Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the movie Memento (released in 2001) the central character, Leonard Shelby, sustains a blow to the head from an intruder who has already raped and killed Shelby’s wife. The movie tells the story of Shelby’s search to find and kill that intruder, but his search is enormously complicated by his “condition,” as he calls it. The blow to the head has left him unable to form any new memories. If he discovers a clue, he will not remember it a few minutes later. He resorts to taking Polaroid snapshots of people and writing himself notes about them on the back of the picture. He tattoos reminders on his body. He learns to bluff, pretending to recognize people who look at him as if he should know them. He is aware that others might trick him, might use him for their own purposes, might even get him to kill someone whom they wanted out of the way. And, in fact, that is precisely what happens in the movie.

The irony is that even were Leonard to succeed in avenging the death of his wife, he would not remember it. And, hence, he is locked into a never-ending search, always with a sense of desperation as he attempts to find ways to remind himself of relevant details. The movie’s tale is told in a way impossible to summarize ” beginning, so to speak, from the end and moving step by step back to the time when Leonard was first injured. The viewer is constantly puzzled, therefore, because the viewer never knows more than Leonard does. We experience just a little of what it would be like to try to make sense of our world if we lacked the capacity to form new memories and connect them with older ones. Every morning Leonard wakes up knowing that his wife is dead, but entirely unable to remember how long this has been true. And at certain moments we sense both the pathos and the desperation of a life that simply cannot organize events coherently because everything is always new. “How am I supposed to heal if I can’t feel time?” Leonard asks.

To watch Memento is to be drawn into reflection about the place of memory in our sense of self and in the construction of a meaningful life. The more we enter into Leonard’s desperation, the more apparent it becomes that memory is central to our understanding of what it means to live as a human being. There are mysteries here well worth pondering, even if we cannot get to the bottom of them.

In its October 2002 meeting, the President’s Council on Bioethics heard from two experts in memory research (James McGaugh and Daniel Schachter) about current research on the formation of memory, attempts to enhance memory, and the possibility of blocking the formation of long-term “explicit” memory of certain events. (Explicit memory may be contrasted with implicit memory, which is the retention of certain skills, such as “how” to ride a bicycle. Explicit memory is the memory of “what,” of events. Thus, Dr. McGaugh noted that it might be possible for a person suffering from Alzheimer’s to remember the mechanics of playing golf while being unable to remember how many strokes he had taken on any hole.) For now, at least, it appears that we are more able to block memory than to enhance it, and we can imagine that such erasure of memory might be very appealing in certain traumatic circumstances.

Anti-anxiety drugs or beta-blockers can be used to prevent the formation of long-term memories. This is possible because, in the formation and consolidation of those memories, our emotions play a significant role. For example, the rush of adrenaline during intense emotional experience may help to form especially powerful memories. Because that is true, we can understand why a beta-blocker, which counteracts the effects of adrenaline, might, if administered immediately after a highly emotional experience, diminish the strength of our memory of the event.

We can imagine persons in a range of circumstances who might experience severe trauma and be likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ” those who’ve witnessed a horrible accident, soldiers in battle, a woman who has been raped, rescue workers at a disaster, a child who has seen his mother killed (or, perhaps, who has simply seen his mother die). If such people were administered beta-blockers soon after the event and for several weeks thereafter, they would (as Dr. McGaugh put it in conversation with the Council) experience “a significant decrease in the expression of PTSD” months later. Why should they suffer such painful memories if the means to relieve them are at hand?

Clearly, the question is more complicated than I have thus far made it seem. We do not want to remember everything that happens in life, and we need to be able to forget a lot. To take a striking literary example, Dr. Watson was astonished to realize that the same Sherlock Holmes who had written a technical monograph distinguishing 140 different forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco (and the differences in their ash) was entirely ignorant of the Copernican Theory and the bodies of our solar system.

“You appear to be astonished,” he [Holmes] said, smiling at my [Watson’s] expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order . . . .”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

Whatever we may think of Holmes’ qualifications as a scientist of the brain or his judgment of what is likely to be useful to him in his work, he is right to see that we must forget a great deal if we are to live at all effectively and efficiently ” though, as we shall see, such a pronounced “Holmesian” sense of mastery over what one forgets and remembers may be less fitting for human beings than a more humble sense of organizing, reorganizing, and giving new meaning. But it is clear that the memory must sort and organize experience for us, not just retain an unorganized collection of events. Why not, then, as an aspect of this sorting activity, take steps that are within our power to keep our lives from being crippled or burdened by painful memories?

There could, of course, be complications that would have to be considered in any plan to block memory formation. Criminal prosecutions of those guilty of heinous deeds might depend precisely on not blocking the memory of their victims or of witnesses, on retaining as clear and precise a recollection as possible. Or, to take a very different sort of complication, suppose it were possible to keep soldiers from remembering the horrors of battle ” so that they experienced no interval of hesitation at the thought of combat. That might make them more efficient and effective killers, but would we really think it desirable?

Nevertheless, we can think of instances that might tempt us and might, at first, seem relatively free of complication. Imagine rescue workers sent in to search for those trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center after the attack of September 11, likely to carry with them forever horrible memories of the dead and the maimed. They could start on beta-blockers immediately after emerging from the rubble and perhaps be spared. Or a woman who had seen her young child murdered could likewise immediately begin medication, lest the rest of her life should be consumed by such painful memories.

Even in such cases there are complications that might still trouble us. Granting that these people could consent to take the medication, how could they know or decide in that moment whether doing so was wise? Is that the moment in which to decide whether one wants to carry such painful memories along throughout life or to erase them? Perhaps we could argue that rescue workers, knowing that they can at any time find themselves in such tragic circumstances, might give advance authorization to be so treated after the fact.

But can one actually think this through knowledgably in advance of the experience? And, more important still, if a life is essentially a narrative, we have to ask how we want to think of ourselves in relation to that narrative. Am I simply the author of my story ” picking and choosing what is to be included in the remembered, organized account? Or is my authorship a more limited one ” finding ways to make do, to fit even traumatic experiences into the overall story and thereby make sense of it? Exaggerating our own authorship ignores important characteristics of the story of a life. It ignores, for example, the fact that the first years of our life become part of our own memory largely through the shared memories of others. It ignores the fact that one’s life exists not only in the privacy of one’s own memory but also in the stories others tell about us. Perhaps, therefore, a certain modesty is in order when we think of constructing the story of our life. Even were we able to deal with painful memories by erasing them, it might still be better to struggle ” with the help of others ” to fit them into a coherent story that is the narrative of our life.

Even granting that, however, we might still wonder whether it would be wrong to block painful memories. Do we have some kind of obligation to remember? If so, to whom would such a duty be owed? I suspect we can imagine circumstances in which we might think that there is indeed an obligation not to forget. For the sake of victims treated unjustly we may need to remember the evil done them, and, in fact, this might be necessary not just for the sake of the victims themselves but for our common humanity. Not to remember the face of evil is to miss the evil of which we ourselves are capable. Not to remember evils done to others is to make it impossible for us to tell the stories of their lives fully and truthfully, which is required not for the sake of vengeance but for the sake of justice. (This is especially true when we remember that the story of one’s life is not only one’s private creation but is dependent also on the memories of others and the stories they tell.)

Quite often, to be sure, there may be no easy or foolproof way to integrate painful memories into the ongoing story of one’s life. We may need help to manage such a task. It may call for imagination, radical rethinking of who we are, the search for a new direction that can, at least to some extent, redeem the past by taking it up into a way of life that gives it new meaning. Thus, for example, in 1957, the son of Martin Bormann entered a cloistered monastery. “He had done so, as I recall,” David Novak writes,

because he could not live in the world any other way considering his name and his family heritage. This news report touched me deeply because so much of our being-in-the-world is not our own decision. We begin to discover in late adolescence the limits of our own existence and, concurrently, the moral possibilities for us within these limits. Martin Bormann’s son did not choose to be Martin Bormann’s son; he did not choose to be born a German in the 1930s. What he did choose, however, was to make his own life in a place where everyone assumes a new name, in a place not of Germany or even of this world.

There is something deeply humane about such a decision. Bormann’s son did not, of course, have the option of simply forgetting the painful truth of who he was, but, had he been able to do so, I suspect that it would have diminished rather than enhanced his person.

Human life has a narrative quality, and, in Stephen Crites’ felicitous phrase, each present moment is a “tensed” present. It stretches out in two directions ” incorporating the past and reaching out toward the future. Each moment, therefore, contains a narrative in miniature, and every life is a story whose plot may be partially hidden in the present. We cannot know the full significance of any moment in that story ” what it contributes and how it affects other moments ” unless and until we can read the story as a whole. If we cannot know the full meaning of any moment in a life apart from its place in the entire narrative of that life, our task is not so much to erase embarrassing, troubling, or painful moments, but, as best we can and with whatever help we are given, to attempt to redeem those moments by drawing them into a life whose whole transforms and transfigures them.

Perhaps, therefore, the issue is not so much whether we have an obligation to remember ” though there is something to that ” but whether the erasure of painful memories does not diminish our humanity. “Remember,” the ancient Israelites are commanded by their Lord, “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you.” Even the memory of their bondage is not to be erased, but, rather, drawn into a story that, by God’s power and grace, is transformed into one of redemption. To be sure, the Hebrew prophets sometimes describe God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sin as “not remembering.” Perhaps that is fitting for God, or perhaps the metaphor ought not be pressed. But, in any case, when the prophet Ezekiel describes the restored and reconstituted Israel ” in which, presumably, God will no longer remember Israel’s sin ” Israel’s own task is described quite differently. “Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good.” Human beings, at any rate, are not to erase the memories that give them pain but to place those memories into a new, larger, and redemptive story.

This is appropriate, at least in part, because genuinely human life has an embodied (and therefore limited) character to which we should be faithful. If we consider the facts recounted earlier about how we might prevent painful memories from forming, we are, in fact, reminded that we are bodies. The beta-blockers or anti-anxiety drugs that block formation of long-term memories are drugs that work on the body in countless ways. They do more than prevent the formation and consolidation of memory. Or, perhaps better, we should say that they do that precisely because they affect other aspects of our bodily life ” in particular, the emotions. It is not fitting, therefore, that we should construct the narrative of our life in a way that largely bypasses its embodied character.

In the famous sixth book of the Aeneid , Aeneas travels to the underworld in search of his father, Anchises. He finds him “deep in the lush green of a valley” ” in Elysium, where the souls of the blessed are. Most of these souls, however, are not destined to remain there indefinitely. Rather, most are to be reincarnated in the bodies of human beings ” a fact which, in the poem, provides Anchises the opportunity to survey for Aeneas the future generations of Romans who will be his descendants. When Aeneas inquires how this will take place, Anchises points to the river Lethe, around which many of the souls are gathered.

Souls for whom

A second body is in store: their drink

Is water of Lethe, and it frees from care

In long forgetfulness.

These souls, Anchises tells Aeneas, will drink of Lethe “That there unmemoried they may see again / The heavens and wish re-entry into bodies.” Having lost all memory of their former life, these souls will now be given entirely new identities. It is not that a previous identity will undergo transformation by being taken up into what is new and thereby reconfigured; rather, it is that these selves, since they are not essentially bodies at all, can be “unmemoried” without any sense of loss. Their memories are no part of who they truly are, because their bodies are not. Perhaps this makes good sense if we think the body accidental to the meaning and nature of a human life, but if, on the contrary, we do not merely inhabit but are our bodies, to be “unmemoried” would be to become either more or less than human. Unless we think of ourselves as gods, the more likely result is clear.

How essential memory is to our sense of what it means to have a human life may be seen if we consider a life “story” that ” almost ” is no longer a story, because, lacking memory, it lacks coherence, lacks connection, lacks a story line. In a chapter titled “The Lost Mariner,” Oliver Sacks has described the life of such a person ” Jimmie G., who suffered from severe retrograde amnesia. (Jimmie’s condition, though not caused by an injury, is not unlike that of Leonard Shelby in Memento . It is a similar story of one who is essentially “lost” in the world, though Jimmie, of course, has not embarked on any mission of vengeance.) Jimmie had served, and served competently, in the Navy until the time of his discharge in 1965. It was in 1975 that he was admitted to a home in which he came under the care of Dr. Sacks. Yet, he could remember almost nothing after the year 1945.

Jimmie had been drafted in 1943 at age seventeen and had served as a radio operator on a submarine. He could remember clearly the end of the war and could recount his plans for the future at the time the war ended, but that was as far as his memory went. Nineteen-forty-five was still his “present.” He could recall the town where he grew up and his school days; he could name the submarines on which he had served; he remained fluent in Morse Code; he was good at solving puzzles (so long as they could be done relatively quickly). But his memory stopped at 1945, and he thought of himself as nineteen years old.

This was, however, by no means the most devastating result of his illness. Far more aw(e)ful was the fact that he could form no new memories that would last more than a few seconds. David Hume famously claimed that human beings are no more than collections or bundles of sensations. In Jimmie, Sacks notes, one sees what such a “Humean” person would actually be like ” “every sentence uttered being forgotten as soon as it is said, everything forgotten within a few minutes of being seen.” Jimmie’s problem seems to have been precisely the inability to form long-term memories, to consolidate short-term memory into anything lasting. That is to say, his problem was a pronounced and extended version of what we might deliberately bring about in much more limited and defined circumstances if we were to administer beta-blockers to rescue workers emerging from the rubble. “It was not, apparently, that he failed to register in memory, but that the memory traces were fugitive in the extreme, and were apt to be effaced within a minute, often less . . . .”

We can ponder the meaning for human life of memory loss ” or erasure ” if we take note of Jimmie’s inability to make the events of his life “connect.” He has many moments of experience, of course, but each is new. Each is, in the strictest sense of the word, moment-ary. Hence ” and does this not seem to be crucial? ” one cannot discuss Jimmie’s condition with him. “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self ” himself ” he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.” We might imagine ” on a smaller and less destructive scale, to be sure ” a world in which some of us, sometimes, blocked the formation of painful memories and therefore did not fully share a past, could not fully connect, with others whose memory of those events was intact. How could we live truthfully, or confidently, in such a world?

If to have a human life is, at least in part, to have a life story in progress, then Jimmie has a life largely in the memories of others. It is by no means unimportant that they should so honor his shared humanity that they, so to speak, continually sustain and construct the narrative of his life, but his loss remains great. Each of us is constantly active in memory, constructing and reconstructing the story of his or her life. We forget some things, of course, as we must. And over time we give new and different significance to events we might once have thought fixed in their meaning; they take on a new shape as the overall shape of life changes. But to construct the narrative of one’s life not through thought and conversation, struggle and prayer, but simply by erasing some of the materials of that life is to risk losing what is essential to being human. If we cannot say who we have been, we can never know who we are. Our humanity lies not in mastery over the construction of our life story but in the virtues by which we accept the limits of the body, live truthfully in the face of the past, and seek to give new meaning to what is painful or misguided in that past.

It is true, of course, that the more painful the memory, the more difficult it may be to believe that anything in the future could transfigure it or could draw it into a life story that we could bear to acknowledge as our own ” and the more tempted, therefore, we may be to seek a technological fix. At the very end of the story of Job, in its canonical version, the Lord restores Job’s fortune ” indeed, his material and familial blessings become even greater than they were before his trials. Scholars, of course, often characterize this prose epilogue as an addendum to the poem that tells Job’s story ” an addendum that drastically alters the story’s meaning. Instead of a poem in which Job simply suffers inexplicably, we are given ” with the epilogue ” a story in which Job’s suffering is finally redeemed and given coherent meaning.

Many ” unable or unwilling to suppose that Job’s sufferings might be in any sense redeemed ” are likely to prefer the poem without the epilogue. They will prefer Archibald MacLeish’s J.B. , in which, without any claims for redemptive meaning, one simply bears what comes with human dignity.

The candles in churches are out.

The lights have gone out in the sky.

Blow on the coal of the heart

And we’ll see, by and by.

But note that neither reading ” neither a reading which encourages us to hope that what is painful in the past may be transfigured and given new, redemptive meaning; nor a reading which encourages us to bear the ills of life with human dignity, finding in them occasions for courage, endurance, and mutual support ” neither of these readings supposes that simply erasing the painful past takes seriously the narrative quality of human life.

“How great, my God, is this force of memory, how exceedingly great! It is like a vast and boundless subterranean shrine. Who has ever reached the bottom of it? Yet this is a faculty of my mind and belongs to my nature; nor can I myself grasp all that I am.” Thus, St. Augustine, in one of the most famous discussions of memory ever written. Dive as deep as we may into that “subterranean shrine,” into the depths of the memories that constitute the story of our life, and we cannot yet see the full meaning of any of life’s events. Caught as we are in the midst of the story, doing our best to follow a plot whose twists and turns we may not entirely fathom, we cannot see anything from the perspective of the end of the story ” and, therefore, cannot say fully who we are or what the events of our life may mean.

That is the gist of Augustine’s “confession”: that because only God can catch the heart and hold it still, because we cannot attain that authorial perspective on the end (and, therefore, the full meaning) of our life, God knows us better than we know ourselves. Quite a different spirit is expressed in the famous claim made by Rousseau at the outset of his Confessions :

Let the last trump sound when it will, I shall come forward with this work in my hand, to present myself before my Sovereign Judge, and proclaim aloud: “ . . . I have bared my secret soul as Thou thyself hast seen it, Eternal Being.”

One who supposed that he could attain that godlike perspective on the meaning of his life might perhaps be in a position to know what experiences were so painful that they were better obliterated from memory. If, on the contrary, we know ourselves as bodies who live in time, whose lives must have a narrative quality but who cannot know the end or full meaning of our life story, then our task is not to erase memory but to connect and integrate memories ” to live the story as best one can who does not yet know how the plot will work out. Perhaps, in so doing, some of us will believe that there is no past so painful that it cannot be transfigured and redeemed in a truthful story. Perhaps, in so doing, others among us may suspect that the best we can do is blow on the coal of the heart and see by and by (how the plot takes its course). But neither approach will find good reason to act as if we already knew the full meaning of life’s story. In either case we are led to acknowledge our limits, to honor the narrative quality of human life, to accept our need to sustain the life stories of one another, and to wonder at the mysterious depths of a “memoried” human life.

Gilbert Meilaender is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the Council.