Washington DCOver ten years ago my son took me to see the movie Memento, which he’d seen several times already and was sure I would enjoy. It was an intentionally disjointed story that I couldn’t follow completely, so, while it was interesting, I’m not sure I enjoyed it. One theme of the film, however, was an exploration of memory.** At the beginning of the movie, we see Leonard, the story’s protagonist, killing Teddy, whom he believes murdered his wife. Leonard, however, has anterograde amnesia, meaning that he can remember nothing except the last few minutes of his past. He’s compensated for his impairment by keeping a record of his past in notes, photos, and tattoos. The movie proceeds with the scenes leading up to the killing in reverse order, which puts us, the viewer, in the same mental place as Leonard: As we watch each scene, we, too, know nothing of the past.
I turns out that Leonard has completely misunderstood the implications of his notes, photos, and tattoos. Later in the movie, we learn that the person he eventually kills is actually innocent of the murder. At the end of the movie, we find out that Leonard’s diabetic wife was not even murdered but died of an accidental insulin overdose.
Memory is the foundation of rational action, of course. But it’s more. As we follow Leonard backward in his life, we get some sense of the utter confusion, the disorientation and, in this case, the horror of being able to remember only the most recent past.
My loss of memory is, of course, in nowhere near the same category as Leonard’s. Nevertheless, I get glimpses of what it’s like to be him. For instance:
- I don’t know this person standing in front of me is; but should I?
- Have I already told this story to my son-in-law during his two-day visit or was it someone else I told?
- As I talk, is my line of reasoning based on a fact I’m sure of or on a speculation I’ve seen on the Internet?
At our leadership team meeting after church this week, I had only the foggiest idea of what had happened in the previous meeting. The other three people had each brought a paper they’d clearly read in advance, so I must have received it, too. Had I just forgotten to read it and bring it; or did I somehow not obtain it; or had I thrown it away altogether? Although the others have mostly gotten used to my impairment, I was still embarrassed that I’m not creating more memory aids to make sure things like this don’t happen. What bothers me most is this low-level disorientation. Am I throwing things away that I should keep or just forgetting them? Why don’t I get around to creating the memory aids? How many of my questions are things I should already know? Should I even participate in the discussion?
I’m not really confused, just sometimes a little lost. I’m sure lots of other people experience some of this same disorientation. Nevertheless, my questions to myself can sometimes make me wonder just who I’ve been. It’s just unnerving enough to give me images of what it might be like when memory really slips away.