Not exactly about books, but interesting. Maybe a writing prompt or something an evil wizard could do to others.
Like many American couples of modest but comfortable means, Susie McKinnon and her husband, Eric Green, discovered the joys of cruise vacations in middle age. Their home in a quiet suburb of Olympia, Washington, is filled with souvenirs and trinkets from their travels. There’s a plastic lizard in the master bathroom with the words “Cayman Islands” painted on it. From Curaçao there’s a framed patchwork collage made of oilcloth hanging in the entrance hall. On the gray summer day when I visit them, we all sit comfortably in their living room, Green decked out in a bright shirt with “Bermuda Islands” emblazoned on it, from a cruise in 2013. As they regale me with talk of their younger selves and their trips to Jamaica, Aruba, Cozumel, and Mazatlán, they present the very picture of well-adjusted adulthood on the verge of retirement.
Except for one fairly major thing.
As we chat, McKinnon makes clear that she has no memories of all those cruises. No memories of buying the lizard or finding that oilcloth collage. She doesn’t remember any vacation she’s ever taken. In fact, she cannot recall a single moment in her marriage to Green or before it.
. . . .
She’s never been able to remember those experiences.
For decades, scientists suspected that someone like Susie McKinnon might exist. They figured she was probably out there, living an ordinary life—hard to tell apart from the next person in line at the grocery store, yet fundamentally different from the rest of us. And sure enough, they found her (or rather, she found them) in 2006.
McKinnon is the first person ever identified with a condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory. She knows plenty of facts about her life, but she lacks the ability to mentally relive any of it, the way you or I might meander back in our minds and evoke a particular afternoon. She has no episodic memories—none of those impressionistic recollections that feel a bit like scenes from a movie, always filmed from your perspective. To switch metaphors: Think of memory as a favorite book with pages that you return to again and again. Now imagine having access only to the index. Or the Wikipedia entry.
. . . .
As it happens, McKinnon shares Green’s love of music. She even performs with a choral ensemble. Lyrics, melodies, and harmonies stick with her, thanks to her intact semantic memory. Similarly, she can tell you for a fact that three months ago, she sang a rendition of an old English folk song onstage—a solo. But only Green can supply the scene: how she strolled onto the stage alone and took her place in front of a piano. Green says her performance brought him close to tears. McKinnon thinks she must have felt a mixture of confidence and fear, but really she hasn’t the faintest idea.
. . . .
McKinnon first began to realize that her memory was not the same as everyone else’s back in 1977, when a friend from high school, who was studying to be a physician’s assistant, asked if she would participate in a memory test as part of a school assignment. When her friend asked basic questions about her childhood as part of the test, McKinnon would reply, “Why are you asking stuff like this? No one remembers that!” She knew that other people claimed to have detailed memories, but she always thought they embellished and made stuff up—just like she did.
. . . .
One of Tulving’s arguments struck a particular chord. A profile of the psychologist reported his belief “that some perfectly intelligent and healthy people also lack the ability to remember personal experiences. These people have no episodic memory; they know but do not remember. Such people have not yet been identified, but Tulving predicts they soon will be.”
. . . .
Spend enough time with McKinnon and it’s hard to escape the creeping sense that she’s not just different—she’s lucky. Memories that would be searing to anyone else leave little impression on her. Like the time in 1986 when the couple was living in Arizona and Green was jumped by a group of white men while out fishing. When he came home, his head was covered with welts. “She went to get ice and she started crying,” Green says. He began to cry too. They felt terrorized.
Once again, McKinnon knows the salient facts of the story, but the details and the painful associations all reside with Green. ForMcKinnon, the memory doesn’t trigger the trauma and fear associated with it. “I can imagine being upset and scared, but I don’t remember that at all,” she says. “I can’t put myself back there. I can only imagine what it would have been like.”
McKinnon also quickly forgets arguments, which might be the reason she and Green have stayed together so long, she jokes. She cannot hold a grudge. She is unfamiliar with the feeling of regret and oblivious to the diminishments of aging. A 1972 yearbook photo shows that she was once a petite brunette with a delicate face framed by a pixie cut. (“Dorky little innocent thing,” she says, looking at the picture.) On an intellectual level, McKinnon knows that this is her; but put the picture away and, in her mind, she has always been the 60-year-old woman she is now, broad-shouldered and fair, her face pinkish and time-lined, her closely cropped hair white and gray. She doesn’t know what it’s like to linger in a memory, to long for the past, to dwell in it.
. . . .
I’m surprised to find out that, even though she doesn’t experience her own life as a narrative, McKinnon loves stories. Especially fantasy and sci-fi: Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games. She’s read all the books, seen all the movies and episodes. She can’t remember what they were about, but that just makes it better. Each time she rereads or rewatches something, it’s like experiencing it for the first time. (Here’s another thing to envy about her: She is impervious to spoilers.)
But she cannot for the life of her make up a story. She does not daydream. Her mind does not wander.