- Kristyn Stroble/HarperCollins
In the 2000 film “Memento,” the lead character Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, suffers from anterograde amnesia: He can’t form new memories, and therefore has no short-term memory.
Throughout the film, Leonard tattoos instructions and directions for himself onto his body as a way of keeping track of his life.
That sort of story sounds too strange to be real, but we do know of real cases of anterograde amnesia – cases like the story of Patient H.M., Henry Molaison. In Molaison’s case, part of his brain was removed in a lobotomy intended to treat his epilepsy.
But as Christine Hyung-Oak Lee explains in her newly published memoir, “Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life,” it doesn’t take a dramatic car crash or the surgical removal of brain tissue for an inability to form memories to occur. It can come on suddenly, without warning or an immediately apparent cause.
On New Year’s Eve of 2006, Lee suffered her fateful stroke at the age of 33. A blood clot had traveled up into her left thalamus, suffocating and killing a part of her brain. It would be several days before an MRI revealed what had happened. As a result, she lost not only her short-term memory, but also her ability to access much of the meaning in or connection between types of long-term memories.
“I could no longer retrieve memories, even ones from long ago,” Lee writes in her book. “I could not transform short-term memories into long-term memories.”
In an excerpt from the book that’s currently on Longreads, Lee describes how dramatically this affected every aspect of her life. Even cooking – making a simple dish of pasta with tomatoes – became an impossible task:
“I put the water on to boil. I heat up the oil in the sauté pan. I chop the onions and then wonder for what it was that I chopped the onions. What might it be? I wash my hands, because I might as well-my hands are covered in onion juice, and my eyes are tearing. I return to the stove, where the oil is now scorching hot. I wonder what on earth it was I was cooking, why the sauté pan was left this way. I turn off the heat under the oil. I sigh and go upstairs. I forget everything I just did like a trail of dust in wind. Two hours later, after a nap, I return to the kitchen to a pile of chopped onions on the chopping block. The pan is cool but scorched. And I again wonder why. But mostly, my eyes turn to an empty stockpot on the stove, the burner turned on high. There is nothing in the stockpot, not even water. This happened over and over again in the months following my stroke. So I stopped cooking for a year.”
Over a number of years, Lee’s brain would reform connections, restoring an ability to remember what happened from one minute to the next, giving her – a writer before it happened – the ability to again read a paragraph and remember the first sentence by the time she finished.
But in the meantime, she had to document everything that happened in a Moleskine notebook, keeping a record of the people she spoke to and of what happened as things started to come together again.
It’s a fascinating exploration of how memory works. Different types of memories are stored in different ways, and after the stroke injured her brain, only fragments or images of certain memories were available.
But for Lee, chronicling everything was also a way of understanding her transformation. It’s a document that shows how she moved on from that experience, and lessons that can be taken forward. In an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon earlier in February, Lee explained how reading from her journal to reconstruct the story for her memoir helped her get through postpartum depression and the end of her marriage.
She told him:
“I think at any other time, reading that journal would have had an incredible emotional wallop on me – to have – to be reliving it in that way. And it would have felt more immediate. But at that time, it was a way to figure out additional lessons from that experience to get me through both the memoir and my life at that time, and it was very gratifying. And it was as if my old me was speaking to the new me and telling me that things would be OK.”