Guest Review: THE WOMAN WHO CAN’T FORGET by Jill Price

Back in May, I wrote about a book that I had come across that looked pretty interesting: The Woman Who Can't Forget, by Jill Price. I found this book at Powell's bookstore last month and bought it, though I haven't read it yet. EDIWTB reader Nancy West has read it, though, and wrote this guest review for the blog. Thanks, Nancy!

Price “Time heals all wounds.” “This too shall pass.” “Give it time.” “Someday we’ll look back on this and laugh.” Our most fundamental beliefs about emotional healing are based on the idea that memories dull as time passes. Just as shards of broken glass can cut deeply when new but, if tossed in the surf, eventually become smooth and beautifully textured, our memories, as they age, become buffered. The kernel of the story may remain, but the glass-sharp edges of emotion associated with the event dull over time.

Which is a good thing, because imagine for a moment the mental chaos if they didn’t. Well, that’s the story of Jill Price, the real-life Woman Who Can’t Forget. With a memory so unusual in its form and function that the neurologists who documented her situation made up a new name for it, hyperthemestic syndrome, Jill Price remembers everything that has happened to her since childhood with the clarity of seeing it unfold on a movie screen. Day after day. All the time.

The memory center of Jill Price’s brain is wired differently from most of us, with aberrations that actually show up on brain scans. Her memory type is specific: she isn’t like Rain Man, remembering sequences of numbers or bits of trivia. What she remembers is events from her own life, or events of public importance inasmuch as they dovetailed with her own life. You probably remember exactly what you were doing the moment you heard that two planes had hit the World Trade Center or that a government building had exploded in Oklahoma City – or, depending on your age, that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded or that President Kennedy had been shot. Similarly, you probably have crystal clear recall of the moment you found out that one of your family members had a terminal illness, or that you were pregnant with twins, or that you had gotten accepted into your first-choice college. For Jill Price, every moment event is just as memorable as three or four of the most significant moments in our lives are to the rest of us.

The book is both a scientific exploration of the phenomenon and a memoir. Price quotes from the research papers written about her and explains the scientific theories that were formed based on her case, but she also talks extensively about what it’s like to live like this. Price’s life would make a fairly interesting memoir even without the hyperthemetic syndrome. Her father was a rising executive in the entertainment industry: the family lived first in Manhattan, then in suburban New Jersey, and then in California, where visiting Dad at work meant playing on the soundstage of The Waltons. Price was born one year before I was, so her cultural references are the same as mine, and it’s fun reading about iconic 1970s moments such as the time she turned a corner at her father’s agency and ran into David Cassidy.

Price has been making the talk show rounds; not being a talk show viewer, I’ve missed her appearances, and I have some questions that seeing the interviews might have answered. Some of her oddities, in my opinion, can’t quite be explained by the memory thing. For example, although she admits to having always had intense separation issues, that doesn’t quite go far enough to explain why at the age of 36 she still lived with her parents. As a child, she always hated moving – something that traumatized her in her childhood, first when the family left New York City for New Jersey and then when they headed out to Los Angeles – but it’s still a little strange when in her 30’s she gets frantic at the thought of her parents selling their house – because it’s where she still lives. She never really addresses the subject of whether anyone thinks maybe it’s time for the nearly middle-aged woman to find her own apartment. In fact, when her parents do sell their house and downsize, she moves with them – and eventually her husband and stepchildren end up moving in with her parents as well. There is more I’d like to know about this woman than how her memory works.

This is a thought-provoking book, and during the two weeks or so I was reading it (I’m a slow reader), I found my own generally sharp memory getting even more acute. For example, while falling asleep one night, I had an image of my grandmother reaching for a particular glass in her kitchen, and suddenly woke with a jolt, realizing neither the house nor my grandmother was still present in my life. For a few seconds, I missed that earlier time terribly. As I said, I’ve always had a good memory, but not like Jill Price. And having read her memoir, I’m convinced that’s a fortunate thing.

Thank you Nancy for another excellent review!