Book Review: The Woman Who Couldn’t Forget

The audiobook reviewed here is ‘The Woman Who Couldn’t Forget’ by Jill Price with Bart Davis. The narration is clear, with an excellent conveyance of the mood of the piece that takes the listener into Price’s world. Price tells us about a condition named ‘Hyperthymestic Syndrome’ which means that according to the case report below the person ‘spends an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past’ and ‘the person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from their personal past’. Price goes on to tell us about her memory and at the beginning says

from 1984 it’s near perfect

before going on to describe how she can recall what she was doing on a particular date as if watching a stored movie with vividly recalled emotions as well. Price is well read and brings a lot of the scientific theory on memory into her work. Price has also developed a habit of keeping a very detailed diary which began shortly after meeting her first boyfriend as she realised that it may be transient and wanted some record of this. However this writing then took on a life of it’s own and she estimates having written during one period the equivalent of 50,000 pages in this journal. Her manner of writing matches that of her memory in that the material selected is both important and not so important. Thus she tells us that there is no selectivity and also in her memories there is no prioritisation. The obvious question to ask here is whether such a voluminous amount of writing might be contributing to her memory. Price argues that it does not as she does not refer to the journal entries again. Indeed further along Price reveals another intriguing point – that she considers the writing as a means to make her memories real

once I write it down I own it…in some indefinable way it makes these memories real….it has to be tangible…something I can handle…to write an event down means it really happened

In this regards, like two other people with similarly remarkable memories, Price is a ‘big collector‘. This is further remarked on when Price tells us that she has written personal aspects of her life on her wallpaper at home. On moving home, she became tearful when separated from the objects in her home for the first time during the removal process and also on removing the wallpaper from the wall which she later kept. In some senses, the external writing almost seems to have become one aspect of Price’s identity. Price also tells us that at parties for instance, she would be sitting down scribbling away in her journal. She began to realise her difference from other family members and was soon relied upon as the ‘family historian’. She made contact with James McGaugh at Irvine University in California and soon became the subject of a paper (see below) and ongoing research. Price finds herself correcting people and also preventing herself from doing so in some cases. Along the way she looks at what is known about memory so that she can work out how she is different and cites works by Sacks, Borges and Nabakov. Price  looks at the types of bias that usually occur and how these might be trade-offs, the disadvantages of rumination and evolutionary psychology perspectives. She tells us about the development of autobiographical memory during childhood and draws an intriguing connection between being able to tell a good story and developing self-defining memories. This is a very profound point particularly as she has commented on the difficulties she has with prioritising memories and which may tie in with some of the aspects of the neuropsychological profile she has mentioned elsewhere. Perhaps one implication of this might be that during development people may train their memories to work in a particular way, which suits their lifestyle and helps them to build a narrative for defining their future – a mythology. If this does not occur, then the memory may be used in other ways. Price goes onto mention that she had difficulties in understanding social nuances which may again relate to this generic ability to prioritise and structure information in a particular way. She speaks of a ‘memory bump’ with reference to theory, a spike in memory abilities that occurs at around age 10 and the relationship of forgiving and forgetting.

Price combines all of these considerations of her memory with parts of her own lifestyle, with the ups and downs of family life, her parents separation, meeting her husband and the tragic events that follow. Having such recall makes some of these episodes much more difficult and all of this is more evident in the level of detail that is able to give about many of these events. However Price also tells us of the therapeutic benefits of writing a life narrative. At this point, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with blogging. There are many people writing blogs these days. Many of these are about people’s lives and so to some extent, while 20 years ago Price’s writing would have been atypical perhaps now this is not so unusual. The main difference which might not be too important is that bloggers would tend to be typing whereas Price was writing. Included in the definition of Hyperthymnestic Syndrome is the tendency to focus on the biographical aspects of life and in this sense, this is exactly what some bloggers are doing. If we take this further, if this type of activity can improve autobiographical memory (although this is speculation) then does that mean that bloggers memories will be improving. There is a little more to the story here however. The neuropsychological profile revealed strengths and weaknesses and Price has to some extent become an expert in her own autobiographical experiences both in terms of writing and recall. She has trained herself over a prolonged period to think about what she is experiencing and how she should recall that and make that concrete and tangible. Such is the effort that she might have developed this to the exclusion of other abilities. The authors of the case report draw attention to some features of her development – using the left hand as well as the right – to suggest that any answers to questions may be complex. Could this be translated into dementia research? In some forms of work in the dementia care setting – creating an autobiography can form part of a therapeutic intervention. Could the development of the skill of observing one’s own life and writing it down slow down memory decline or prevent onset of memory difficulties? Could this take place through blogging? This can only be answered through research and it is necessary to see whether focusing on executive skills, working memory or autobiographical memory might play the most beneficial role.

I was curious to see if there had been any developments on the Hyperthymestic Syndrome. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals several more cases including Rick Baron and Brad Williams in addition to a mention of the famous case of Shereshevskii the Russian mnemonist described by Luria and discussed above. The published case report, details of which were discussed by Price, is freely available at the University website here. This contains references to other relevant cases including a case series by MacGuire.

I thought this was an excellent audiobook with good narration and a fascinating account by Price of her remarkable abilities as well as an eloquent account of her own at-times poignant autobiography.

References

Jill Price, Bart Davis. The Woman Who Can’t Forget (Unabridged). Narrator – Celeste Ciulia. Recorded Books. 2008.

Podcast

You can listen to this post on Odiogo by clicking on this link (there may be a small delay between publishing of the blog article and the availability of the podcast).

Responses

If you have any comments, you can leave them below or alternatively e-mail justinmarley17@yahoo.co.uk

Disclaimer

The comments made here represent the opinions of the author and do not represent the profession or any body/organisation. The comments made here are not meant as a source of medical advice and those seeking medical advice are advised to consult with their own doctor. The author is not responsible for the contents of any external sites that are linked to in this blog.

7 comments

  1. […] There’s an interesting report on Kevin Healy who is described as having ‘highly superior autobiographical memory’ and who states that he has remembered all the calendar dates since 1752 and that he is able to remember significant dates from his own life. He is asked questions during the interview and is able to give accurate responses. His abilities are reminiscent of those of the famous Russian mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky who was studied by Alexander Luria and also to Jill Price. […]

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