Book Review: 'The Woman Who Can't Forget'

With eight months left in 2008, it might be premature to choose the weirdest book of the year, but "The Woman Who Can't Forget," the memoir of a 42-year-old California woman named Jill Price, will be hard to beat. It poses a thought-provoking question—what would it be like to recall almost every day of your life since childhood?—and then unintentionally answers: it's like being stuck on an airplane watching an endless loop of security-camera video.

Oddly, in this era of luridly factitious memoirs, Price's comes with unimpeachable credentials. She first came to public attention in 2006 as "AJ," the pseudonymous subject of a paper in the journal Neurocase entitled "A Case of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering." The lead author, James L. McGaugh, a professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, spent five years bombarding Price with psychological, neurological and physiological tests to investigate what was going on inside her otherwise quite ordinary mind. He coined a new term for her condition, "hyperthymestic syndrome." It means "overdeveloped memory," but of a very particular kind. Price has no special aptitude for memorizing lists of words or numbers, or for facts or stories or languages. She was an average student. What Price does remember—obsessively, uncontrollably and with remarkable accuracy—is stuff that happened to her.

Price's memory, which she describes as "shockingly complete" beginning in 1974, when she was 8, and "near perfect" from 1980 on, appears to be organized like a diary. Given a date from the last 30 years, she can instantly summon up the day of the week, and usually at least some tidbit of biographical trivia. "On Friday afternoon, October 19, 1979," she writes, "I came home from school and had some soup because it was unusually cold that day." Oprah, take note: Oct. 19, 1979, was, in fact, a Friday, and it was cloudy with a high of 67 in Los Angeles, well below normal. As for the soup, we can only take her word for it, but McGaugh—who checked Price's recollections against whatever documentation was available, including some 50,000 pages of her own written diaries—believes her abilities are real. "She doesn't make it up or fake it," McGaugh says. "If she doesn't know, she says so. She may say, 'I just hung out.' A lot of our days are like that." McGaugh points out that Price has extraordinary recall for news events, if they were important enough to attract her notice at the time. Does Aug. 16, 1977, mean anything to you? It did to Price, who instantly recognized that as the date Elvis Presley died.

Although Price was unique in the scientific literature when McGaugh first encountered her, he has now found two other subjects with similar abilities. One of them is a radio announcer named Brad Williams, who is 51 and whose autobiographical memory extends back to the age of 4. McGaugh is a long way from understanding what gives them these exceptional powers, although brain scans on Price do reveal some significant departures from the norm. (He won't say what they are, since he hasn't published his data yet.) He adds that Price's obsessive collecting of memorabilia (including Beanie Babies, "Flintstones" paraphernalia and every record she's ever owned) is a trait his other subjects share. "We think there might be a key there," he muses.

Price herself seems unable to decide if her ability is a blessing or a curse. On the one hand, she writes, "I hate the notion of forgetting. I'm happy that I can remember so many episodes of so many TV shows I've loved through the years, that I can revisit any given day [and] know what really happened to me that day." Her abilities came in handy when she had a job as an administrative assistant at a law firm. But often her memories arise unbidden, chaotic and unwelcome. "Imagine being able to remember every fight you ever had with a friend, every time someone let you down, all the stupid mistakes you've ever made." And she could only have been the world's biggest pain to grow up with. From an early age, she writes, "I was always correcting my parents about things they claimed I had said, or that they had said to me, which, as you can imagine, didn't go over very well."

But the sobering thing about Price's book is how banal most of her memories are. The days go by, lunch follows breakfast, 10th grade turns inexorably into 11th and a lot of the time, as McGaugh says, you just hang out. Her life was not without excitement—her father was a talent agent and television executive, and she used to ride the swings on the set for "The Waltons"—or drama of a conventional sort: her parents separate and get back together; her mother survives a tumor; she marries a man she met online, and he dies suddenly. No one should gainsay her feelings, but knowing what was playing on the TV during these events doesn't add much to our understanding of them, or of her. I hate to admit it, but confronted with a memoir that is guaranteed to be completely accurate, I can't help thinking that, with the same material, a writer with a little imagination could have written a much better book.