four of her fingers surgically removed, suspicion immediately falls on Jennifer, who can neither deny nor confess her guilt for the brutal crime. Told in Jennifer’s voice, Turn of Mind offers a startling perspective of a disintegrating mind clinging to fragments of reality through intense episodes of anger, frustration, shame, and unutterable loss. A chilling question remains—is Jennifer’s amnesia keeping her from revealing the truth or helping her hide it? It’s a question that challenges the reader to examine the deception and fragility of memory and how it defines our identities.
Christine, the heroine in S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (2011), is said be afflicted by both anterograde and retrograde amnesia. Every day she wakes up next to a stranger in an unfamiliar bed. She can’t recall her name or recognize her face in the mirror. Every morning the man explains he is her husband, Ben, that she is 47-years-old, and an accident long ago damaged her ability to remember. Christine reconstructs her past every day with the help of her husband and a whiteboard in the kitchen. She also keeps a journal, a meticulous record of daily events—sessions with her psychiatrist, snippets of information her husband shares, flashes of her former self that briefly, miraculously appear. As the pages accumulate, Christine starts to notice inconsistencies in her tale, raising disturbing questions that she can’t put out of her mind. But the more she pieces together the broken shards of her life, the closer she sees a different picture to her life—and the more terrifying and deadly it is.
That Christine seemingly suffers from both antero-and retrograde memory loss and sees flashes of her former self breaking through at key moments is atypical for amnesia caused by a head injury. It suggests an altogether different form of memory loss is at play here—psychogenic amnesia—known more formally as “dissociative fugue” because it represents a break in a person’s conscious identity. Essentially, Christine has blocked out all memories of her life both past and present because of some horrific circumstance that she is too terrified to face.
Strange but true stories, as well as fascinating fictional tales (perhaps even Lest She Forget), abound surrounding dissociative fugue, its origins, and manifestations. Join me November 20 to learn more about this form of amnesia with part 3 of Unforgettable Tales of Amnesia with a guest blog post for The Book Diva’s Reads (www.TheBookDivasReads.com). Part 4 will conclude the series, discussing the appeal of amnesia stories in the books we read, and the films and TV shows we watch.