September 3, 2012 by Lydia Syson
A few weeks ago I lost my memory. I’m still circling round what happened, telling and retelling myself the story, and checking and double-checking with my children exactly what I did and said at the time. On holiday in France, I fell off a horse and hit my head. (I’d been overambitious: I remembered what I used to be able to do, but forgotten how out of practice I was.) When I ‘came to’ I had no idea what had happened or where I was. It could have been a scene from a film.
(This isn’t a completely random image: Finding Nemo & Momento are among the few films considered to represent amnesia with accuracy.)
I recognised my children, thank goodness, and then, bizarrely but reassuringly, I spotted my handbag on a chair on the terrace where I found myself. My handbag?! The house itself, which I’d left just an hour earlier, I might have been seeing for the first time.
From what I’ve pieced together since, my earliest memories were relatively intact. When asked where I lived, I confidently came up with the address of the house where I was born. Remembering a car accident I’d had aged 17, I apparently (repeatedly) told my family and friends not to worry as I’d had retrograde amnesia before. (I should have said anterograde, I now discover, or possibly post-traumatic amnesia.) Twice, on learning that we’d already spent a week staying in another house in France, I cried out with identical intonation: “Oh no! I’ve forgotten all my research!”
The second time I said this, the disruptions to my memory seemed to stop. It really was like waking from a dream. My impressions of life became continuous again. Just before I regained enough awareness to panic completely, the fragments of what I’d done in the previous few weeks and months started to fall back into place. Not all at once, and not at all clearly. My children described places and events and I began to recognise their descriptions as familiar. It was as if I’d read about them, or dreamed them, or perhaps they’d happened years and years ago, but I felt sure of the truth of this newly formed narrative. I’d been incredibly lucky. I knew who I was again. I felt I could live with the missing chunk, as I had done the last time it happened – I didn’t need to remember the actual accident or its immediate aftermath.
There is a point to these ramblings. Temporarily forgetting my own back-story has made me think harder about how we make sense of our own lives by constructing a series of stories from our experiences. Lots of things happen along the way which force us to reconsider those stories from time to time. The death of a parent, a serious illness, or some other kind of shock can be like a blow to the head.
War and conflict can have a similar effect on a nation’s memory. Spain temporarily chose amnesia with ‘the pact of forgetting’ – el pacto de olvido – following the death of Franco and the transition to democracy in the 1970s. At the time, it seemed to be the price of peace. (You can read more about the pact and how it has been gradually overturned here: http://oberlin.academia.edu/SebastiaanFaber/Papers/472668/The_Price_of_Peace_Historical_Memory_in_Post-Franco_Spain_a_Review-Article) In the last decade, efforts to recover historical memory in Spain have been an important focus of Spanish culture and Hispanic Studies, and this is something I plan to come back to in this blog.
Meanwhile though, I’m still feeling nervous about retrieving and shaping the two new book ideas that I was beginning to develop when my accident happened – I’m pretty sure I can remember where I was going with them. I have a feeling that this experience is going to have quite an effect on how I approach my writing in future.