If Memory Serves

by Jessie Roberts

Reviewing literature that explores “the intersection between memory, memoir-writing, and science,” Cara Parks praises contemporary attempts to investigate identity:

“Autobiographers flush before examining their stools,” wrote William H. Gass, and the tendency exists even this super-sensitive mode of memoir to skip the boring bits in the search for self-justification. But these memoirs serve a valiant role:

they force questions of memory and illness out of abstraction and into a temporal context, demonstrating how the search for identity, the struggle for sanity, and our comprehension of our own minds will change as scientists look more deeply into the dark recesses of the brain. “We are comfortable with the idea that physical health is not just a single number but a multiplicity of factors,” [Michael] Kinsley concludes in his New Yorker piece. “That’s where we need to arrive about mental problems.”

Perhaps the most engaging element of these books of memories lost and memories found is their focus on questions instead of answers (forgetting everything seems to shake one’s sense of certainty). “Our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents,” Kazuo Ishiguro wrote in his novel When We Were Orphans. “There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.” We do not yet have answers to our biggest questions about memory, but with the help of science and narrative, we are slowly discovering the path we will take toward them.