Friday, October 12, 2007

Living in the Cracks of Memory

Last week, we were first introduced to the disturbing concept of amnesia, and the idea of losing all your memories, or at least your explicit ones; being unable to consciously frame yourself in place and time, remember what you did last week, even what you said a few seconds ago. You can't even remember outwardly what you like or dislike (for example: damn, these new cherry ices in Bates are good). You may have some implicit recollection of past events or experiences, but you cannot call them up at will; your mental filing cabinets are dinged and battered. It's possible that a purely sensory reflex could summon traces of something you did or experienced, but even if it did, you cannot contextualize it within the larger structure of your life. In short, you are cut loose of your orientation and mental mooring, becoming lost in the places you used to know the best, having to struggle to achieve even simple tasks.

Is Bunuel (quoted in LeDoux) correct when he says that your memory is everything? Would having a vague, implicit self-knowledge help, if experiences grooved too deeply into your brain to be completely destroyed somehow managed to surface? What if you are lost in time, such as the Korsakoff syndrome sufferers -- or, like Skloot's mother, you are completely in the moment, a blank slate, forgetting events as soon as they occur? Can anything cumulative begin to regroup in your brain, or you Sacks' Lost Mariner all over again, sailing a complex sea of life and events without the steadying map that your organizing brain provides? Would it be possible to learn from your mistakes, organize experiences, and form deep personal connections if you did not have a wealth of backlogged information to draw on? Compare it to a blank book (or Word document, whichever you wish). Having nothing there will give you nothing to "read." While memory is faulty in the normal course of operations, and can add paragraphs, delete letters, and mix sentences up into syntactic gibberish, amnesia aggressively culls the pertinent information into confusing snippets that you can't "read" at all.

With this disease, your mental books are left scribbled and defaced. Is it possible to edit them back into any sort of coherency? This week's readings focus on how to reassemble the shattered pieces of the mind, and make some progress in how to cope with amnesia. Skloot, for example, has provided himself something of a stabilizing groundwork by re-learning to read and write. Since he was a writer previously, this allows him to tap into an old passion and fluently and elegantly file dispatches from within a permanently fractured psyche. It seems impossible, reading In the Shadow of Memory and A World of Light, that this man can be brain-damaged; he writes with a grace and poise that those of us with our neural circuits intact can only envy. Even more astonishing is his ability to seemingly remember what he is forgetting; he chronicles his struggles to find a missing bookbag or car key, for example, all the while conveying to us that he knows what the object of his search was; but could not consciously recollect it then.

The two figures who seem to bear the most comparison in this week's reading are Lillian Rosen, Skloot's mother, and Hazel from The Missing World. Both are women caught in a position of vulnerability due to their memory shortcomings, and both have a vague sense that something is wrong with where they are. They are moving in opposite directions in regards to their conditions, however; this is clearly exemplified to a much greater degree in Lillian, who has a memory span equal to Dory's and has no way to scratch out a deeper understanding of her situation. She is unsettled when told that her son has been married for nine years and comes to see her every week, because she can no longer process the idea of time. However, within seconds she has forgotten it, and approaches the world with a ready cheer never seen when she was still mentally capable.

Skloot desperately yearns to have a proper mother-son interaction with her, something he was denied earlier in life, but although he visits her faithfully every week, he is running in place. She never remembers him or his visits, and although she is now more mellow and tractable than she has ever been, this is nothing that can be improved or built upon. She lacks the mental volumns to remember who and what he signifies to her, aside from a transient pleasure at seeing his face ("Oh, Floyd! This is the happiest day of my life!") Clearly some of her implicit memories remain; she is not yet completely groundless, as she knows that he is her son and some of the very basic facts of her life, but she has been disconnected completely from her past with little hope of retrieving it. She doesn't remember that she lived in New York for all of her life until last year, she doesn't remember who or what she was then, and exists as a continually self-renewing entity; she is like Clyde, who thinks that each moment heralds a new awakening. Conversely, it is her amnesiac son who is charged with the thankless and hopeless task of trying to keep her oriented in the present. Skloot mentions how much he dreads his time with her, since he sees so many shades of his own future in her untenable situation. Will he, already quite significantly damaged, be consigned to the looming specter of The Home in a few years, left to while out his own decline into darkness, not even recognizing the faces of those closest to him?

In contrast, Hazel is still a relatively young woman who has most of her mental functions intact with the exception of the blanket amnesia carpeting her past few years. She's aware that something is wrong with her, and she is relatively operational. She has the ability to create and store new explicit memories, and has the mental wherewithal to question her situation and to be (rightly) suspicious that a great part of it is being kept from her. It may be a problem of the fictional narrative, but a complaint was mentioned in class last week that the period of the amnesia is too clean-cut and that she should at least regain some vague memory by triggering events. However, she already does have the sense of wrongness, but is unable to translate this into specific events in the past; I for one think this is as accurate a portrayal of amnesia as a non-neurologist could write, and Livesey's intent, as with Skloot, isn't to get to the scientific nuts and bolts of the case but rather to explore the human cost of the brain machinery going awry.

Hazel lacks the ability to reconstruct her "missing world" from the inside, but Charlotte and some discovered papers remind her of what Jonathan has done to her -- destroyed her choice of career to keep her with him -- and allows her the perspective to see that he is attempting to do it again. It's very difficult to imagine that what he feels for her is love, despite his constant insistences -- he is a controlling, sociopathic man who is attempting to keep her trapped in the broken pieces of her mind when she is finally beginning to have the ability to move beyond it, and he rapes her in an absolutely chilling scene, completely convinced that what he's doing is for "love." The end of The Missing World provides a glimpse to the answer of the question if Hazel will ever reach Skloot's plateau of functionality and love -- it seems as if Freddie's (healthy) attraction to her could function as Beverly did for Skloot. She transitions from being the Lillian of the piece to the Floyd, and all we can hope for her at the close of the book is that she finds a way to patch together the cracks as he did, and live -- if not a completely functional life, then at least one that is full despite its flaws.

1 comment:

maggie said...

I defiantly see what Hillary is saying about the imposing effects of amnesia on a person. You see in the Hazel’s case that see does not have the ability to perform physical tasks or the ability to make important life decisions. She has trouble walking up the stairs, reading, and even more grave she cannot continue her carrier or know for certain whether she should commit the rest of her life to Jonathan. In the case of Skloot, he also cannot perform the level of intellectual duties his life pre-virus required him to do. It is a sad story when one knows, or has an inkling, that they are neurologically blocked from living up to their potential. Thank goodness Skoolt’s mother was in totally lost in her disorder and had no concept of who she was.

Supplementing the Skloot and Livesey with chapter 7 of LeDoux even more enforced this idea of loss in ones self, with the specific focus of cognition and working memory. However, his arguments pertain to consciousness left me a bit puzzled. Towards the end of the chapter he explains that consciousness is obtained through healthy functioning of working memory, as well as episodic and semantic memory. I gathered from LeDoux that the basic sensory inputs travel to the prefrontal cortex and with in the complexly laced networking of the prefrontal cortex the brain connects working memory with all the other forms of memory, resulting in a conscious consideration of the stimulus. Does that then mean those suffering from various forms of amnesia are not fully conscious? Hazel and Skloot describe feeling confused and in a shadow of memory but I would argue that they are still conscious of themselves. They have some idea of who they are and have gut reactions to stimuli. For instance during periods Hazel’s more acute amnesia she is implicitly conscious she does not love Jonathan, however she is not explicitly aware that her true love. I recognize her tale is fictional, yet my question I think is still relevant.