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Winter 2005

On Memory

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Oliver Sacks

In 1993, approaching my sixtieth birthday, I started to experience a curious phenomenon—the spontaneous, unsolicited rising of early memories into my mind, memories which had lain dormant for upwards of fifty years. Not merely memories, but frames of mind, thoughts, atmospheres, and passions associated with them—memories, especially, of my boyhood. Moved by these, I wrote two little memoirs, one about the grand Science Museums in South Kensington, which were so much more important than school to me when I was growing up in London; the other about Humphry Davy, an early-nineteenth-century chemist who had been a hero of mine in those far-off days, and whose vividly described experiments excited me and inspired me to emulation. I think a more general autobiographical impulse was stimulated rather than sated by these brief writings, and late in 1997 I launched on a three-year project of dredging, reclaiming memories, reconstructing, refining, seeking for unity and meaning, which finally became my book Uncle Tungsten.

I expected deficiencies of memory—partly because the events I was writing of had occurred fifty or more years earlier, and most of those who might have shared their memories, or checked my facts, were now dead; partly because, in writing about the first fifteen years of my life, I could not call on the letters, notebooks, etc., which I started to keep assiduously from the age of eighteen or so; and, of course, because of the weakness and fallibility of memory itself. I accepted that I must have forgotten or lost a great deal. But I assumed that the memories I did have, especially those which were very vivid, concrete, and circumstantial, were essentially valid and reliable, and it was a shock to me when I found that some of them were not.

A striking example of this, the first that came to my notice, came up in relation to the two bomb incidents that I describe in Uncle Tungsten, both of which occurred in the winter of 1940-1941, when London was bombarded in the Blitz:


One night, a thousand-pound bomb fell into the garden next to ours, but fortunately it failed to explode. All of us, the entire street, it seemed, crept away that night (my family to a cousin's flat)-many of us in our pajamas-walking as softly as we could (might vibration set the thing off?). The streets were pitch dark, for the blackout was in force, and we all carried electric torches dimmed with red crepe paper. We had no idea if our houses would still be standing in the morning.

On another occasion, an incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire-indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.


A few months after the book was published, I spoke of these bombing incidents to my brother, Michael. Michael is five years my senior and had been with me at Braefield, the boarding school to which we had been evacuated at the beginning of the war (and in which I was to spend four miserable years, beset by bullying schoolmates and a sadistic headmaster). My brother immediately confirmed the first bombing incident, saying, "I remember it exactly as you described it." But regarding the second bombing, he said, "You never saw it. You weren't there."

I was staggered at Michael's words. How could he dispute a memory I would not hesitate to swear on in a court of law and had never doubted as real?

"What do you mean?" I objected. "I can see the bomb in my mind's eye now, Pop with his pump, and Marcus and David with their buckets of water. How could I see it so clearly if I wasn't there?"

"You never saw it," Michael repeated. "We were both away at Braefield at the time. But David [our older brother] wrote us a letter about it. A very vivid, dramatic letter. You were enthralled by it." Clearly, I had not only been enthralled, but must have constructed the scene in my mind, from David's words, and then taken it over, appropriated it, and taken it for a memory of my own.

After Michael said this, I tried to compare the two memories—the primary one, whose direct experiential stamp was not in doubt, with the constructed or secondary one. With the first incident, I could feel myself into the body of the little boy, shivering in his thin pajamas—it was December, and I was terrified—and because of my shortness compared to the big adults all around me, I had to crane my head upwards to see their faces.

The second image, of the thermite bomb, was equally clear, it seemed to me—very vivid, detailed, and concrete. I tried to persuade myself that it had a different quality from the first, that it bore evidences of its appropriation from someone else's experience and its translation from verbal description into image. But although I now know, intellectually, that this memory was "false," secondary, appropriated, translated, it still seems to me as real, as intensely my own, as before. Had it, I wondered, become as real, as personal, as strongly embedded in my psyche (and, presumably, my nervous system) as if it had been a genuine primary memory? Would psychoanalysis, or, for that matter, brain imaging, be able to tell the difference?


Oliver Sacks is a practicing neurologist and the author of many books, including Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and Uncle Tungsten.
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