A few weeks ago, I passed out. One moment I was standing by the door to our apartment, wishing my departing husband a good day at work. The next, my eyes had rolled back in my head and I fell face-first into the wall. My forehead struck the lower hinges of the door; I bruised my cheek and arm and knee, nothing badly. My husband, who was halfway out the door when I fell, rushed to gather me up. He held me and said, “Are you all right? Are you okay?” And that was how I awoke, as if from a long dreamless sleep, on the floor beside our front door.
I was only out a few seconds, but it felt like it could have been hours. I remembered the minutes leading up to my dramatic tumble, but they felt like long ago. A bit ethereal, and separated from the present by a gap that didn’t feel odd to me in the slightest.
I’ve always tended toward low blood pressure and often felt dizzy when standing up. After the fall, doctors checked me out and said I was fine. (My prescriptions are to drink more water and maybe eat more salt.) Still, the experience got me thinking about memory and how it’s a strange and elusive creature. How we always think we’ve caught it but we never have.
Back in my grad school days, we studied the case of H.M., the famous amnesic patient who was unable to form new memories. We learned that his journal was filled with descriptions of waking up as if for the first time and having no recollection of writing any of the prior journal entries, nor of how he came to be where he was. I wonder if the feeling was something like my contradictory experience on the floor, when I lacked memory of the preceding moments and yet felt as if nothing were missing. Time felt continuous, despite the fact that my memory was not.
The experience also reminded me of a dramatic story I read in the nonfiction book Soul Made Flesh. In 1650, a young British servant named Anne Green was seduced by her master’s grandson and gave birth to a stillborn baby. Thanks to the social mores of the time, she was tried and convicted of infanticide and sentenced to death. She proclaimed her innocence to the crowd that gathered in the courtyard of Oxford Castle to watch her hanging. After her speech, the executioner kicked the ladder out from under her and she hanged for almost half an hour before they cut her down and sent her body down the street to be dissected for science. Her designated dissectors were Drs. William Petty and Thomas Willis (of the Circle of Willis). But when they opened the coffin, they heard a rattle in her throat and managed to revive her with water, heat, and herbs.
When Anne Green came to, she began reciting the speech she’d delivered at the gallows. She didn’t remember leaving the prison, climbing the ladder, or giving the speech, much less (thankfully) hanging. A pamphlet later circulated about the event described her memory as “a clock whose weights had been taken off a while and afterward hung on again.” The incident illustrated the machine-like quality of memory. Today we describe it as flipping a switch. Anne Green’s memory had been turned off and then turned on again.
As strange as the stories of H.M. and Anne Green sound, their wild memory lapses aren’t so different from what happens to us everyday. We all experience time as continuous and ongoing, even though our memory is often shot through with holes. We spend a full third of our lives in unconscious slumber and remember little of our dreams. Even our waking lives are terribly preserved in the vault of our memory. How many of your breakfasts can you recall? How many birthday parties and drives to work? How many classroom lectures and airplane rides and showers can you individually call to mind?
Our recollections are mere fragments. They pepper the timeline of our past just enough to form a narrative – one’s life story. This story may feel solid and unbroken, but don’t kid yourself. Your memory is not. We are all amnesic, all a little untethered from the passing moments of our lives. We are continually rediscovering and resurrecting our past to move forward in the present. In one way or another, we have all roused from our coffin reciting a speech from the gallows or come to on the floor with a sore face and an astonished husband. We are all perpetually in the process of waking up for the very first time.