The Surprising Upsides of an Atrocious Memory

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Psychology, Psychology-Self

Last New Year, we sat around until the wee hours telling stories. My boyfriend was being particularly incisive, dazzling onlookers with his deep analysis.

‘Wow,’ I said gazing at him with a decidedly pink and alcohol induced gaze. ‘How do you come up with this stuff?’

He looked taken aback.

‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘You did. You told me last week.’ And everyone at the table sniggered.

Of the many reasons why I’m a writer–that my voice was suppressed, that I have a love affair with words, that as an adoptee I imagined myself into countless fairy tales–there is one which I’ve never shared. Unless I write things down, I forget them… or more truthfully, because I forget things, I depend on what I’ve written to recall them.

My brain is not unique, or at least, there are many who have workarounds because their memories are equally poor. My memory has become something of a joke with my partners. Conversations which I supposedly had two days ago, simply pass like water out of my mind.  I could swear blind I never had them. Ironically, this makes me a very good girlfriend for one of my partners who likes to repeat stories but for another, an annoying girlfriend who can’t conduct a conversation without a huge effort to recall certain things, whilst others have never even been committed to memory in the first place. If I’m to make an educated guess, I’d say my memory is poor due to childhood trauma and the consequent chronic stress this generates.

It is well known that stress effects memory, in the encoding/formation of memories, the recording of those memories and the retrieval of them once recorded. At every point, stress hormones can interfere with the process. Some impacts are regarded as positive, others less so.

As a child my memory was rewritten time and again–first by my mother who tried to erase who I was to serve her own narcissistic needs, and then as an adult by an abusive ex (ditto). At twelve years old, I experienced a car accident which must have had more of an impact than the months I don’t recall and I drank my way through my twenties, actively trying to forget many things, which I’m pretty sure had an even larger impact.

So in my story telling, I reconstruct events in the present to explain the truth of the past. I source indisputable facts, like letters, or corroborated versions of events. And then I look at how my survival mechanisms might respond accordingly until I have a narrative which fits every point of data I have. Then I write it down (and forget it). It’s not an infallible methodology, but it’s much more reliable than depending on my memory. It is the process untainted, or at least less tainted by memory, of arriving at truths which for others may appear impossible.

The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances. – Hercule Poirot (Murder on the Orient Express)

It makes me a very good writer of memoir–the art of telling the emotional truth of memory. It has helped me rewrite my narratives from the past in a positive way, helped me reframe those same traumatic events which created the stress contributing to my patchy memory in the first place. In a very real sense, without that trauma I wouldn’t be a writer… not only because I’d have little to write about, but because I wouldn’t be able to see all those fascinatingly different angles on life. My memory doesn’t lay down an objective and potentially mundane factual account. It continually reinterprets and reinvents with fresh information.

I also have an excellent ‘working’ memory; on the fly it is able to cope with a huge amount of data. This in itself is partly due to my survival patterns. Growing up in a household where academic achievement was respected, I learned that the way to be appreciated was to be ‘an intellectual’. I became an avid researcher. But what an effort to continually absorb new information! The way I coped with it, was by regurgitating it and then forgetting most of it. So committing these things to memory is a different matter. If the way the information is delivered isn’t in a story based form,and one which strikes my emotional heartstrings, my brain chooses not to remember it. Thus I cannot absorb facts unless they are couched in narrative and I am not the only one. As our world becomes ever more stressful, so stories play an increasingly important part in our lives.

The downside is that to many I appear stupid. Memory if one of those things, along with curiosity and analysis, that goes to make up what we consider to be intelligence. It often frustrates those who assume I have a particular knowledge of a subject we’ve discussed. They assume how I act today, is the same way I might have acted in the past but it’s not true, because today I am a different person. With different interpretations.

It has even more potential to damage my relationships, which is one of the reasons I constantly remind my partners that my memory works differently to what they might logically expect. Because I have both a huge curiosity and an ability to analyse, they continue to assume that if I don’t remember, it’s not because I’m not intelligent, so it must be because I don’t care about what they’ve said, or them. In the past I’ve even recalled things differently to my boyfriends and they’ve broken up with me because, so they think, I’m dishonest. A liar. Or in the worst instance of my abusive ex, mentally deficient. I can’t really argue with that.

On the upside, I can recreate who I am because I am truly not my memories. If I don’t like the way I experienced an event in the past, I recreate the experience and become a person who benefits enormously from past pain. I can choose my memories where others can’t. It’s a shapeshifting gift. A superpower. But one which few people can properly understand or appreciate.

PS. Now that I’ve written this down, I can happily move on with my life not remembering it…