Friday, February 4, 2011

Amnesia is Delicious

In fiction, that is.

In Forget You, by Jennifer Echols, Zoey is in a car accident. She hits her head. And the next day, she can't remember much of anything about the night before. Which is unfortunate, because Doug Fox, her nemesis, is acting like a lot went down.

Post-traumatic amnesia is not uncommon in cases of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Basically, the person is unable to store new memories for a period of time after the accident. Zoey actually has a mixed anterograde/retrograde presentation. She can't remember some events leading up to the accident (retrograde amnesia) and she can't remember most of the events that occurred in the hours after the accident (anterograde amnesia). Hence the drama!

Forget You isn't the only YA book with amnesia at its center: Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin, (haven't gotten to read this one yet) is about a girl who hits her head in a fall and loses her memory of about four years of her life. And the upcoming dystopian Memento Nora, by Angie Smibert, involves Therapeutic Forgetting Clinics, where you can take pills to help you kick those traumatic memories to the curb.

Oh! And don't forget the movies! Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, 50 First Dates, Dark City (my personal favorite) ...

Why does amnesia fascinate us so? What makes it such awesome fiction fodder? I think it's because there's something compelling about a character having to find his or her way despite having lost a part of the past. There's something ominous about not being able to remember something that happened, especially when that event was particularly important. There's often a certain romance to it, right? And of course, it makes for a great mystery.

In reality, of course, amnesia isn't that romantic or compelling. It's sad and frightening and frustrating.

Bumps on the head, zaps to the skull, and other physical injuries to the brain lead to organic amnesia, and so can Alzheimer's disease, oxygen deprivation, stroke, and long-term alcohol abuse. But then there are some psychological forms of amnesia, often associated with dissociation. These are, as you might expect, more controversial, but they basically involve the mind trying to protect itself by repressing memories of traumatic events.

What amnesia usually doesn't involve (with the exception of dissociative fugue) is the loss of self-identity. People with amnesia don't usually forget who they are (and here is where reality departs so drastically from fiction).

Amnesia is well-covered in novels and movies, so if you've got an amnesia story, you might want to make sure you've got an original twist (my agent is probably laughing at me right now).

How about you? What are some of your favorite amnesia-fic-picks? Any specific to YA? Have you read Forget You or Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac? Did you wonder about the accuracy of the portrayal? Have you read or watched things where amnesia seemed like a contrivance? Have you read or watched things where it didn't matter whether it was medically accurate or not, because it was just so deliciously good?


  1. LOVED Dark City!!!!!!

    Looks like Liam Neeson is in a new "amnesia" flick--UNKNOWN...I'm forgetful, but I'm glad I'm not *that* forgetful, LOL!

    Nice post!

  2. Memory loss is probably my number one fear. Reading a story that involves amnesia, to me, is akin to reading a horror novel. While it was brilliant, I squirmed through the movie MEMENTO. It would be so easy to give me the GASLIGHT treatment and make me think I was losing my mind by insinuating I was doing stuff I couldn't remember. I think I'm on the verge of revealing way too much about myself...

  3. My favorite amnesia flick? about a book instead? You know what I'm thinkg ... RD, baby! Teehee. I think the amnesia was pretty good ... maybe? Kinda? Sorta? ;-)


  4. All I can think of is Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes standing over James Caan as Paul Sheldon saying "Have you all got amnesia? He didn't get out of the cock-a-doody car." I know, not the same thing at all, but I can't get it out of my head now. (What's the deal with that?)

  5. I think we're fascinated by it in part because we're so frightened by it.

    I love all four of the films you posted! Great stuff!

  6. Can't really think of one I liked.

    I guess it feels like a thing to write into a soapie for the lack of something better. One step back from bringing a dead character back to life. Both are really common in my country.

    On the other hand, the idea in Forget You intrigues me...


  7. I haven't read Forget You or Diaries of a Teenage Amnesiac yet, but I plan to in the future. I think the only amnesia flick I've seen is 50 First Dates...

  8. I believe there's amnesia in the Cowboys and Aliens flick coming out.

    Amnesia never gets tiring in storytelling. Great post, Sarah! And have a great weekend.

  9. You forgot Muppets Take Manhattan - Kermit gets hit by the car and has amnesia until Miss Piggy gets so mad and clocks him and sets him straight.:)

  10. my sister has seizures (organically caused by a lesion in her brain) and sometimes after a seizure she temporarily can't remember years of her life (usually going back to '98). like you said, it's not funny or charming in real life. it's scary as heck! her little voice when her friends call me on the phone so that i can explain things to her... she's just so scared. and don't get me started on how hard it is on her six-year-old daughter when mommy can't remember her. all around amnesia (i'm not sure this classifies, but it's the same effect) really, truly sucks.

  11. Laura--Dark City. Amnesia deliciousness.

    Brian and Sarah--yes, I think we are fascinated by things that are horrifiying, and there's nothing more horrifying than not being able to trust your own mind. Books and movies allow us to explore and observe those things from a (somewhat) safe distance.

    Aspiring--what a difficult situation. It's essential to have good support around you if that's happening, so it's wonderful that she has you. Still, very frightening.

    Melissa--I'll have to do a post about that sometime ...

    Horserider and Misha--Forget You was an interesting little book, and a quick read.

    Jenn, JD and Lydia--great examples. Amnesia is everywhere in fiction.

  12. Amnesia has given us so much. The Backstreet Boys (New Kids on the Block for people who’d forgotten), almost all of our better soap opera scripts…

    This “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” quote:
    Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?
    Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage.

    Fun blog entry!