I’ve just read Anne Tyler’s latest book Noah’s Compass. The main character Liam Pennywell is the victim of a home burglary during which he receives a nasty hit on the head. He wakes up in the hospital and has no memory whatsoever of the incident. Eventually he is well enough to go home, but his mind is still a blank about the day of his injury. Desperate to recall what has happened to him he pays a visit to a doctor acquaintance and in the waiting room he sees an elderly man obviously suffering from dementia who has a young female companion with him. By carefully observing them Liam realizes the woman is serving as the man’s rememberer. The older gentleman is the head of a large corporation and by having an assistant who supplies pertinent information about his business, family and friends to him when necessary, he is able to continue running his company and maintain an active social life.
Liam wishes he too could have a rememberer, a person who acts as a kind of ‘external hard drive’ storing the things he forgets and reminding him about them at appropriate times. The New York Times review of the book featured an illustration showing Liam trying to desperately crawl up to his brain where he believes his memory of the robbery is stored. He wants a rememberer to help him with that climb.
In an Atlantic Monthly illustration for Noah’s Compass, Liam is depicted as a solitary man. After his accident he is forced to rely on family to help him and then a series of events force some of them to rely on him, and during this process he starts to remember things about his life that aren’t always that comfortable. His ex-wife, sister, daughters and grandson become his rememberers and he begins to recall grief, guilt and disappointments from the past that trouble and interfere with his insular existence.
I am not sure if having a rememberer would be such a good thing. There may be things in our past it is best we forget if we wish to move on with our lives. Having a rememberer might also be tricky because the way any two people remember an event or person can be so different. My memory can be very selective and my children tell me I tend to embellish memories to make them more dramatic or to suit a topic I am writing about. A cousin told me not long ago that I have a tendency to dwell on positive memories or see negative memories in a good light. While he encouraged me to keep doing that, his tone implied that perhaps I was slightly naive and unrealistic for taking that approach. When my brother Ken and my sister Kaaren and I were writing a toast to the groom for my youngest brother Mark’s wedding many years ago, I was struck by how each of the three of us had very different memories of our brother that had been important to us, and how even our recall of events we had all experienced with him could be quite different.
I looked up the word ‘rememberer’ and it is defined as someone who knows individual words or phrases, and sometimes entire texts of a dying or dead language but doesn’t really understand what they mean in context and cannot use the language productively. Having another person be a rememberer for you might be much the same. They could remind you of the facts but not having had the actual experiences as you have, or interacted with the real people from your past in the way you have, would those facts present a meaningful memory?
I’m not sure if I’d like to have a rememberer. I think it would be too embarrassing, troubling and sad to remember everything about my past but when I meet a student I taught twenty years ago and can’t recall their name or when I’m trying to remember the name of a book I’ve read or even all the different passwords I have for different online sites it might come in pretty handy to have a rememberer.