“At first sight, when you are looking only at the amnesia, it is scary beyond belief. But I was looking at Clive, and he was living evidence that you could lose almost everything you ever knew about yourself and still be yourself.” (Wearing 272)
“Forever Today”, by Deborah Wearing is a book that tells the (true) story of a man (Clive Wearing), who developed a severe case of amnesia. Told by his wife, this story becomes much more. She is capable of seeing her husband in a light that doctors would have never been capable of. This gives her the possibility of turning this story into one about love in the time of hardship.
A treasure for those interested in psychology, and a wonder for those who want to learn about love’s boundaries, this book has it all. Perhaps the only objection I have to it, is that sometimes it was too sentimental for my liking. Where I wanted the story to proceed and get to the point, it often lingered and discussed details I wasn’t interested in. The caring nature of the writer comes through in many aspects of the book, which sometimes bothered me. Often times, I wanted to learn the facts. Though these came eventually, I had to waste energy untangling them from the romantic descriptions.
However, it is precisely this manner of describing such a terrifying condition that makes this book unique. Wearing sees her husband as a person, not as a simple patient or subject. Because of this, she is able to notice the behaviors in Clive Wearing that are due to his personality, and the ones that are due to the acquired disability. This gives the reader a chance to comprehend the magnitude of the emotions felt by both the husband and the wife. However, a true and deep understanding of these is impossible for those who have not undergone such misfortune.
Clive Wearing’s amnesia is a total one. That means that he had lost both his capacity to recall events from his past (aside from a very few ones), and the capacity to form new memories. The first kind of amnesia is the one you’re most likely to have heard of before. The second, not so much.
What both these kinds of amnesia have done is that they’ve left the man stuck in the “now” for the rest of his life. He is limited to a period of roughly 10 seconds of memory given by the short-term component of it, which remained intact. After those 10 seconds of information are erased, they’re gone for good (or almost, as we will see below). Then, everything seems new to him once again. This process has resulted in him thinking each time his memory is cleared that he has awakened from a death-like state.
Now, on to the lessons you can learn from reading this book:
1) The Subconscious is a Powerful Force
I’ve discussed the topic of the subconscious in a previous post, and I will do so because of the book I am currently reading. However, I couldn’t just ignore this part of the book, because it is quite amazing. Clive Wearing, though unable to recall information consciously, still retained information in his subconscious. This memory is known as implicit memory, which is mostly reserved for action-based knowledge. For example, when you’ve been driving for some time, you don’t have to consciously think about the motions you undergo in the process. They come naturally to you, because they have been ingrained in your memory. This was observed in Clive Wearing as well. He retained his capacity to play the piano (he had been a conductor). More interestingly, he showed signs of having learnt new things, though he wasn’t aware he did. For example, he was moved to a house after years of having acquired the disability. After a while of having been there, if he were asked where the kitchen was, he’d say he doesn’t know. That’s because the conscious part of his mind truly did not know. However, if he were asked to bring…say, a glass of water, he’d go to the kitchen, open the right cupboard, get it.
2) Governments Should be More Flexible to the Needs of Their Citizens
I was going to name this lesson “Governments aren’t perfect”, and then I went like “Geez, no kidding”. The main point, however, remains the same. Upon reading “Forever Today”, the reader is forced to see the struggle Deborah Wearing faced because there was nothing implemented by the government to deal with people of Clive’s condition. She went to form an association known as the Amnesia Association, whose main role was to raise awareness of this disability. Another important role was to make the government make room in its health system for people like Clive Wearing. However, this process was a long and difficult one, which makes anyone arrive to the conclusion that increased flexibility is needed. (I, however, don’t claim to know how this flexibility should be achieved)
3) Sometimes Medicine Doesn’t Have All the Answers
This becomes even truer the deeper you go into the past. However, there are instances that are quite close to the present in which medicine was incapable of offering help. This was what happened with Clive Wearing, who was misdiagnosed several times. He suffered from Herpesviral encephalitis, which is a viral infection that is incredibly rare. This wasn’t clear from the start, however, and this lead to him not receiving the correct treatment. Nevertheless, the treatment didn’t have very big chances of helping, as even today it is quite ineffective. This shows that medicine still has a lot of learning to do.
4) Death is the Only Time when All is Lost
I wanted to end on a positive note, much like the book attempted to do (despite there not being a lot of improvement in Clive Wearing). The writer speaks about the case of a man who had amnesia (though not as severe as Clive’s), and who managed to continue living his life. Of course, many measures had to be implemented for his life to go smoothly, but to me, this didn’t matter. What amazed me was that this man was still able to carry on with his daily activities, despite carrying with him the hardship of a disability. What this teaches, or reminds us, is that if one truly wants something, they can get it.
That’s about it for today. Let me know your thoughts on this book, or on the lessons derived from it. I must admit I loved it, and I find it a very valuable read.