Thursday, March 8, 2012


What was I supposed to do again?

I have lists, I have lists of lists, I have Siri, I have three, count 'em, three calendars.

And yet, and still, I always have this vague disturbing feeling that I've forgotten something.

I rememb
er, I know I do, that I used to be able to remember stuff. One thing I do recall--when I first met Alison Gaylin, at Thrillerfest in New York-she was surrounded by a group of laughing people. I thought--wow. That woman has FRIENDS. And they all seem to be so amused about something! At least, they were all smiling and patting Alison on the back and generally being supportive and affectionate.

I found out later they'd all been at a restaurant, and some stranger had--remember, Alison?-- thrown up on Alison's shoes.

I'd be just as happy to forget that. And I bet Alison would too.

But memory is on Alison's mind a lot these days--her brand new novel of suspense AND SHE WAS--explores what it would be like if...

...well, let Alison explain.


By Alison Gaylin

Perfect autobiographical memory. I have to say, the idea of it alone is enough to send someone like me, who has a pretty good -- okay probably too good of a memory of certain events in my life -- into a quivering panic. I first heard about this very real condition – the technical term for it is hyperthymesia -- around five years ago, from a magazine article my husband showed me. The article detailed a man who remembered every single day of his life from start to finish, in perfect detail and with all five senses.

“Could you imagine?” my husband said, his mind going to spy movie plots in which pages of complex codes could be read once by this guy and stored in his mind forever.

“No,” I replied. “I couldn’t imagine.” Because I, on the other hand, was thinking about that time in fifth grade when I ripped my pants. Would I really want to relive, with all five senses, the moment of choosing the ill-fated pants, without being able to stop it? Would I want the shriek of ripping cloth in my ears, the feel of cool air where it shouldn’t have been, the heat in my face, the peels of my classmates’ laughter… Would I want that happening all over again?

And that’s just one of many things I’ve experienced in my life that makes me so grateful, every day, for my ability to forget.

Here’s my theory: As we age, memories shift and shuffle in our minds, kind of like clothes in a washing machine. Some retain most of their color, while others fade and fray – and believe me, that’s good. Our fallible minds give us that aptly named thing called perspective -- the ability to keep the past in its place and move on from sad or embarrassing experiences. Right? If you don’t believe me, just ask the Men in Black.

There are, of course, plusses to having perfect autobiographical memory. You’d win most arguments, you probably wouldn’t misplace your keys, you’d be very well-suited for certain jobs (journalist, lawyer, private investigator… Marilu Henner is hyperthymestic, and I’m sure it served her well as an actress, too. )

But none of that appeals to me, though. If I had to relive, say, recovering from wisdom tooth surgery in exchange for always remembering where I put my keys well, I’d rather go key-free.

Still, the appeal of perfect memory is not lost on me, and there’s one positive aspect that I find too powerful to resist. I thought about this too after reading that article – and ultimately, it was why I decided to make my new series protagonist, Brenna Spector, hyperthymestic.

I would love to be able to close my eyes and fully remember one of the Dodgers games my dad and I used to go to – down to the taste of the hot dogs and the specific shouts of the crowd, the feel of the bleachers under my legs and the sun on my face, to my dad’s patient smile as he taught me how to fill out the scorebook, his eyes aimed at the field. More than anything, I would love to experience that wonderful safe feeling I had as a kid but took for granted – the feeling of everyone I ever loved still being alive.

My dad died ten years ago, and if I could spend one more day with him, even if it was just in my mind, I’d go through most anything for that.

Even ripping my pants. Again.

HANK: So, Reds, how's your memory these days? (Have you heard of any ways to make it better? Love to hear 'em...) Would you like to have perfect recall? Like Alison's baseball games, what do you remember that you know you can't really remember? What would you like to have back?


Alison Gaylin’s book AND SHE WAS (Harper) is the first in a new series featuring Brenna Spector – a missing persons investigator blessed, and cursed, with perfect autobiographical memory.

(Mary Lou Henner is one – check out this 1992 exercise video. Sixteen seconds in, she remembers the exact date – and day – that she came up with her workout routine! shuffling in our minds as we age with certain events taking precedence over others, which fade and soften and disappear completely. It’s how we get that aptly-named perspective and move on.


  1. And she was is one of my favourite books, I don't think anyone who have read it could forget it!

  2. Hi Alison,
    I can't wait to get the book and celebrate at your party next Tuesday (in NYC, at Mysterious Bookshop) I was very jealous when i saw you last November and you gave a copy to Jason Starr!

  3. Alison, congratulations! Tell us more..when you were writing, how did it change the story, knowing that she couldn't forget anything?

    And do you think of "memory" differently now?

  4. I was privileged to read early pages of this book, and I managed to snag an ARC from Alison in St. Louis. It's so amazing, this book. Everyone needs to read it!

  5. This sounds fascinating, Alison. I have a really good memory, especially for things like food and music. My husband rolls his eyes when I tell him that we had this menu at a little place in St. Martin twenty years ago.

    But misplaced keys? Not so great.

  6. What a fascinating concept! I definitely would not want to remember someone throwing up on my shoes. Glad your friends were there to console you. Best wishes on your release. Sounds fantastic!

  7. Thanks for the nice welcome, everybody! Hank's memory of my fouled shoes kinda proves my point about wanting to forget stuff, right? @Rosemary, I can't wait to see you either! (And I would have brought you a galley too if I'd have known!) @Hank It was super hard to keep track of everything - I should have known not to create a character with perfect memory when my own is FAR from perfect. The timeline had to be corrected like a million times. I thought the copy editor would murder me! Great to see you, Karen, Rhys (the one thing Im great at remembering is song lyrics!) and Donnell!

  8. Yes, that's exactly what I wondered, Alison! Since perfect memory is such a key to the can't finesse one bit! It's hard enough writing about fallible people...

    I'm so eager to read this!

    There IS a mystery about someone who can't remember anything , right? But I can't remember what it is..

  9. Sounds more like the story of my life... But Memento comes to mind! Yes, I honestly don't know why when I knew my character would have perfect memory, I decided to write a plot involving three mysteries, dozens of years apart. I think I'm a masochist. And I really hope you like it! And thank you @Karen -- I've felt the same way about your books!

  10. Also, I wanted to share with you guys... I just found out AND SHE WAS made the USA Today Bestseller list! It's my first time on any list (other than, like, people who need to return their library books.) I'm very thrilled!

  11. I thought I had a good memory until I saw the 60 Minutes episode on this -- including MaryLu Henner -- and realized I'm a piker. To always know a particular date was a Monday, or it was raining? Wow. There's a theory that memories are not stored in our own brains, but "in the cloud," in wave form, where we access them. So I guess these people have their heads in the clouds. :)

  12. Alison, congratulations on the USA Today list!!!

  13. A cloud! That's fascinating, Leslie... And wasn't that 60 minutes episode amazing? The thing that I find so incredible is that every memory would be just as detailed in your mind -- whether it's your wedding day, or the cornflakes you had for breakfast on January 8, 2007. Honestly I think my head would explode...

  14. Alison, congrats on the USA Today list!

    What a fascinating concept. My own memory is very spotty, which is certainly annoying. But I can't imagine wanting to be able to remember everything... Can people who have this choose what memories to pull up, or are they just bombarded all the time?

    How would you live in the present is your head was always full of the past?

    Leslie, love the cloud idea. Will have to do some reading--including Alison's book!

  15. Oh, my memory is starting its downward slide. The other day, I needed one thing, ONE THING, from the grocery store: vegetable broth. So in I go, and out I depart with a bagful of groceries, only to find that I'd forgotten the vegetable broth!

    As an aside, didn't Marilu Henner become an addict of some sort? It strikes me that having a perfect memory might not be so great, might lead some people to self-medicate. I have a friend who talks about the file system in her head. Sometimes she pauses in the middle of a conversation. "Is your brain digging through your file system?" I ask. She has an amazing memory, for sure. It's actually a bit weird sometimes.

    Interestingly, I'm struggling through a draft of a new story that features a man with perfect memory. So glad to know the word "hyperthymesia" now!

    I'm definitely going to pick up AND SHE WAS.

  16. The TV show "Unforgettable" is about a detective like this, so it is something I've been thinking about recently. Also, as I've done some work in eyewitness evidence, I find it very interesting the way in which our memories are encoded - not like a video camera. Yet it seems to be this way for people like this.

    I look forward to reading your book!

  17. @Deb "How can you live in the present.." Yes, exactly! And how can you forgive and forget when you can never forget? And how can you really be with the people around you, if your head is filled with people who are long gone? I had all those questions when I first found out about hyperthymesia. I've heard Marilu say she actually organizes her memories, but when I created Brenna, I figured she'd not be that organized...Writing someone with perfect memory was far-removed enough from who I am - I couldn't make her super-organized too!

  18. @Lisa I'd love to see your short story when you're done! And as for the downside of memory -- I always walk into rooms and think, "Why did I come in here again?" And then I have to walk out of the room before I remember. Sigh... Yeah, no perfect memory here.

  19. @Nancy - that's fascinating about memories being encoded. And I didn't know about Unforgettable until it aired, but I'm wondering if the creators saw that same magazine article I did....

  20. Now am going to watch Unforgettable as well as reading your book, Alison!

    I had a friend who had, if not hyperthymesia, something very close, although I had no idea there was a name for it. She could repeat long conversations that had happened years before verbatim, as well as times, dates, and details of events going back to her childhood. She also held grudges, which I suppose is understandable. She self-medicated heavily and ended up dying tragically.

    This "facility" would certainly necessitate a coping mechanism of some sort....

  21. I think Rosemary is glad she doesn't have hyperthymesia because it means she doesn't have to relive what she was thinking when she invited me on the blog yesterday. :)

    But I'm glad I came back, Alison, because 1) I've got a new book for my TBR; and 2) I get to say CONGRATULATIONS on the USA Today list!! Amazing!!

    And I hope this means you'll be able to afford some new pants.

  22. "Honestly I think my head would explode..."

    The people interviewed on 60 Minutes did say it got difficult at times, and really interfered with relationships. Here's a link for those who missed the broadcast -- or don't remember it!

    Couldn't quickly find a reference for cloud memory in humans. Jung's Akashic records theory is similar, but Lynne McTaggart discusses it in The Field, about the scientific bases for energy work, incl energy medicine. (My current in-the-car audio book!)

  23. @Deb What your friend had sounds very much like hyperthymesia. Your description is exactly what struck me about the syndrome. It's really so fascinating - but also so tragic.

  24. @Brad Great to see you here! But it was the shoes that got vomited on, not the pants. Or are you just making a comment about my taste in pants...

  25. Alison, I'm so eager to read the book. I went to school with someone who had this type of phenomenal memory. It didn't make for a happy life for him, sadly.

  26. @Darlene That's so interesting! It's incredible how many people actually know someone like this... It's gotta be a lot more common than we know. And I really hope you like the book!

  27. I want SELECTIVE perfect memory..:)

  28. Oh, WIlliam..what a perfect idea!

    IN the cloud. Oh. That's fascinating. Thinking about that now...

    And ALison-what fantastic news! Hurray hurray hurray...xoxo

  29. Thank you, Hank! And William, I do like the idea of selective perfect memory. I'd certainly like to remember this very fun day with you wonderful people for a very long while. (I know: Awwwww....)

  30. Thank you, Hank! And William, I do like the idea of selective perfect memory. I'd certainly like to remember this very fun day with you wonderful people for a very long while. (I know: Awwwww....)

  31. My fondest Gaylin memory: when she threw a drink in someone's lap...


  32. @Jeff And not just anyone either -- I threw a drink in the lap of a VERY important editor. An entire glass of white wine. Man. I'm a dork. And @Brad, I just realized you were referring to my fifth grade ripped pants story. See, I forgot I'd written about that...