Who are you? Amnesia in Popular Culture
October 15, 2012
Forgetting to remember—extolling the romanticism behind the amnesia plotline.
Call me a romantic, but amnesia is easily my favourite form of brain damage. And while writers of films, television shows, and books often put it to work in suspense stories, making their protagonists foggy on the details of that murder they committed or that spy agency they work for, amnesia’s true calling is not as an accessory to crime. Amnesia is for lovers.
The amnesia plotline hit North American popular entertainment in the 1930s, the golden age of radio drama. Back when actors had ugly faces and beautiful voices, soap operas were fifteen-minute serials sponsored by manufacturers of cleaning products, advertised musicallyat the beginning of each show (“Put Duz in your washing machine...D-U-Z does everything!”). The writer credited with the first soap opera amnesia story was Irna Phillips, creator of, among other programs, The Guiding Light, which made a successful transition to television in 1952 and, counting both iterations, ran for a record seventy-two years before CBS cancelled it in 2009.
Phillips had ample reason to favour characters who forgot their entire histories: the youngest of ten, she was a neglected child, and as an adult she suffered an unhappy romantic life. The culture at large was also looking to bury some unhappy memories: after the mass psychotic episode of the First World War, many soldiers re-entered society haunted by the sense of a discontinuous personality. During the war, “shell-shock,” the new diagnosis for soldiers suffering from combat stress, was often accompanied by amnesia.
“Irna Phillips conceived and mastered a form in which the most baroque stresses of psychological conflict became routine,” writes Anthony Heilbut in his new book, The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, The Rise of Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations. “The self was battered by dangers external and internal. Anybody, particularly a relative, could be not what she claimed, could be a threat to your home and your safety. But you couldn’t depend very much on yourself. Irna liked her characters ambiguous and ambivalent, the better for doubt and the past to gobble them up.”
This all sounds less than romantic. But as Michelle, a character on the TV version of Guiding Light, said during a bout of her own amnesia, “No time like the present. Especially when you have no past.” When Michelle woke up in the hospital after being caught in a warehouse explosion that her husband, Danny, had set off to fake a mob hit (long story), Danny threw his arms around her, and she drew away, saying, “I’m sorry but—who are you?” Danny was (understandably) upset, but it seems to me that her question—Who are you?—is fundamental to love.
Amnesia gets a lot of play in soap operas and romance novels, in part because it offers a tantalizing paradox: the person you love is both familiar and new. It’s what couples try to accomplish with role-playing games: whether it’s pretending to pick each other up at a bar or pretending to be Batman and Eudora Welty (long story), it’s a chance to meet again for the first time. In fiction, it allows characters to ask themselves why they chose this person to love in the first place, and what that says about them. “Is that what you were into? Bikes? Leather?” Michelle asked herself in the mirror, after being shown a photo of an ex-boyfriend. “Is that who you were?”
Not to mention the dizzying possibilities for—adjustment, shall we say. Suppose I happen to explode a warehouse in the course of faking a mob hit, which blasts my boyfriend headfirst into a brick wall. When he wakes up, I can tell him who I am—but I can also tell him who he is. The person I love is essentially a blank slate. He no longer remembers being bitten by that terrier when he was five, so now I can announce that he loves dogs and that we co-adopted four regal German Shepherds right before he went into that coma. We named them Franny, Cynthia, Susan, and Emily because he no longer remembers his tortured relationships with those ex-girlfriends. I remind him how much he’s always loved doing half the cooking and all the cleaning; badminton and charades; coriander and olives.
As commentators have said of contemporary shows like Downton Abbey and Desperate Housewives, it’s not a real soap opera until someone gets amnesia. I’m still tortured by the identity of the man with the burned face who turned up in the hospital bed at Downton. Was he the lost cousin, believed drowned on the Titanic? If so, forgetting himself seemed to make him realize which of the sisters truly loved him—as the inheritor of the estate, he’d been engaged to that bitch Mary, but it was Edith whose heart fluttered on his return. In the ideal love-story, there is no complicated backstory; life begins when you meet, and nothing before matters.