Cecilia is standing at the corner of St. George and Willcocks Streets, trying to forget.
She does this once a year, just before she climbs the steps to Sidney Smith Hall to meet the new group of third-year psychology majors to whom she will address her talk.
This is the talk that she has given, every year, for the past fifteen years, on the second-last day of lectures of the winter semester. Cecilia is the entertainment portion of the students’ academic term. She is the payoff for their long, hard months of work, the headliner of the freak show that their professors have organized for their benefit, the living, breathing, “Memory and Learning Laboratory” (PSY379) specimen that will haunt the more sensitive among them for the rest of their lives.
Cecilia is the woman who remembers everything.
In a world obsessed with the fear of forgetting, she is both their symbol of hope and their worst nightmare come to pass.
Standing on the corner of St. George and Willcocks, Cecilia unbuttons her faux sheepskin coat. The weather is mild this spring, she notes, as it was in the third, fourth, eighth, and tenth years that she gave her talk. The weather did not figure into her choice of attire this afternoon, though. She is dressed as she always has dressed for this event: in a pair of indigo denim jeans and a navy wool blazer. As she will tell the students during the talk, she wants them to know that she is the same woman who spoke to their predecessors — last year, the year before, and the years before that.
“The mind can play tricks on you,” she will say. “But all of you will remember that I was the one wearing this T-shirt, with the jeans, and the navy blazer.”
Her signature white T-shirt works as an icebreaker. It usually elicits a laugh and has even been known to inspire some deeper thought. Emblazoned on its front are the words, “To err is human; to forget, divine.”
In keeping with the lighter role that she plays in their education, Cecilia has brought a few dozen of the shirts for the students in the “Human Memory” (PSY 372), “Neurobiology of Learning and Memory” (PSY392), and “Memory and Learning Laboratory” (PSY379) classes. Before the day is done, she will offer them other goodies as well. The most popular of these, undoubtedly, will be the copies of a Warren Miller cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker on August 31, 1987 — around the same time that many of them were born. She hopes the cartoon, entitled “Mr. Total Recall,” will resonate with them long after she — and her memory — have left the building.
“If you want to understand the social implications of living with a memory like mine,” she will tell them, “it might be good to begin with this cartoon.”
The cartoon she will hand them depicts the meeting of two middle-aged men, both dressed in hats and overcoats and both carrying briefcases.
“Well, for crying out loud! Al Towbridge!” the man on the left shouts, as he offers his hand to the man on the right.
“What is it, nine years, seven months, and twelve days since I last ran into you? Ten-thirty-two a.m., a Saturday, Felcher’s hardware store. You were buying sealer for your blacktop driveway. Tell me, Al, how did that sealer work? Did it hold up?”
In the early years, the cartoon marked the end of her talk. But, lately, she has found that “making it personal” right off the bat — inviting them into her world as participants, rather than as passive listeners — engages them in a way that a standard lecture from her no longer does. In less than a generation, the dynamic has changed; their reactions are no longer patently voyeuristic. These students see themselves as sharing a world with her and they want to know what her life in that world is like and, to a certain extent, how they can make it better.
It was because of this change in dynamic that she was moved to write her book, Morality and Memory: Reflections on Honesty, Trust, and Betrayal. The book will launch in the fall, and Cecilia has dedicated it to these students “who allowed me to share the reality of my life with them and, in so doing, made it more liveable.”
Morality and memory will be the third item on today’s agenda. After they discuss the cartoon and what Cecilia likes to call “hyperthymestic social faux pas,” she will open the floor to a first round of questions. This new tack, which she has used the last three years, works well. It allows the sillier stuff to come out at the very beginning, leaving the more serious inquiries for the second round.
So, yes, she will say, she is barred from competing in game shows and, no, her memory does not stop her from losing her keys. Yes, she remembers what she ate for breakfast — today, yesterday, and most of the days of her life. That goes for lunch, dinner, and snacks, she will say, and she would be happy to share some of her favourite recipes, should anyone care to ask at the end of the talk. And, yes, she knows them off by heart.
The questions will flow freely, some more ridiculous than others, some cutting to the core of her life, others just skimming the surface.
“Is it true that you never had a notebook?” someone will ask.
“No, that is not true. Why would I want to act like a freak? I had many notebooks. I just never used them,” she will answer, emphasizing the difference, not just between “having” and “needing” but, also, between what is socially — and emotionally — acceptable and what is not. With any luck, too, they will begin to understand the necessity of having to act “normal” in order to survive.
Inevitably, some male student will ask, “So, do you remember everything every guy ever did to hurt you?”
In response to this, there will be silence, as the guilty stare at their toes and the victims hang on her words.
“Yes, of course,” she will say, quietly. And, then, she will add: “But what woman doesn’t?”
There will follow a roar of laughter from both sexes, and the sound of palpable vindication and relief.
This afternoon, as always, there will be the questions about the weather. Cecilia never understood what it was about weather that so fascinated people, but the results of her own, informal survey, confirm that questions about what the weather was on particular days are the most frequently asked. Perhaps it is because they are verifiable and, as such, they seem an easy way to trip her up. Nevertheless, for a few minutes, she will field questions about the highs and lows and precipitation levels on certain days (mostly the students’ birthdays) and, with that, she will close the first question period.
Standing at the steps in front of the building, Cecilia watches as the students rush by her on their way to class. Now and again, they allow their oversized backpacks to bump her and she loses her balance on a couple of occasions. There is no point in voicing any complaint, though; most of the owners’ ears are stuffed with earbuds or headphones. Her presence there is irrelevant to them and, soon, it will be that way to many others as well. As she faces middle age, Cecilia knows her days of telling tales about remembering are numbered. Her adjustment to the inevitable problems of memory retrieval worries her and intrigues her at the same time, and she is reminded, standing on this sidewalk, of an encounter she had on an airplane thirty-two years before. After takeoff for Los Angeles, she found herself engaged in conversation with the man in the next seat, who was en route to a family funeral. Suddenly, he found himself confessing that he, too, was a laboratory specimen.
“I’m an idiot savant,” he said with a laugh and, then, added, “A little more idiot, I think, than savant.”
In fact, he wasn’t a savant at all, but a man whose memory had become both his raison d’être and his raison de ne pas être. It was an endless source of fascination to people, he said, but it kept them at a distance, too.
“People don’t want to have their foolishness remembered,” he said flatly. “It’s like being the only sober guy at every party you go to.”
He told her that one day, finding himself unable to cope, emotionally, he prayed to God to make him normal. But, when God did so, he said, he prayed to him, again, to change him back.
Cecilia never asked whether God granted him his second wish. But, ever since that conversation, she has wondered what she will do and how she will cope when living this way — the only way she knows how to live — is not an option.
At the foot of the steps that lead up to Sid Smith, Cecilia stands, silently enumerating the topics she hopes to touch on in her talk, today. She worries that she has not added enough new material to keep it fresh and vibrant and to distinguish it from last year’s talk, even though she knows that she is the only one who will ever remember it, fully. She takes her role here seriously; she means to make her encounter with these students, if not life-changing, at least, significant. She means to help them expand their minds beyond book-learning and to make them understand the role of memory in social interaction. She wants them to be able to envision a world in which casual comments take on great significance because they are remembered, a world in which trusting others is made nearly impossible because you remember everything that people say, including each and every lie, exaggeration, half-truth, or misinterpretation.
Before the afternoon concludes, a young man, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, will raise his hand and, standing at the back of the room, ask a question that has never been asked before.
“What was the hardest thing you ever had to learn?”
Cecilia will look, wide-eyed, at the unnamed inquirer. She will try to stop her eyes from tearing and, then she will say:
“It’s not one thing. It’s a whole bunch of things, all of which are related and connected to each other. But if I had to choose one or two, I’d say it’s...to distinguish. To learn to distinguish. To learn the difference between somebody lying and somebody changing their mind about something. Not to hold people to opinions or tastes that they had, but they don’t have anymore, which they might not even remember, but you do. I guess, if you wanted to sum it all up...in one thing... it would be, to let people change. To embrace their change. And, to let yourself change...and grow. And, if you embrace change, then maybe remembering every little detail of the past isn’t all that important.”
The wind picks up and blows open Cecilia’s coat, as she stands on the sidewalk, in front of the steps. She shivers, slightly, holds it closed with her right hand, turns her body, and places her foot on the first step. Then, she stops and lifts her head to look up at the sky. A few clouds pass overhead and she takes note of them, not out of her own interest, but because, inevitably, at some point in the next few years, some students will expect her to remember what the weather was like when she delivered her 2009 lecture. Because, as Cecilia can tell you with one hundred percent certainty, some things never change.