Thursday, April 24, 2014

Review | The Woman Who Can't Forget by Jill Price

Title: The Woman Who Can't Forget
Author: Jill Price
Length: 263 Pages
Released: May 2008


Jill Price has the first diagnosed case of a memory condition called "hyperthymestic syndrome" -- the continuous, automatic, autobiographical recall of every day of her life since she was fourteen. Give her any date from that year on, and she can almost instantly tell you what day of the week it was, what she did on that day, and any major world event or cultural happening that took place, as long as she heard about it that day. Her memories are like scenes from home movies, constantly playing in her head, backward and forward, through the years; not only does she make no effort to call her memories to mind, she cannot stop them.

The Woman Who Can't Forget is the beautifully written and moving story of Jill's quest to come to terms with her extraordinary memory, living with a condition that no one understood, including her, until the scientific team who studied her finally charted the extraordinary terrain of her abilities. Her fascinating journey speaks volumes about the delicate dance of remembering and forgetting in all of our lives and the many mysteries about how our memories shape us.

As we learn of Jill's struggles first to realize how unusual her memory is and then to contend, as she grows up, with the unique challenges of not being able to forget -- remembering both the good times and the bad, the joyous and the devastating, in such vivid and insistent detail -- the way her memory works is contrasted to a wealth of discoveries about the workings of normal human memory and normal human forgetting. Intriguing light is shed on the vital role of what's called "motivated forgetting"; as well as theories about childhood amnesia, the loss of memory for the first two to three years of our lives; the emotional content of memories; and the way in which autobiographical memories are normally crafted into an ever-evolving and empowering life story.

Would we want to remember so much more of our lives if we could? Which memories do our minds privilege over others? Do we truly relive the times we remember most vividly, feeling the emotions that coursed through us then? Why do we forget so much, and in what ways do the workings of memory tailor the reality of what's actually happened to us in our lives?

In The Woman Who Can't Forget, Jill Price welcomes us into her remarkable life and takes us on a mind-opening voyage into what life would be like if we didn't forget -- a voyage after which no reader will think of the magical role of memory in our lives in the same way again.

All in all, this book makes me grateful that I've got a normal memory. I can recall most things decently, but I can also emotionally detach myself from painful memories, not so with poor Jill Price. In this memoir, she lets us take a look into her life and the story behind her fascinating mind. I can't tell you how the book is b/c I didn't actually read it, but I can tell you that the audio CD is wonderful. I'm not a big fan of non-fiction, but it was nice to listen to her story being read to me.

Jill doesn't remember everything, rather she explains that she has an amazingly accurate autobiographical memory. So, give her a date from the past (during her lifetime from about 1980-ish to the present) she can tell you what day of the week it was, what she was doing, and sometimes what she was wearing. Now, we can't go back and check all her facts, but we've got no reason to doubt her. The world events she remembers and the tests run by the scientists who wrote a paper on her case are proof enough for me though.

Near the end she answers the question, if you could go back and choose to have a different sort of memory would you... she answers quite honestly that she would not, despite the incredible amounts of emotion pain her memory can cause. The vast majority of people can recall key events in their life, but not in such detail and usually devoid of the intensity of the pain or joy of that moment.

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