Saturday, February 10, 2024

UNFORGETTABLE TALES OF AMNESIA (Part 4): The Appeal of Memory Loss in Our Stories (And Lives)

By Lisa Malice, Ph.D.

Everyone loves a good amnesia story. Authors love to cook them up, readers love to devour them. Don’t believe me? Plug “amnesia” into BookBub’s search engine and you’ll get a list of 3,058 books across a variety of genres that interweave memory loss as a plot point, among them dozens of bestsellers. The Movie Database ( lists 298 feature films with amnesia as a key element, starting with Across the Atlantic, a 1928 romantic suspense about two lovers separated by war and a forgotten memory. The list includes numerous books-to-film blockbusters, such as Girl on the Train, Before I Go to Sleep, and five movies in the Jason Bourne series.

Why do we, as readers and viewers, find amnesia stories so appealing? That depends on who you talk to. A mystery and thriller writer—such as myself—would draw from the examples above and press the point that we enjoy casting our lot with the memory-challenged protagonists, racing along, just as desperate as the heroes and heroines, to uncover the clues to their buried pasts before any harm can come to them. Along the way, we encounter—often delightfully so—surprises, twists, and revelations that challenge our assumptions and expectations until, the tale ends with a satisfying triumph over evil, with justice prevailing over corruption, envy, and greed.  

Psychologists (again, me) would suggest that amnesia stories allow us to explore the nature of memory and identity. How much of who we are depends on what we remember? What happens when we lose our memories or gain new ones? How would we cope with the uncertainty and confusion of not knowing ourselves or our past?

The 2001 film Regarding Henry explores these questions with Harrison Ford playing the role of as a man who miraculously survives a bullet to the brain during a convenience store robbery—though the memory of his life does not. Henry, a high-powered, philandering attorney and head of an unhappy, dysfunctional family, never recovers from his amnesia, leaving his old, flawed self behind to start life anew. The path Henry takes, the choices he makes—vastly different from those he made in his forgotten past—yield more satisfying outcomes for Henry, who becomes the loving, attentive soul his wife and child so desperately missed and needed in their lives. The psychologist in me also would point out that the happy ending Henry and his family achieve reflects a desire many of us experience once in a while when life gets us down—the desire to escape from reality, start over, and re-invent oneself. 

One film that exemplifies these three desires and pulls them together so perfectly is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Carey and Kate Winslet play a couple in such a troubled relationship that they each undergo a procedure to have their memories of each other—every recollection from the moment they met—erased from their minds (escape). But Fate plays its hand. The two lovers find each other once again (start over), only to have their newfound love threatened by the discovery of recordings revealing the distressing problems the couple grappled with in their forgotten lives. In the end, they give in to what Fate seems to have in store for them and stay together, committed to learning from their mistakes and finding happiness the second time around (re-invent).

Similarly, my debut psychological thriller, Lest She Forget, offers a tale of memory repression. As in Beloved, the story follows a young woman struggling with the aftermath of a soul-searing psychological trauma. Her psychogenic memory loss goes much deeper, however, leaving her without a name, nor a past to claim as her own. Her psychiatrist is convinced that her amnesia is connected to the horrific flashbacks and nightmares that haunt her.

As the woman digs for clues to her past, she uncovers a shady character following her every inquiry. Who is he? And what does he want from her? As her probe deepens, she realizes that everyone around her has deadly secrets to hide―even her. Emerging memories, guilty suspicions, and headline-screaming murders push her to come out of the shadows and choose: will she perpetuate a horrendous lie or risk her life to uncover the truth?  

A sociologist (not me, this time) might offer that amnesia stories are popular when they are used as a metaphor for social and cultural issues, such as the effects of trauma, oppression, or erasure on individuals and groups. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987) is a prime example. The American gothic psychological horror story was inspired by the 1856 criminal trial of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who, after being hunted down by a posse, took desperate measures to keep her children from suffering a horrific life of bondage—she killed her infant daughter, then attempted the same on her remaining brood.

Beloved is a haunting indictment of the Atlantic slave trade, dedicated to the “sixty million and more” who lived and died in bondage, and told through the eyes of freed slaves in the post-Civil War years. It fictionalizes the collective horrors inflicted on Black slaves, their struggle with the loss of identity and self-fragmentation, and the unconscious desire to dissociate from the past and its horrific memories. The tale of collective human tragedy brilliantly illuminates an oppressive chapter of US history, the sharing of which can be helpful in healing the deep wounds left behind and creating a more just and unifying society for all.

What are your favorite stories of memory loss? Why do you find them so appealing? If you could wipe your mind of one memory in your life, what would you choose and why?







  1. I love amnesia stories, especially the Bourne series. I've toyed with several amnesia story ideas over the years but haven't worked out the bugs yet. One of these days...

    1. It is a popular plot device. Every story is different!

  2. Amnesia stories can be a wonderful way to parcel out backstory in a manner the reader/viewer wants -- nay needs! In my forthcoming novel, Hijacked Legacy, I use a temporary anestesia fog to interject some humor into the story.

  3. Wonderful blog, Lisa! I kind of like my memories, I’ve learned from each of them and they are a part of my fabric.

    1. Thank you! Interesting how people remember events differently though...

  4. Amnesia in a story is the ultimate puzzles, fascinating readers.
    Grace Topping