In 1988 Su Meck, a 22-year-old mother of two young boys, was at home in Texas when she swung her six-month-old son around playfully in the air. Unbeknownst to her, part of his body brushed against a precariously connected ceiling fan, which came crashing down on Su’s head, changing her life forever. This accident wiped Su’s mind clean of her memories of her life prior to that point. Her memories of her first 22 years did not return. After the accident, when Su woke up in Intensive Care she did not recognise her children or her husband. So began her life as an amnesiac.
Su teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel de Vise to help her recreate her experience of her case of amnesia, which was an unusually severe one. This is an extraordinary story told candidly.
Su’s amnesia story continued
Su’s amnesia had elements of two known forms: retrograde and anterograde. She could not remember her life before the injury, nor could she easily make new memories after it. She was illiterate and extremely confused. Even so, after a mere three weeks spent in hospital, Su was sent home, with a husband, Jim, whom she didn’t recognise and children she didn’t remember having or ever seeing before. Having run out of sick leave, a few days later Jim went back to work, so Su was left on her own to take charge of the children. As well as her complex amnesia, Su also suffered from blackouts that rendered her unconscious for periods, and left her befuddled on waking. Su couldn’t remember the most basic facts needed for daily living. She would learn to read and write along with her youngest child as he did his homework. Her sons also taught her such tasks as how to tie her shoe laces. For the kids it was all normal life: they didn’t know any other sort of mother. Meanwhile, Jim simply worked and worked more, operating in a state of ‘life goes on as usual’, which as I read, seemed to look a lot like avoidance and denial.
Assigned a family
After writing her memoir, Su says matter-of-factly that she doesn’t know what it is like to fall in love or to see one’s baby for the first time, as in her case it was as if she had been ‘assigned’ her family.”
You might wonder how it feels to wake up one morning and not know who you are. The accident didn’t just wipe out all my memories; it hindered me from making new ones for quite some time. I awoke each day to a house full of strangers. Every morning began with a lesson: Welcome to your new life. And this wasn’t just a few days. It was weeks before I recognized my boys when they toddled into the room, months before I knew my own telephone number, years before I was able to find my way home from anywhere." - Su Meck
How was it possible that Su, an American woman who was clearly not well or fully cognisant, was left with all the responsibility of child-rearing near single-handedly? Husband Jim would often go out on the road for his work for long periods on end. Su herself asks why her parents, who lived elsewhere, but not so far they couldn’t visit, stayed away. Perhaps due to the expectations placed on her, or perhaps survival instinct, or both, Sue hid from others just how much she didn’t know, so while she looked ‘normal’, she was, in the beginning at least, the mental equal of her little boys. Meanwhile, she developed strict routines and rules to help her get by. She became an expert mimic. On wondering how to behave in a certain situation, Su would watch what others did and copy them. People didn’t seem to realise.
Old and new selves
She never knew me, and I know nothing of her except what people have told me. She rebelled; I conform. She broke rules; I follow them. She drank and smoked pot; I don't even know the taste of beer or wine, and the smell of smoke makes me physically ill. I like vegetables; she hated them. She loved to swim; I am absolutely terrified of the water. - Su Meck.
From one amnesiac to another
I read this book recently. For those who don’t already know, I also had a case of amnesia that meant when I woke up from a three-day coma I did not recognise my partner and 11-month-old daughter. See All That I Forgot: a Memoir. In my case, 30 years have passed since I was sent home from the hospital with amnesia. Nevertheless, I found Su’s story both extraordinary and confronting. On reading the description of her accident, I rushed to the toilet to throw up. Until then I had not believed one could react that way due to emotion alone; thinking such reactions were the stuff of cinematic exaggeration.
While Su’s story demonstrates her courage, intelligence and dogged persistence, culminating in her graduating from university with a degree, my interest lies in considering how it is possible that two women both had amnesia, both pretended to those around them they were ‘normal’ and were put in the position of minding their young children, while their husbands barely came home, and family members remained silent. Sue’s amnesia was undoubtedly a more extreme version of what I went through, but the parallels are staggering. If there are two of us, how many other women are raising children without help with ‘invisible’ conditions and ailments? These might include mental health issues. Certainly, I felt that because people close to me couldn’t ‘see’ my amnesia, they had trouble believing it existed. (Mine was a case of retrograde amnesia, that lasted for over ten years. I also had frequent severe migraines.) Just as Su did her best to meet external expectations of her to raise her children and run the house, I didn’t often ask for help, as I played into people’s expectations of me to be well and fully functioning. ‘Raising the kids’ for a woman without a child-focussed, supportive family can be lonely, relentless and hard work.
I Forgot To Remember has prompted me to ask: in a traditional heterosexual relationship, where mum stays home with kids and dad goes out to work, are women not allowed to take time out? If the family unit appears to be intact, even if scientific and medical evidence points to the contrary, are many people in our western culture simply able to find reasons not to help?
On writing a memoir
"I do think maybe memoirs are the hardest kind of book to write, in general, because memoirs force writers to put themselves onto the page, warts and all. And being able to do that honestly and effectively is a real challenge, I would think, for anyone. This process was obviously made more difficult for me because I didn’t have a clear understanding of who I was, and even still am, in the first place. I explore this concept in the book, but I cannot even really begin to explain how problematic it was, and still is, having to depend so much on the varied, often contradictory, stories of others." - Su Meck.
Acquired Brain Injury (ABI)
After reviewing several fictional works that portray versions of amnesia, I noticed the stark difference of tone entering the terrain of memoir. In I Forgot to Remember, there is none of the glamour surrounding amnesiacs such as Jason Bourne from the Bourne series or Gregory Peck’s character in Spellbound. Ideas of murder and vengeance are no longer relevant as in Memento, as we come to encounter the sobering idea of Acquired Brain Injury (ABI). This is otherwise known as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) which is behind Su’s amnesia story, and also my own. Read more on ABI
In I Forgot to Remember contrived plotting gives way to anecdotes drawn seemingly straight from life. With its simple, direct tone and style, Su’s fraught story unfolds. We will learn, however, that there is no such thing as drawing directly from life in Su’s case, as she can’t recall the first 22 years of her life, nor much of what happened directly after her accident either. So while the book offers the sense of straightforward storytelling, it is, like most memoirs, I would suggest, a highly constructed piece of writing. This is not a criticism from my perspective, all stories being constructed although some less obviously than others.
So what does Su have to say about her experience? This video gives some idea. Or visit her publisher’s page at Simon and Schuster and see the book club section.
“Meck’s matter-of-fact delivery makes the harrowing details of her ordeal stand out all the more. . . . [A] tale of triumph in the search for identity.”– The New York Times Book Review
"The author recounts her gruelling climb back to normalcy after an accident robs her of her memory and sense of self in this heartwrenching true story."– the Oprah Magazine
"A big achievement . . . poignant." – The Washington Post
"[Meck] pieces together a fascinating tale of life after suffering head trauma as a young mother." – New York Review of Books
"A remarkable memoir . . . unnervingly honest, straightforward to a degree that makes every other memoir I’ve read seem evasive, self-conscious, and preening. . . . Unlike that of everyone else around her, [Su Meck’s] adult life wasn’t the result of imagining a happy future, pursuing it with a sense of purpose and then figuring out whether or not her dreams have been fulfilled, betrayed, or misbegotten. Her life was simply ‘the way things were’—until, that is, she realized she was in a position to have some say about that. And seeing her seize that opportunity makes for a happier ending than any fairy tale can offer." – Salon.com
"[Meck] pieces together a fascinating tale of life after suffering head trauma as a young mother." – New York Review of Books
"I Forgot to Remember, which was written with the elegant assistance of a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, is more than a memoir or report on the devastating effects of traumatic brain injury. It is a shocking story about betrayal and trust . . . astounding."– Maclean's
"Following a traumatic brain injury that erases every memory from her past, Su Meck takes us on her remarkable journey forward as she stitches her identity back together one thread at a time. A fascinating memoir about resilience, courage, and hope, I Forgot to Remember is not just a survivor's story. This is a hero's story."– Lisa Genova, New York Times bestselling author of Love Anthony.
One ordinary day, Su Meck lost her memory. This is the highly unusual story of how she remembered herself—and reconciled the person she was with the world around her. Her story will surprise and engage anyone who has wondered about the role that memory plays in all of our lives." – Alexandra Horowitz, author of the New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog.
Remarkable . . . an arresting story about what it's like to live with amnesia."– The Hampshire Gazette.
"I Forgot to Remember is a brave and raw story about the damage and trials a head injury can inflict on an entire family. Su Meck's spellbinding tale of life, injury and then the arduous task of re-learning everything, even down to how to love again, reminds us all of the importance of living in the moment and the need to cherish the memories we own." – Lee Woodruff, co-author of the #1 bestseller In an Instant.
I Forgot to Remember links
Photo credit at top of article: Su Meck poses for a portrait at her family’s home in 2011 in Gaithersburg, MD the day before she graduated with an associate’s degree from Montgomery College, USA. Photo by Matt McClain/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Other amnesia memoirs
In his introduction to the Vintage Book of Amnesia, editor and writer Jonathan Lethem says:
Real, diagnosable amnesia—people getting knocked on the head and forgetting their names—is mostly just a rumour in the world. It’s a rare condition, and usually a brief one. In books and movies, though, versions of amnesia lurk everywhere. - Jonathan Lethem
Nevertheless, various people who have had prolonged cases of amnesia have recovered enough to tell their stories, sometimes with the help of professional writers, sometimes on their own.
The Answer To The Riddle Is Me
David MacLean (2014)
“I was standing when I came to. Not lying down. And it wasn’t a gradual waking process. It was darkness darkness darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.
It was hot. My thin shirt clung to my back and shoulders, and my underwear was bunched into a sweaty wad. The heat left the ground in wavy lines, and the air was tinged blue with diesel exhaust. A woman in a burqa pushed past me. A small man in a ragged red vest ducked around me. He was hunched under the massive steel trunk on his back; the corner of the trunk nicked my shoulder as he maneuvered by. I was in the center of a crowd, half surging for the train, half surging for the exits. I stood still. I had no idea who I was. This fact didn’t panic me at first. I didn’t know enough to panic.
In front of me was a train….” – David Stuart MacLean
I Woke Up In The Future
Naomi Jacobs (2015)
“Everything from fear to joy to seeing this child that I didn’t have any memory of giving birth to but knew undoubtedly that he was mine because he looked so much like me. [And] the terror of having responsibility for this small child. For the first 24 hours I was just in complete shock, and I was convinced that I was going to fall asleep that night again and wake back up in 1992. It wasn’t real to me, what was happening.”– Naomi Jacobs
*This book’s title is Forgotten Girl in the UK, and I Woke up in the Future in Australia/NZ
All That I Forgot
Anne Howell (2022)
“Daughter. Daughter. Daughter. How could my
mind be so empty of the story behind her existence? I kept on looking at her, trying to accept the fact of her. Daughter, are you truly mine to keep? I didn’t know the first thing about owning and maintaining a daughter. Attempting to remember knowing both father and daughter, I scoured my mind for the smallest hint of
prior knowledge associated with them but came up with nothing.” – Anne Howell