I read Su Meck’s “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” awhile ago. It’s her own story of having her life vanish at 22 years old, after being hit in the head by the blade of their kitchen ceiling fan. Something’s been bothering me about it—but it wasn’t what I thought it was.
Su’s story is about more than just textbook memory loss of detail, where she couldn’t remember her name, her husband, her children, or her house. She couldn’t remember what those things even were. She didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. And because no one realized or accepted the extent of her injury, after a very short time in rehab, she was sent back into her normal existence and expected to perform life as an adult, except she was as uncomprehending as a newborn.
With babies, we expect and understand that they don’t know any of life’s logistics. But Su was that blank slate as an adult, completely vulnerable. She had no idea of what was happening or had happened before, and the people around her (including doctors) either denied her condition, covered it up, or even took advantage of it. But she was forced to cope, even if it was all just rote repetition of doing what people had told her to do, or imitating what people around her did. In rehab, she had been taught how to make a tuna sandwich. So after she was sent home, all she ever made was tuna sandwiches, for every meal, because that is the only thing she knew how to make. Imagine what the next twenty years of life were like for her (including the logistics of marriage and pregnancy). She couldn’t string information together, couldn’t understand patterns or people or relationships. And because no one really believed this could be true, they didn’t discuss it with her. And she didn’t ask questions. Because all the while she didn’t understand that she understood nothing.
I got really upset reading her story, which isn’t surprising, since it’s full of unfairness and frustration and pain, but there was something more about it that just kept making my brain itch. What finally dawned on me is that how Su learned things and operated as an adult isn’t really much different from how most of us do it. We all start as blank slates and develop our operating systems, the way we see the world and ourselves, largely based on what we learn from the people around us. Then we take what we’ve learned and run with it—and just keep running.
if this is true, it makes sense that the kind of people you know are (generally) the kind of person you turn into. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you really are. Su, having nothing else to go on, became who she thought she should be based on what her family told her to be, and on what she saw the people around her doing. And she continued to make tuna sandwiches for a very long time. (The extent of her trauma did eventually come into the light, but there was no magic fix, and you should really just go read the book.)
Everything goes by so fast. For so much of life, we just keep running with what we’ve learned so far and don’t often stop to look around for ourselves—it’s always a bigger world than we think it is. Always be curious. Ask lots of questions. Tuna is great. But what do you think of peanut butter?