Remember to Remember

There is such a thing as perfect memory, but the truth is that some things are better forgotten

Neri Livneh
Avi Ofer

The images have haunted me lately, especially when I find myself wracking my brain to remember, for example, the first name of the painter Pissarro (something with an "M" in it: Emil? Rami? Sammy? There's also a "C." Maybe Candide? No, not that, then ... ah, Camille, of course! ). At those times, I recall the faces of the people with perfect autobiographical memories - in other words, the ability to remember every hour of every day of their lives - who were interviewed on CBS' "60 Minutes." Envy of them overpowers me whenever I find myself trying to head off disaster by warmly greeting someone who, out of a fear that I won't identify him because of my nonexistent memory for faces, I hurriedly misidentify as someone else.

True, for many of my friends I play the role of an external hard drive, constantly coming to their rescue by reminding them of the names of people they call "that guy" or "you know, her"; indeed, I have at least two girlfriends for whom my role is to remind them of the names of objects to replace phrases like "that thing" (the new table lamp? ) or "what's it's name" (a series of lectures? ) - and they accuse me of remembering things too well.

The men in my life, too, if memory serves, weren't pleased with my ability to remember not only what they said when we were together, but also what I was wearing and how much I weighed on the day they said whatever they said, and which they absolutely never meant to say, of course. Some of them claimed that my good memory was overly selective, because I tended not to remember the good things.

According to my children, I am absolutely unable to remember faces, but on the other hand my memory of who said what, why and when, and who married whom after leaving the other one is cause for astonishment - not always positive, however. But who am I and what am I in the face of those five (or was it six? ) people who were identified by an American researcher as possessing a perfect autobiographical memory?

For example, one girl, an excellent violinist, who was asked what she remembers from February 18, 1998, began by saying it was a Wednesday. She then went on to say that the weather that day was unseasonably warm, her ballet lesson was delayed a quarter of an hour because of heavy traffic and she had vanilla pudding for supper. All the subjects of this study (and they are apparently only part of a much larger group of people ) can say what day of the week any date fell on. Their memory was verified in regard to historic and news-related events, and they did not make a single mistake.

One of these people, a former TV star, said her ability apparently stems from the way she files away and arranges her memories in her brain, making it easier for her to recall them. The researcher noted that all the subjects are afflicted with a certain level of obsessive-compulsive disorder - not only about the way they store their memories but also, for example, in the way that the TV personality arranged her cupboards by type of item and color.

Apart from that woman, none of the others were ever married and they did not have children. One reason for this, they explained, is that it's very difficult to live with someone who is always right in every argument. One of them added that when he remembers a particular event from his past, his memory evokes not only the details but also the accompanying emotions. One female subject explained that she has no love life because she is incapable of getting over breakups. It's impossible to overcome them and get on with your life when the passage of time does not bring about any welcome sense of forgetting, apparently. To forgive and forget is a lot easier than to remember and forgive.

Science is not yet able to figure out why certain people have a perfect memory. But does such a capacity really bring great happiness? There's no doubt that it can facilitate the work of librarians, lawyers, historians, spies and checkout-counter girls. Great writers are known for being able to conjure up their childhood memories (as in Haim Nahman Bialik's "Safiah" - "Aftergrowth" - for example ), but their creative works start from the place where the role of memory ends.

"I'm a poor audience for my memory," the poet Wislawa Szymborska writes. "She wants me to attend her voice nonstop, / but I fidget, fuss, / listen and don't" [translation: Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak]. In our memories we are also always younger and better looking.

For example, the genius actress Tina Fey contributed the role of Liz Lemon to the masterful series "30 Rock." The "real" Lemon is played by Fey, but the memory-image of her is portrayed by another actress: Julia Louis-Dreyfus. "Why are you always so much more beautiful in your memories?" she's asked by Donaghy, the boss.

Szymborska notes the fact that her memories as a young woman shatter her time after time when she is in front of the mirror, because "Every mirror holds different news for me."

In Borges' brilliant story "Funes the Memorious," memory does not leave the 19-year-old Funes time to experience the present. The subjects in the "60 Minutes" report claim that they are not constantly flooded by memories, that they can summon them on command and otherwise continue to store them in their wonderful brains. But memories, as the poet Yona Wallach wrote, are meant to serve us precisely at times when we do not have other things to nourish the soul, because "Man accumulates memories / like ants in the summer months / ... / and in winter ants assemble / moving with their property slowly destroying / the property and the winter" [translation: Linda Stern Zisquit]. Because dying, as my friend Yevgeny, the cardiologist, says, is something we have to do; that's what they learn in med school, at least. To kill memories, Szymborska says, we too must die, because only then will we arrive at the end of memory.