“I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again”: A Woman’s Memory—and Dante’s “Inferno”

In Dante’s Inferno, the people in hell often seem to be experiencing recursive loops of suffering, forever reenacting—and recalling—the bad feelings that drove them to compulsively sin.

So it is, in the Inferno, that the adulterous couple Paolo and Francesca (in Canto 5) are blown about by the winds of their lust, even as they were in life, and are plagued with vivid memories of their affair.

Today in Spiegel Online, there is a curious article about a real woman who is tormented by unusual recall.

The woman’s experience seems to have resonances with the problems of the hell-bound in Dante’s poem.

Money quote:

Price can rattle off, without hesitation, what she saw and heard on almost any given date. She remembers many early childhood experiences and most of the days between the ages of 9 and 15. After that, there are virtually no gaps in her memory. “Starting on Feb. 5, 1980, I remember everything. That was a Tuesday.”

She can also date events that were reported in the media, provided she heard about them at the time. When and where did the Concorde crash? When was O.J. Simpson arrested? When did the second Gulf war begin? Price doesn’t even have to stop and think. She can effortlessly recite the dates, numbers and entire stories.

“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory,” she says. Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”

She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

And so it can happen that Price, as she sits in this restaurant, suddenly feels like a four-year-old girl again, who was supposed to visit the makers of “Sesame Street” at a studio with her kindergarten class. Her father, an agent who represented the creator of the Muppets, had organized the outing. But when the date approached, Jill contracted tonsillitis and was unable to go along.

“In retrospect, I know, of course, that it was not a big deal,” she says, nervously twisting her necklace. “It sounds ridiculous, but when I remember it I experience that same boundless disappointment and rage that I felt back then as a young child.” 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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