Forgetting is All the Rage

Amnesia by Charles Harris

Forgetting is all the rage it seems. Books, movies and TV programmes are full of it – from Christopher Nolan’s reverse narrative Memento and the blockbuster Bourne franchise to SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. Just this winter we see the launch of series three of ITV’s Marcella and the new Anthony Hopkins movie The Father. 

Amnesia is in the money. 

But why? What does it say about readers and audiences?

I declare an interest. My own thriller novel Room 15 features an amnesiac police detective. My book was thirty years in the making, on and off. (Feel free to insert joke about forgetting to finish it. I’ve heard them all). 

Since I began, the market has taken off with a vengeance. We’ve had movies, TV dramas, TV documentaries and of course novels by the hundreds. Is there something attractive about forgetting?

In his book The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim looks at why children are devoted to fairy tales. In particular, he asks why some children insist on hearing the same story over and over again. (Most parents will know what I mean only too well).

Bettelheim’s thesis is that fairy stories help children explore important ideas about how to live their lives, but in a safe place. Could the same apply to adults consuming stories in books and films? Can this can help us explore why certain themes – such as amnesia – keep coming back?

Of course, amnesia has been around since stories began. In Greek mythology, amnesia would be brought on if you drank from the River Lethe. In folk tales, forgetting usually resulted from being bewitched by a magic spell or potion. 

There are good reasons why it’s such an attractive plot device. There’s nothing that fascinates humans more than their own minds. Amnesia offers narrative tension (what will happen next?). It also plays into our fears of literally “losing” our mind, or at least a significant part of it. On the other side of the coin, there’s also the fantasy of being magically able to control other people’s memories – to make them forget at our will.

Shakespeare, always fascinated by psychology, seems to have been one of the first dramatists to touch on amnesia caused by emotional trauma, perhaps even dementia: Lear suffers it, along with fits of madness, when betrayed by his daughters. 

Here, there is no magic potion. Instead, literature begins to explore the idea that an experience can be so disturbing that our mind might reject it of its own accord. 

Amnesia became popular in novels during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and later in movies. In the twentieth century, the popularity seems to have grown alongside the number of soldiers returning traumatised by war. 

On the one hand, many soldiers returned with head wounds and shell-shock, or post-traumatic stress syndrome as we’ve learned to call it. On the other, humankind itself faced a series of unprecedented traumas.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been awful incidents throughout human history, but in the last century two things happened at the same time. First, life became easier for many societies around the world. Death, disease and violence, previously a commonplace, became less familiar.

Second, this new sense of security and peace was savagely broken by some of the worst events ever seen. From the First World War, to the Japanese prisoner of war camps of the second, and, of course, the Holocaust. (Not that it’s stopped, with new atrocities in Vietnam, Bosnia and Rwanda to name but a few). Moreover, they were documented, photographed and filmed in ways that had never existed before.

No wonder, society became fascinated with the idea that there may be awful things lurking in our pasts – horrors that we might want to forget. 

From this point of view, what might these amnesia stories help adults work through? Perhaps our own collective trauma. Maybe stories such as the Jason Bourne movies put the horrors of the last centuries into safer form and allow us to explore how we might remember such things without going mad? 

Maybe they also help us face our own guilt. Most amnesia stories divide into those in which the amnesiac has to discover he’s steeped in guilt – and those in which he simply fears he is. 

Jason Bourne manages to cover both. He discovers he’s a trained killer, but also that he was manipulated to be so by sinister government forces. Two amnesias for the price of one! He’s forgotten that he was an assassin, who in turn was made to forget the human being he really is.

Until the late twentieth century, almost all amnesia stories were based on an amnesia resulting from trauma – whether a head injury or a severe emotional shock. 

This began to change with Sci-Fi movies such as the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, Total Recall – based on a number of stories by Philip K Dick – and Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now evil forces could make people forget by using technology. In some ways, this was just an updating of the old magic potion with a touch of science. 

(Bourne again covers all the bases: injury, emotional trauma and scientific manipulation by the people who made him a killer).

However, at the same time, these two later movies feature something else that’s new: protagonists who consciously choose to forget. Total Recall’s Douglas Quaid discovers that he asked to have his memory wiped to protect himself. While in Eternal Sunshine, estranged couple Joel and Clementine decide to erase their memories of their failed relationship, so as to forget the bad moments. Only for Joel to realise that he doesn’t want to forget after all. 

This suggests an interesting shift in attitudes towards our forgetting. Before, amnesia was something to fight, now it starts to become something we can have control over. Even buy. Or decide not to buy.

Out in the real world, the question of memory and forgetting became ever more crucial. We’ve had Remembrance Sunday, now we have International Holocaust Remembrance Day. There are remembrance days all around the world, commemorating everything from victories and defeats to freedom and slavery. We argue over which parts of our culture to commemorate and which have perhaps been wrongly forgotten. 

Interesting, too, that The Matrixs “red pill” – standing for remembering the truth – has also become a big cultural meme in recent years, adopted by the men’s rights movement, Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump, among others.

At the same time, how many conflicts around the world have stayed alive because the participants refused to forget? 

In Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant extremists commemorate atrocities that go back to the seventeenth century. While, the Israeli novelist David Grossman famously said that the Jews and Arabs would never solve their problems until they stopped caring about who was right and began learning to trust each other. Perhaps that trust requires a certain amount of deliberate forgetting. 

Could that be – on a wider front – why we began to be interested in more nuanced amnesia stories? Where remembering and forgetting are both important in their own way. Could they be telling us that as well as international remembrance days we need an International Forgetting Day?

So far, for thousands of years every story I know of had dealt with retrograde amnesia. This kind of amnesia occurs when you lose old memories (though often not old skills). However, around the turn of the century, we started to see stories about anterograde amnesia, with which you can’t form new memories. 

In Memento, Laurence Selby is unable to create memories that last for more than fifteen minutes. Christine Lucas, in Before I Go to Sleep, can only remember what happened since she last woke up. Sleep wipes all her memories away again. 

To which we can add an increasing number of stories about dementia. Of course, the growing number of people with dementia in society was always going to inspire fiction that dealt with the subject. But writers have to face the fact that it’s a pretty depressing theme. No wonder that Emma Healey chose a mystery/thriller wrapper for Elizabeth is Missing, where the heroine must battle her own failing mind to discover the truth of what’s happened to her best friend. 

Florian Zeller does something similar in his fascinating play The Father, adapted as a movie with Anthony Hopkins (opening February 2021). Here Zeller counters the horror of watching a disintegrating mind by creating a gripping suspense tale where the audience is constantly kept guessing as to what is real and what isn’t. 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that such stories should arise when humanity is growing increasingly fearful for its future. For much of its existence the human race has faced difficulties. But now, with the bomb, followed by the climate crisis and the pandemic, we are facing the very real concern that the species itself may not survive, or at least be severely diminished. The future has never seemed so bleak. And we have inflicted it on ourselves.

It’s to this darkened stage that we welcome a series of characters who must work out how to plan ahead. We, who are failing to plan for the future, watch them as they learn how. We, who have forgotten so much that is of value in life, must also find strategies for remembering what’s important.

None of this is to say that writing a good amnesia story is easy. Memory is such an important part of character. The horror of losing memory is powerful, but it also means that the writer must create a character with holes in. All writers of amnesia stories have to battle with this particular issue, and the success or failure of the book or movie relies to a large extent on how they solve it. 

Another challenge is one of realism. To some extent, amnesia is a generous disorder: there are so many variations and medical science still knows so little that you could almost invent anything and it could be right. On the other hand, many neurologists have written articles on how writers and directors still get amnesia wrong.

One common mistake is to imagine that the sufferer can continue life as a well-functioning person. In reality, any kind of amnesia will make large demands on the system. The patient will have other cognitive and/or psychological problems, either caused by the amnesia directly, or caused by the cause of the amnesia, or indeed by the enormous effort that the mind has to put in to make up for the gaps. 

It’s easy to forget the sheer terror that someone like my amnesiac detective must feel, fear that nothing is what it seems, fear that people know all kinds of things that he doesn’t, fear that his mind is falling apart. Putting a normal face on this would cost him an enormous effort alone.

Amnesia stories have an important place in our culture. We have so many issues to deal with, when it comes to remembering and forgetting. But for various emotional reasons, the real memories can be difficult to face. Moreover, even the best true-life histories, documentaries and dramas can lead to compassion fatigue in their audiences.

By using fiction, writers and directors can liberate us to approach these vital questions in a more oblique way. They can revive our energies and help us more easily work through the issues. 

And – like fairy stories – they can allow us to be thrilled, scared, enthralled and horrified, in a safe space.


Link to author’s website where you can purchase a copy of Room 15

6 thoughts

  1. Fascinating insight into Amnesia by Charles Harris. I highly recommend reading his book Room 15 it delivers a Gripping, compelling, fast-paced psychological crime thriller, that’ll keep you in suspense with every turn of the page.

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