Saturday, October 6, 2007

Holding On

Human relationships are a curious thing. We find ourselves caught up in a web of interactions, sometimes with no idea of how we came to be there. Our convictions are strong, but sometimes for no logically justifiable reason. The decisions we finally make are products of an innumerable confluence of forces that we call the mind. The only thing that allows a brain within a body to become a true person is memory.
It is easy to see, then, why any damage to the fragile structure of memory is immediately recognizable to a family member or a loved one as an upheaval. When someone you love loses their memory, or a part of it, so suddenly, there is no longer any rational way to view the world. There are only coping mechanisms.
Jonathan, in The Missing World, feels that somehow the erasure of Hazel’s most recent three years will mean a fresh start. Jonathan wants to time-travel in a very literal sense, but he is only ever traveling with himself and Hazel. And, as Hazel put it before her accident, “There are things you can’t apologise for. They change who you are, and you can’t change back.”
After reading the fifth chapter of LeDoux’s synaptic self, I’m inclined to agree with her. So much of who we become is subconscious, a result of implicit functions. There are so many subtle facets to memory that change people in ways they aren’t even aware of. We are always aware of declarative memory, by its very nature. But nondeclarative memory gives us our smile, our laugh, and our mannerisms. Neither Jonathan, nor even Hazel, can become the same person they were three years ago. Life moves on and there are no fresh starts.
Still there is a pull toward clinging to the familiar. I sensed a great deal of this in Floyd Skloot’s writing. He seems relatively comfortable with the man he has become today—thinking of his math as “having an accent”—but his reflections of his first experiences immediately following his contraction of the virus are much more desperate. For instance, he wants to relearn as much as he can about history as quickly as he can. He tells us that, for him, “Gaps exist in the historical record. Surrounding myself with reference books helps to fill them, and so does reading, but I am apt to forget what I have learned that way.”
But Skloot finds in Beverly a companion with whom he can share his rebirth. She says that she loves who he is now even better than who he was before. This is a very healthy way of viewing things, much in contrast to Jonathan’s attitude. But we all try to find ways to adapt that will make sense in our shaky construct of a world, and surely this is understandable. For were we to completely let go of all that we know, we might lose ourselves just as much as Skloot or Hazel.

1 comment:

Madeline said...

"Neither Jonathan, nor even Hazel, can become the same person they were three years ago. Life moves on and there are no fresh starts."

I wonder how true this statement is on a physical level as well. In children we know that the state of the brain changes rapidly in development. I wonder how the events over the past few years have changed Hazel. It's obvious that they have changed her, even if she doesn't remember them.

For example, Hazel might have been in love with Jonathan three years ago, but she is obviously not now, even before she realizes what a horrible person he is. On some level, she does know, and her behavior towards him reveals that he is someone she doesn't trust, even though she has no logical reason not to based on what she remembers.

I thought about this when I read Skloot's book. Skloot claims that his mother doesn't remember either of her husbands. But how can he be so sure? If they were somehow able to come back from the dead, she might recognize them, or at least behave towards them in a way that reveals some connection between them. She sometimes doesn't know Skloot's name or his relation to her, but she consistently treats him like a son. I wonder how much of Skloot's understanding of his mother is limited by his reliance on what she SAYS as an indication of what she remembers. He should focus more on how she ACTS.

I believe that there is a sort of reflex reaction towards people you know, based on the effect those people have had on your brain. When you see a familiar face, you don't have to think to yourself: "This person is X. Our relation is Y. Therefore, I feel A and B towards him." Recognition is not an explicit ability. Obviously, Lillian recognizes her relations even if she can't put her finger on their names or how they're related.