Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Connections and Gaps in Memory

I have an imperfect memory. I can remember very clearly many separate events in my life. I can't remember the time relations of some of these events to each other.

A good example is the death of my sister and the resignation of Richard Nixon. Both events occurred in August of 1974, probably within a few days of each other. They probably did not occur on the same day. I remember the day that Nixon resigned. I remember the day that I learned, by telephone from my other sister, that E and her husband had been found, dead, at the bottom of a 300-foot cliff near Golden, British Columbia. A policeman had noticed their car parked for several days near the cliff and had investigated and found the bodies. As clearly as I recall the details of these events, my memory does not connect them as having occurred very close together in time.

A month earlier two events occurred that I do connect. Early in July I learned that my father had died. I was waiting in the airport at Los Angeles for my flight to Michigan when I learned, by reading a headline in a newspaper, that Earl Warren had also died. My father and Earl Warren had died at about the same time, perhaps even the same day. I imagined them ascending to heaven together and having a conversation about politics on the way.

I have no good explanation for why my memory works in this way. I do not remember the time sequence of two otherwise unrelated events unless, for some reason, the two events themselves are connected in my memory. Earl Warren and my father are forever connected because of the headline I read in the newspaper at Los Angeles Airport. I remember that the death of Wiley Post and Will Rogers occurred in the summer of 1935 while I was staying at the farm of my aunt and uncle near Mesick, Michigan. Everyone was distraught at the news. I remember that much of that day. I don't remember what I had to eat that day, or anything else that I did.

I have read or heard, and perhaps I have been misinformed, that autistic people have memories in which the time connection between simultaneous or nearly simultaneous events is not retained. In a TV episode, an autistic boy remembers the odometer reading of the car, the serial number of the murder gun, and a telephone number on a cell phone. He must have noted these three numbers in memory at the time his parents were murdered in the car in which he was riding. He has no memory of how these memories are related to each other or to the death of his parents. Of course, the writers of the story may have gone beyond what is known or unknown about memories in autistic persons, but my reaction was that perhaps I and many normal or nearly normal people have a touch of autism in the way we remember things.
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