Memory, Change and the Deceptive Mind

I bought the audiobook of Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot the day I read Mel’s post about it. The minute she mentioned that there was a storyline involving infertility and loss I knew I wanted to read it. I will read ANYTHING with an infertility and loss storyline, and I will most likely enjoy it.

I also found the main premise of the book intriguing. A woman hits her head and wakes up having lost the last ten years of her life. She thinks she’s newly married, madly in love and expecting her first child when in reality she has three kids and is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. I thought that idea was fascinating and I knew I wanted to read the book.

I listened to the 13 hour narration in less than a week. I was obsessed. I created reasons to listen to it–one day I did all the dishes, even though they are Mi.Vida’s job (he had gotten behind and there were A LOT of dishes) and another day I took Monito on a two hour walk. I was chomping at the bit to get into the car or go for a walk or fold laundry, ANYTHING where I could put in my headphones and listen. (The awesome Australian narrator did nothing to quell my obsession.)

As I read the book I spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like FOR ME to wake up in ten years and not remember a huge and significant portion of my life. What would I do if one day I were suddenly on the verge of turning 44, with a 14 year old daughter and a 10.5 year old son (at least I would have known them, can you imagine NOT KNOWING your own children?!) and in the middle of messy divorce proceedings? How would I wrap my head around it? I just can’t fathom.

One of the themes of the book is how much life can change us. I don’t want to give too much away, but I feel like I can say that Alice has a hard time recognizing the person she’s become. She’s like a stranger to herself, physically, emotionally and socially. She spends much of the book trying to figure out not only who she is, but how she got to be that way.

As I read What Alice Forgot, I wondered if it were common for people to change so much in such a short period of time. I mean, I know parenthood can do a number on a person’s life and marriage, but can it change a person so much that they would be almost unrecognizable to their former self? Will the forty year old me, with a 10 year old and 7.5 year old, recognize the woman who was so grateful to be pregnant on the eve of her thirtieth birthday, and yet so scared that something might still go wrong? Will the woman who committed to having children with my partner recognize our relationship after another half decade of parenting? These first years have been so grueling, what will six more like them do to us?

On the one had, Alice’s transformation seemed extreme, but on the other hand, I accepted the narrative of each part of her personal evolution easily. Maybe we can change that much in only a decade. I doubt there is another decade during adulthood that is more life changing that the first ten years of raising children–the rigors of child rearing test our assumptions about ourselves and mold the ways we interact with those around us. Already my life, my friendships, my marriage, and my attitude toward my job, have changed so much in the last four years. Maybe they will keep changing as time marches on.

Reading the book only furthered my commitment to living intentionally. I want to spend the next six years determining what is most important and making decisions–both big and small–accordingly. I hope that by doing that, I will be pleasantly surprised by my future self, that I will be proud of the person I’ve become and not flabbergasted by my life.

As Alice uncovers the details of her “future” life, she is both delighted and horrified.  As I read the book I thought back to my 24 year old self. What aspects of my new life would delight me? What would horrify me? How would I see the man I’d fallen in love with? How would I feel about our pregnancy loss and secondary infertility if I didn’t have to experience it? If I read this blog, and experienced those tragedies only via my words, would I understand my own devastation? Would our ectopic pregnancy and our diagnoses of DOR and MFI not matter as much if I knew I ended up with two healthy children? I honestly don’t know.

Interestingly, Alice doesn’t have any personal written record of the ten years she has lost, so she has to depend on others’ accounts to fill in the blanks. Reading the book, I felt immense relief that I wouldn’t be so completely dependent on others to describe my own life for me. I would have my own words, hundreds of thousands of them, ready and waiting to educate me.

Of course, I also wondered what I would think about my own life if I only had this blog to read. Would I understand that only certain aspects of my life were discussed here? That the tedium and joy of every day life hadn’t been captured in these pages? I suppose the photographic evidence would have given me a clue as to how happy I was, but I wonder if that would be enough. Either way, I take solace in knowing that this written record exists. I already return to it to remember the last four years with a clarity that be impossible without these words. Already so much is lost, even without a head injury.

The final theme of the book was memory, and the importance of having access to both the milestones and minutiae of our lives. Right after I finished What Alice Forgot, I started a Great Courses on critical thinking called “Your Deceptive Mind.” The whole first five hours has been about human perception and memory and how flawed it is and how easily we forget, except we don’t realize we forget because our mind confabulates to fill in the missing pieces. So much of our memory is simply made up, a construct our mind creates to fit with our preconceived expectations and understandings. We think we remember things clearly, when most times our recollections are not accurate at all.

I’ve found that to be true for me, and I’d never know it without this blog. There are things I misremember, things I completely forget, and things I seem to fabricate without realizing. If I couldn’t go back and read these words, I would have no idea what the last four years were really like.

It’s actually quite terrifying, when I think about it. Without this space, without photographic and video evidence, so much of my life would just fade from my memory. We don’t want to think we can forget these important, life defining moments, but we can and we do, without even realizing.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. It started out about change and then morphed into something entirely different, about memory and its inherent weaknesses. I suppose they are intertwined. Maybe we don’t notice how much we change over the years because we don’t accurately remember who we were. It’s like how we don’t notice the changes in a picture right in front of us, if it flashes when the change is made. Even after ten or more significant changes, we think the picture looks the same, because each change happened independently, and the flash made us miss the moment of transformation. Maybe our lives are like that, and we don’t perceive the changes because they are happening every day, in big and small ways.

I guess I just hope that if I’m living intentionally, I’ll be pleasantly surprised by the new picture that I find when I wake up one morning and realize I’m almost 45, and half of my life has passed me by.

What would the you of ten years ago think about your life today? Do you think you’ll change much in the next ten years?

5 responses

  1. I just recently finished that book. Loved it! I can’t imagine forgetting the last 10 years. So much has happened…jobs, marriage, first house, first baby, miscarriage, second baby. I like to think I haven’t changed too much, but I’m sure all these experiences have made me different.

  2. Thank you for such a thorough book review and a thought-provoking post! The “me” of 10 years ago would be proud of how I have developed my individual self. She would also be proud of the fact that I am ok if others disagree with me. It doesn’t invalidate my opinion. In the next 10 years, I expect to have changed quite a bit. The second 10 years of parenting has brought many wonderful experiences and extremely challenging situations. I know that each year I grow stronger, love my children more and am able to deal with difficult circumstances. Parenting is unpredictable but our kids our the treasures of our lives.

  3. I often wonder what the me of high school, or college, or any earlier time would think of me now. Would I be impressed with my life? Happy? Disappointed? Surprised? It’s so hard to say, and I honestly have no idea. Probably all of these.

    The premise of that book sounds a little forced to me, but I could see how it would be enjoyable to read. I haven’t done as much reading lately as I usually like to, but I will try to keep it in mind.

  4. I don’t know what I would do if I only had my own blog to remember my life. I think writers are particularly good at poetic license, and at crafting a space somewhere between what we want to preserve and what we think reads well. Maybe that’s truer than truth.

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