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The Elephant

July 8, 2010

While the art of people watching consists almost entirely of observation and listening (although eavesdropping can be an art in its own right), occasionally the field of play is broadened to encompass an actual conversation. I like to think of these interactions as impromptu interviews, and rather than become annoyed by the slightly batty old woman with the fluffy knitting wool sitting next to me on the bus and blathering on about her niece’s boyfriend’s cousin’s daughter, I take the opportunity to catch a glimpse into an actual story of human existence. This habit frequently presents me with periods of extreme boredom, but I consider this a reasonable price to pay for the rare joys of a really interesting encounter.

Those of you who follow my escapades as I recount them me here, on twitter, and on facebook, know that I am currently in America — during my recent transatlantic flight, I met a most singularly interesting character. People don’t always talk to their seatmates on flights, but seemingly more often than not, when trapped in an uncomfortable seat many thousands of miles above the ground, people become talkative. This gentleman was perhaps in his late 40s; not old, but aging, and with a gentlemanly air about him. He was wearing a light suit, with a loosely, but elegantly, tied day cravat at his neck. In my experience, these sorts of people do not engage in frivolous conversation, and so I was rather surprised when he commented on the book I was reading.

I am a big fan of Agatha Christie. I have read a large number of her books, and frequently take several with me when travelling. In fact, I am just as likely to grab one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels, but importantly this trip I had chosen to read one of Christie’s later novels, “Elephants Can Remember”. I had been delighted to discover that it was another of her novels including both Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot, and had already read several chapters while waiting to board the flight. I then read throughout taxiing and takeoff, as is my custom. Sometime into the flight, my seatmate turned to me and simply said “and I never forget”. “Sorry?” I replied, without much interest, for I was in the middle of a fun section concerned with Poirot and Mrs. Oliver’s attempts to puzzle out the oral histories Mrs. Oliver spends her time collecting. The man paused a second and then said: “Elephants remember, and I never forget.” At this point I was attempting to remember if he had accepted the steward’s offers of Champaign or not, and trying to decide whether or not I had been seated next to a recently released basket case. Choosing to give the man the benefit of the doubt (as I usually do), I asked him what it was that he remembers. His reply was as succinct as the previous two utterances: “Everything”. [NOTE: I have always felt strongly that the final full stop should go outside the quotes unless it is an actual part of a quoted complete sentence, so please do not get angry in regards to this]

I must admit that I was intrigued. This did not feel like a typical conversation opener, and I decided that no matter how crazy the man might be, he would have something interesting to say. It turned out that he is one of those rare individuals with unlimited recall. That is, he claimed the ability to remember absolutely everything he has ever experienced. While this might seem to be an impossibility, there have been documented cases of such individuals in the past (for example, the Russian journalist Solomon Shereshevsky). My inner neuroscientist perked up its ears, and pushed me to continue the conversation. My seatmate (I will call him Oliver) seemed to be almost desperate to talk, and I quickly found myself being treated to a detailed description of his abilities. I was puzzled by his need to discuss his memory, but I had a feeling that he would explain at some point if I let him talk long enough. I considered telling Oliver about the degree I have in neuroscience, but decided that that might inhibit him rather than draw him out, so I restrained myself to only making informed and interested comments.

Something Oliver said quite late in the conversation has stayed with me ever since: “It is not as simple as remembering, it is as difficult as not forgetting.” Upon being asked to explain, he said: “I remember everything — every single thing! I am completely and utterly unable to forget anything. If I read an advert in the newspaper, I remember it forever in perfect detail. If I hear a bit of conversation on the street, I am stuck with it forever. And the worst is, I remember every single thing that I have ever done, or that has ever been done to me. Have you ever lain awake at night, going over something you did that you regret, or perhaps even worse, something you haven’t done and regret even more powerfully? I remember every single thing! Can you imagine? I remember every harsh word I speak, and every harsh word spoken to me. I am faced forever with the sad eyes of every person I have ever hurt in any way. Can you possibly imagine!?”

I was struck by his emotion, but not surprised. I know that it is common for people with complete recall to loose touch with sanity. Humans are not designed to function with a perfect memory. Forgetfulness is a lubricant of society, and I find it horrifying to attempt to imagine what it must be like for someone who cannot forget. I know that I am not alone in my frequent complaints about my own forgetfulness — I have great difficulty remembering people’s names and more than once have found myself driving to the shops only to realise that I’ve forgotten what it was I had intended to buy — but now I understand more clearly what it means to forget. Being able to remember is not the same as being unable to forget, and for Oliver, the ability to forget is a hidden treasure, a superpower that he can only dream about.

Oliver and I continued our conversation for some time. He could be very witty, and we discussed a wide range of topics in addition to his memory. It turned out that he was flying to America to visit a distant cousin of his who lived in the rural Midwest. He had recently experienced a nervous breakdown and spent several weeks in some form of assisted care facility. He had recovered well, but realised that his only hope of being able to live comfortably would be to move to an environment without the overpowering and constant stimulation of the big city (he was from Liverpool). He was feeling a bit as though he had failed, and I could see what he meant. He had felt it should be possible to live a normal, or even heightened life with his powers of memory, but instead they had broken him, and he was being forced to run away in search of respite. As we landed, I wished him well, and he gave me his card in case I ever wanted to get in touch with him (he had worked in my area of expertise for many years prior to his breakdown).

Watching Oliver drag his bag down the terminal in the direction of his next connection, I decided that while I will always treasure the powers of memory I do have, I will treasure my ability to forget just as dearly.

  1. I’m speechless, Taylor. Another beautiful story that could go a long way.

  2. Thank you, Jamie; I appreciate your kind words very much.

  3. We take so many things for granted…

    A thought provoking post.

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