What Would It Be Like to Forget Everything?

Take a moment to reflect on the last ten years of your life. No, make that the last twenty. All of the people whom you met, friends made and lost, trips taken, lessons learned, all of the thousands of moments that form the make up of our characters. Now imagine, if you will, that all of a sudden those moments are gone, erased entirely from your memory.

This was how Su Meck found herself upon waking up in hospital on May 25 1988, a 22-year-old mother of two with absolutely no idea who she was. In I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia (Simon and Schuster), Meck describes the horrific after effects following a freak accident collision with her kitchen ceiling fan. Suddenly, she was faced with the overwhelming task of reconstructing two decades of a life.

Before she launches into the circumstances surrounding her memory loss, Meck begins by making plain that the contents of her memoir have been developed from the information she has gleaned from others. Still, more than two decades since her accident, she has no recollection of anything that occurred prior to it. "I don't remember any of what I'm about to tell you," she says.

The terrifying nature and sheer magnitude of that notion might send many into hiding. That Meck has faced the challenge head on and done so with the extremely public vehicle of a memoir is a testament to her courage. For someone forced to spend nearly half of her life reconfiguring the pieces of her own history, she has a very clear and distinct voice, often frustrated, at times funny, but always edged with a palpable sadness.

In losing one of her “two lives” as she puts it, Meck also lost many of her signature characteristics. Gone is the impulsive and temperamental rebel from before, replaced with a mild-mannered, pleasant, and agreeable young woman. It is remarkable to imagine how her family navigated not only their own strangeness to Su, but also her unfamiliarity to them.

There is a palpable frustration in Meck’s tone as she confronts the misguided expectations of her caregivers and even, almost particularly, her husband, Jim. In the absence of a concrete scientific explanation for the amnesia or visible physical wound, it becomes difficult to make manifest the severity of the injury. That, coupled with Su’s burgeoning talents at mimicry, makes others assume that her faculties are far more intact than they actually are. She must return to the most granular levels, including basics at the function of silverware, and re-learning how to read and write.

There are points during which Jim often appears callous and unfeeling towards Su, as she recalls the increasing frequency of the occasion on which he lashes out in frustration. She describes how social functions would make her nervous to the point of throwing up beforehand, which would then throw her husband into a rage. While this comes across cruel, Meck is quick to remind us that no one, not even she can imagine the kind of pressure he was under in being tasked to provide for and raise, not only their two children, but, in effect, his full-grown wife as well.

The book is peppered with images from Meck’s life, depicting both moments from before the incident and after. One is given the distinct impression that she is flipping through a family album, gathering the details of her life in tandem with her. Her episodic memory gone, Meck relies on what is referred to as “semantic” memories, glimpses of her childhood and college years pieced together and memorized into existence. It is not until over a decade after her accident that Su finally decides it's time to move beyond her routine of mimicry and emulation as a way of coping with life or, as she puts it “Not just act like a grown-up, but to be a grown-up.”

In this memoir, Su Meck has made the unimaginable tangible, and we are fortunate to have gotten the chance to know her as she journeys through her own introduction to herself.

Photograph © Jared Leeds