Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tablua Rasa for One

I SAW A FRIGHTENING story on the news this morning. I was watching CNN Headline News while at the gym, and they ran a piece on a man who was about to be reunited with his family after he was struck by amnesia. I can't find the story on CNN's site, but the gist was that he went out one day from his New York–area home and simply disappeared. Police turned up nothing. His anxious family eventually turned to posting his picture on America's Most Wanted. Meanwhile, the man — a Mr. Powers — had been taken in at a Midwestern church/mission and cared for by the pastor and several of the flock, who couldn't elicit any self-identifying information or memories from him. They, in turn, saw the AMW piece, recognized their wayward soul, and took steps to get him back together with his family.

Mr. Powers was clearly shaken up mentally, speaking with a pronounced stutter. Worse, he didn't recognize any of his family. One of the younger members took the bright side, saying that she and her kin would help him create new memories. But this doesn't remove the fact that he was entirely at a loss to recall his old life.

I understand that everyone had memories they would love to discard permanently, whether frivolously or therapeutically (cf. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). But to lose everything? To look in a mirror and not be able to connect that face with a past? To sit at your workplace and not be able to command the matrix of skills and relationships that once represented your professional persona? To riffle a stack of photos through your fingers and not recognize slices of your own life?

Does this not scare the shit out of anyone else here?

Ultimately, most of us will begin to forget things as we enter old age. Alzheimer's can accelerate this process very cruelly. But this was a middle-age man, who either suffered some sort of chemical imbalance, physical trauma, or little-understood psychic shock, and simply broke with his past. How delicate the concepts of consciousness and memory appear in light of such an event, and how frail the physical seat of such phenomena.

Think about walking around your dwelling and recognizing none of the books, art, or furniture as being reflections of your personality and tastes. Think about the faces of your loved ones evoking no more reaction in you than those of people you edge by while getting a seat on the bus or who exit a store while you enter in a rush. Think of reading archives from your blog and feeling no more affinity for the narrator than you would for the protagonist of any piece of fiction.

Because that's how you would perceive it: fiction.

This is not the first time I've heard a case like this, and it evoked a similar horror in me then, as now. Last time, I wondered if it would help to make some sort of memory cache, a written self-testimony to give yourself an authentic connection with the past. How large would such a document have to be? A multipage Word scroll? The front and back of a piece of paper? A 3 x 5? What would you absolutely include?

And what would you omit?

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