D.P. Vaughan 20 January, 2023 0 Comments

Amnesia: Literary Device and Medical Condition

“The mind is the locus around which everything revolves” (Constantine, 2021).

Amnesia is both a real medical condition, or at least several different types, and a commonly used literary device in fiction. Despite real world cases being very rare (Harrison et al, 2017), fictional examples abound to the point where it has become a clichéd trope. As Constantine (2021) writes, when used as a literary device, amnesia can play with time and memory, of making even the most honest of narrators unreliable.

A character who has lost their memory is vulnerable to villains with nefarious motives, and there is inherent narrative tension in wondering if and when the amnesiac’s memories will return. It’s also a reminder for the audience of how fickle memory can be, and to question how much our memories make us who we are, and what implications the loss of them has (Constantine, 2021).

The word ‘amnesia’ comes to English via Latin but originates in the Ancient Greek word for “forgetfulness”: consisting of the prefix “a-” (“Amnesia”, 2023), equivalent to the English negative prefix ‘un-’ (“ἀ-“, 2022) and “mnesis” which means “memory” (“Amnesia”, 2023). The word beginning with the letters ‘mn-’ looks strange in English but can be seen in the etymologically related word ‘mnemonic’, even if the initial ‘m-’ is not pronounced in English (“Mnemonic”, 2023).

There are many different types of amnesia, but the two most commonly featured in fiction are ‘retrograde amnesia’ and ‘anterograde amnesia’. The latter is the central narrative conceit of the 2000 film Memento, where the main character’s inability to create new memories after the death of his wife is a challenge to his attempt to investigate her murder (Wicas, 2013). The film has been credited as one of, if not the most, accurate portrayals of anterograde amnesia on the big screen (Sternberg, 2001). Despite anterograde amnesia being the most common form of amnesia suffered in reality, in fiction retrograde amnesia is most-commonly seen (Hengoed, 2013).

Both the 2002 film The Bourne Identity and the 1980 book by the same name feature the main character’s loss of memory through retrograde amnesia (Hengoed, 2013; Swaim, 1984). The book’s author, Robert Ludlum, was inspired by his experience of an amnesic episode where he forgot an entire 12-hour period after publishing his first book (Swaim, 1984). In The Bourne Identity, the titular protagonist suffers not only loss of past memories, but has completely forgotten his identity, although any skills he had previously learned remained intact (Hengoed, 2013). But how realistic is this when looking at the real-world experiences of amnesia sufferers?

Burch (2021) states that of the many “emotional defensive strategies” victims of trauma may employ to “cope with their experience”, “autobiographical amnesia” is a noteworthy one. According to “memory repression theory”, losing access to the traumatic memories can be an unconscious, automatic “defense strategy” of the mind. Typically, sufferers can remember events leading up to a traumatic incident, but not the incident itself. Clinical treatment is often effective for sufferers (Harrison et al, 2017). Cases where people lose their sense of identity are rare, but most sufferers re-establish their sense of identity within time. So where does this leave the total loss of identity conceit from The Bourne Identity?

Gunasekara et al (2020) detail the admittedly “unusual case” of a patient who experienced a “near-total loss” of memory after a car crash. Beyond the loss of his personal history, he also forgot his own identity: he had no memory of who he was. Despite this extensive loss of memory, he retained all of his medical training as a psychiatrist. While an admittedly unusual situation, this seems to match the amnesic experience of Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity film and book. So perhaps art imitates life after all?

While a rare condition, in the United States it is estimated that five in 100,000 people experience some type of amnesia in any given year (Burch, 2021). That’s not a lot of people, statistically, but it still means more than 16 000 people in that one country alone will experience amnesia of some kind in any given year (United States Census Bureau, 2023). It’s not hard to imagine how disorienting and upsetting it could be as one of them.

If “[t]he mind is the locus around which everything revolves” (Constantine, 2021), how disruptive and disturbing must it be to have your ‘everything’ thrown awry?

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