The Nature of Memory

Memoirist and Author
Augusten Burroughs does not possess the blessing of forgetfulness.
  • Transcript


Question: Is acute memory an affliction?

Augusten Burroughs: It’s a double-edged sword in the sense that it’s very vivid, so when I was writing "[A] Wolf at the Table," for example, my fingers were cold. It was like I was writing outside in the winter and my heart would be pounding and I would be scared. It was very real. Those memories come back and they come back in full force and it can be overwhelming so that’s one edge of the sword; that’s the side of the sword that cuts. 

The other edge is that it is possible to access those memories. Those aren’t lost to me. I know some people who don’t have any memories really before the age of 12 and I’m astonished by that. I’ve often been asked “How can you remember a conversation you had when you were 10?” And I just find it fascinating that you can’t, 'cause I can remember being a baby. I can remember being not only 15 months old, where A Wolf at the Table begins, but I can remember being about 8 months old, so it’s--my brother, John Elder Robison, has Asperger's syndrome, and he’s become--and he’s an authority on the topic and he does a lot of lectures and he does a lot of work with people who are on the spectrum. So that’s autism, Asperger’s, and he’s found out something very interesting in his meetings with people who have--who are neuroatypical in that many of them have incredible childhood memories, very vivid childhood memories. 

So my brother has wondered if perhaps Asperger’s, autism runs more deeply in the family than just within himself. His son was recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. They think he might have it. I don’t know that it’s a firm diagnosis but they’re thinking he’s looking like he might. Now if my nephew does have Asperger’s it’s sort of much lighter. It’s "Asperger’s Lite," because he’s very--he is very social but he’s a genius, an absolute genius, so my brother has wondered if perhaps there is some of that in me, if something in my brain is similar to what is in his brain and that’s why in fact we have this peculiar memory where our childhood is very accessible to us.

Question: Are memories ever truly accurate?

Augusten Burroughs: Memory is an interesting thing. The way that--my understanding of how memory works is when an event occurs the neurotransmitter basically tattoos the sort of neural fiber in a distinctive pattern and then that tattooed neural fiber is put away in a filing cabinet and that’s the memory. 

Now when you go back and you open that file drawer and you pull out that tattooed neuron the act of pulling it out of the file drawer changes the shape of the tattoo so a new couple of lines to the tattoo are added and the memory is no longer pure; it’s now a little bit different. So then you put it back and you take it out again and each withdrawal of that memory alters the physical memory in our brain. In other words, it--each time you recall a memory it alters the actual memory. 

The structure of the patterns of the neurotransmitters on the neuron in the brain is altered each time you access the memory so that when we have a memory from childhood. 

For example, when I was 6 my father tripped over the Christmas tree and all the Christmas ornaments broke, and then you tell that story every year for the rest of your life. By the time you’re 30, you’re no longer recalling the original incident. You are now telling the story of the story of the story so it becomes like a game of Telephone. Now the way I wrote A Wolf at the Table and Running with Scissors is interesting because these were periods of my life where I didn’t want to think about so when I turned 18--after "Running with Scissors," when I turned 18, the first thing I did after my birthday was change my first, middle and last name and move to California. I was a new person. I didn’t have that childhood; it never happened. 

Now although I had written these journals throughout that period of time, I didn’t read them. I didn’t throw them away but I didn’t read them. I kept them in a box and I just blocked it out of my head so that many years later when I came to write Running with Scissors and I read these journals those original memories that were created under enormous duress so they were very vivid came back in full force. And that’s why I was able to trust them because they were not memories that I had recycled and told and told and told and told again and warped in my head. They were very true and it was the same thing with A Wolf at the Table. So it’s fascinating how that works.

Recorded on: April 30, 2008.