There was a fascinating segment on 60 minutes last night about people who remember everything, literally every day of their lives. It’s called superior autobiographical memory and it’s completely shaking up what science believes about memory and the human brain.
The five people featured seemed happy enough, but this remarkable ability strikes me as more of a curse than a blessing. After all, one of the only ways to move on from the heartbreaks and disappointments of life is to wait it out until the pain of that memory fades. One of the women described the sensation of being right back in the moment when she remembered any given day of her life past the age of eleven. Just imagine that for a moment: every breakup, every bad day, every time you’d been told devastating news, all right there like it happened yesterday.
Humans with regular standard issue memories need some prompting to remember the days of their lives in detail: letters, photo albums, journals. The one time in my life I was a champion journal keeper was junior high. I recorded the ups and downs of my adolescence in intense, excruciating detail. One night this past summer my friend K and I drank an exceptionally large bottle of wine and dug out my junior high school diary. She did a dramatic reading of the melodrama there within while I listened riveted to the musings of my teenaged self with equal parts sympathy and horror. There were deep thoughts, predictions of future glory on the tennis court and incredibly detailed accounts of each and every look, comment and interaction with the rotating cast of boys I alternately loved and hated in the way that only a mercurial teenager heart can.
Those journals were an account of a time I’d largely rather forget ever happened but on the flip side of this—there are other times I wish I had taken the time to keep a journal and didn’t. A while back I found some old love letters that I’d saved from ages ago. In one of them, the beau of the moment alluded to a day we’d spent rowing out on a lake and then drinking wine under a willow tree. This sounds like a wonderful day but hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember it happening. I can’t help but wonder what other good things I might have lost along the way.
I’ve always marveled at people who write memoirs, particularly ones about difficult subject matters like addiction or their painful childhood. It takes a long time to write any book-length work and in that time you are completely absorbed in the world of the book; spending that time with your worst memories? I can’t even imagine.
Do you find writing about your own life cathartic or terrifying?