January this year, Wendy Mitchell’s Somebody I Used to Know was published. According to its introductory quotes, it is a “Brave, illuminating and inspiring, […] the first memoir ever written by someone living with dementia.” I’ve heard her talk on Guardian Book Podcast and followed her radio appearances. And her personal vivacity and dignity is amazing. she does sound a bit out of breath, stumbles, but shows yet no sign of language deficit at the moment. She and a “ghost writer” wrote this book together and as Wendy herself admits, she does not remember what is said in her memoir. It would be ironic if it weren’t so poignant that her cognitive decline has outweighed her endeavor to write a memoir.
But what is a memoir? Is it supposed to mean more to me than my audience? Why do one write a memoir?
As the book advertises itself, this is “the first memoir ever written” by someone living with dementia. There are memoirs written by a husband, a daughter, but never one him/herself. As a person specializing in age studies and early modern (“Long Eighteenth-Century” to be exact), I would hesitate to call this “the first” memoir and would definitely disagree if one calls this a first attempt of a person with age-related mental impairment. Diaries of early modern women demonstrate their frustration with declining health, enervated energy, dwindling opportunities of social activities, as well as memory loss.
Even before i was challenged by Wendy’s memoir, one theme that haunts these sources is the purpose of such writings (mostly women’s diaries). Women in early modern Britain was very specific. It was to give lesson, to prove useful to her posterity. It was saying “This is my life experiences. Learn from it” though usually in a much apologetic way that fit women of 18th-century.
But of course, to give lesson is not the only motive for such writing. Spending time formerly used to child rearing and housekeeping was one but what is most intriguing to me is the desire to just “record.” This desire to store memory arises when one realizes that she might lose it very soon. “Finding decays, especially in my memory, I think it not improper to leave this testimony under my hand of that kind Providence which has followed me all my days,” writes Sarah Savage, a devout Christian in early 18th Century living in Bristol.
Wendy’s book is actually a second stage of her such memory-recording. She gained prominence in Alzheimer community through her blog. Titled “Which me am I today?” Wendy blogs her days. On her Home page, she says “I started this blog to allow me, in the first instance, to write all my thoughts before they’re lost.” She is using this technology to record “all” her thoughts before they’re lost. Though her blog reads “which me am I today,” she wants to remain one person, Wendy with two daughters and a beloved cat with all her thoughts.
This is not to blame her. She utilizes this new technology–which she says she never used ever before–“I have never ‘tweeted’, ‘blogged’ or ‘facebooked’ in my life but since I was diagnosed, everything else in my life has changed, so why not this”–in the same way early modern female writers utilized paper and pen.
But unlike a sheet of paper and a pen, technology has a distinct aura. An aura that is so discreet but also ingrained. There is a promise–never fulfilled–that it will allow you to record “all.”
cf. “San Junipero” in Black Mirror: Your whole memory is uploaded to a little USB-like external drive so entirely that you can live on after you “die.”
During past decade, we’ve seen a much appreciated development in 3D printing, 3D rebuilding, especially in the fields of ancient history. Now British Museum allows you to take a look at a piece of sculpture from 2 BC, a click on the web takes you to a 3D virtual tour of a colorful ancient Egyptian Monastery. The 3D digital access restored the color of the ancient times which basically means you can experience the color the ancient persons experienced. If you walk into the monastery, all you can see is faded blurred shapes with shaded colors. But awaits you are the reconstructed visualizations of that monastery. You can restore it just the way it was before and leave that record for futurity.
If we take one step away, or even add just one layer that constantly reminds us that this is an interpretation and not the truth-real-experience, I think we’ll be fine and thrive with this amazing contribution.