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I Forgot to Remember

A Memoir of Amnesia
By Su Meck, Daniel de Vise

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for I Forgot to Remember includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Su Meck. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Introduction

    At twenty-two, Su Meck was married with two children when a ceiling fan fell and struck her on the head. She survived the injury, but when she regained consciousness in the hospital, she didn’t know her own name, didn’t recognize a single family member or friend, couldn’t read or write or brush her teeth or use a fork—and she had no memories of her life. No one had any idea how bad her memory loss really was, and after only three weeks she was sent back into the world to raise her children and run a household, even though she had no idea how to do any of it. For more than twenty years, Su wrestled not only with questions of who she really was and who she wanted to be but how to simply get by day by day. I Forgot to Remember is the story of a woman who had to grow up all over again and finally take control of the strange second life she had awoken to.

    Topics & Questions for Discussion

    1. A memoir by a woman with no memories is a strange concept, but how different is it from other memoirs, which tend to be pulled together from long-ago memories? Do you trust Su’s story more—as it’s been pieced together from many sources—or less than you would a memoir by another writer? What does your answer say about the nature of the genre?

    2. Su talks about the difficulties of parenting with no memories of being parented. In what ways are we all reliant on the parenting skills we’ve been taught? Do the roles her children take on in reaction to her needs support your answer?

    3. After the accident, Su relies on routines to make her days make sense. How much do you rely on routines to structure your life? If your routines were taken away, would you be as confused as Su? Why or why not?

    4. One of the more frustrating experiences for Su was when people believed her memory loss stemmed from psychological, not physical, sources. Do you think it matters what caused it? How might its cause change your perception of Su’s injuries and the difficulties she faces?

    5. “I think I was probably trying to prove how genuine I really was, somehow. Because inside I felt so much like a fraud.” Do you think all of us do this on some level? Why or why not?

    6. How reliable of a narrator do you think Su is? Do you find it problematic that Jim gets so many basic facts about her accident wrong? What about the memories of the other people, such as her kids? How much do you trust their memories? How does it affect your reading?

    7. In what ways do the various settings—the tract house in Texas, the homes in suburban Maryland, the deluxe but stifling hotel in Egypt—shape the events that took place there and how we understand them?

    8. Su has no memories of her life before the accident and very few of the years that immediately followed. She is dependent on other people’s memories of what happened to understand her own life. How different is this from the way the rest of us live? Are we all, in some way, a reflection of other people’s ideas about us? Why or why not?

    9. Jim is one of the more complicated people in the book. In some ways, he comes off as a saint, helping and teaching and loving Su. On the other hand, he is largely absent, is verbally and physically abusive, and cheats on her. Do you ultimately see more good than bad in Jim? Why or why not? What do you make of the fact that Su loves him anyway?

    10. “I have always loved Jim, and I have never loved Jim. In a way, Jim was assigned to me. I never really had a say.” How much do we choose who we love? How much of it do you think is circumstance?

    11. After Su finds out Jim has had multiple affairs and spent tens of thousands of dollars on other women, things are rough between them, but she ultimately forgives him. Why do you think she did? Did she have any other choice? Do you think it shows weakness or strength on her part? Would you have forgiven Jim?

    12. Toward the end of the book, Su finds out that she had an old boyfriend named Neal, a man her friends and family assure her was her first love. She has no memory of him, but then she remembers that there was a time when she didn’t remember or love her husband or children either. “And yet the expectation, and eventually the reality, was that I loved all of these people.” What does this say about the nature of love? Do you believe love must be immediate, or can it grow over time? Is romantic love different than maternal love? Do we choose love, or does it choose us?

    13. “If I didn’t have Jim, I wouldn’t have me.” In light of all Jim has put Su through, and in light of all he did for her, do you agree? Is Su who she is largely because of Jim? Do you think she would have become a different person if she had married Neal? How do the people we surround ourselves with shape who we become?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. Have each person in the group write down their memories of the happiest day of their life. What sorts of details do you remember? What would happen if you lost this memory?

    2. Watch a movie about memory loss, such as Memento, The Bourne Identity, 50 First Dates, Mulholland Drive, or Spellbound. How is memory loss portrayed differently in these movies than in this book?

    3. Research one of the organizations that raises awareness of and money for traumatic brain injury, including the Brain Trauma Foundation (https://www.braintrauma.org/) and Nick Kot Charity for TBI (http://www.nickkotcharitynfp.com/). Could your group organize a bake sale or other fund-raiser to support these worthy causes?

    A Conversation with Su Meck In the introduction, you talk about the difficulty of writing a memoir with no memories of the first twenty-two years of your life. Did you find the process easier or harder than you imagined? Did you uncover things you didn’t expect?

    Not that I ever imagined writing any of this, but I have to say that writing this book was way harder than I ever could have imagined. I do think maybe memoirs are the hardest kind of book to write, in general, because memoirs force writers to put themselves onto the page, warts and all. And being able to do that honestly and effectively is a real challenge, I would think, for anyone. This process was obviously made more difficult for me because I didn’t have a clear understanding of who I was, and even still am, in the first place. I explore this concept in the book, but I cannot even really begin to explain how problematic it was, and still is, having to depend so much on the varied, often contradictory, stories of others.

    Yes, there were many unexpected things that were uncovered. The biggest of all is the degree to which my family and friends saw me as back to normal and pretty much fine—with just a few “memory issues”—simply because that’s what they wanted to see and believe. There were so many strange incidents that happened that were overlooked; so many odd remarks that I made that were ignored; tons of little quirks that I had that were simply disregarded over the years. And on the flip side, and just as astonishing, is the degree to which I was an actual accomplice to all of this. I have asked people—mostly Jim and my parents—numerous times over the past two years as I have been writing, “Didn’t you think it was weird that I said that? Or acted that way?” They will often laugh and then give me pretty much the same answer every time: “Well, we do now!” And then those same people will admit to me that they didn’t understand and realize all of the difficulties I was having.

    I have gained a far greater appreciation for everything my kids have done for me through the years. That being said, I also feel guilty that I didn’t even ever realize their incredible efforts on my behalf all along. It must have been such a struggle for them at times. The dynamics of our family were clearly far from conventional, and yet Benjamin, Patrick, and Kassidy just accepted things the way they were and did what needed to be done.

    Tell us about the process of writing this memoir. You mention in the book that you had trouble meeting deadlines because you find time difficult to keep straight in your mind. Dan de Visé, who wrote the initial article about you in The Washington Post, helped with the research and writing. Was that an easy process? How collaboratively did you work?

    I met Dan de Visé for the first time in the spring of 2011, when he came to our house to interview me for the Washington Post article. When I made the decision to attempt to write a book about my experiences, I was initially more than a little bit overwhelmed and daunted by the task, so I asked Dan if he would be willing to help me. Dan agreed, and our first task was to write a book proposal that would be sent around to several publishing houses to gauge interest. Dan came back to the house a few times that summer, and through our conversations, he collected various anecdotes that could be used for the book proposal. Neither Dan nor I had ever written a book proposal—I had never even heard of a book proposal—and we didn’t get too much guidance, so we were a bit like the blind leading the blind at first.

    Then, Jim and I left Maryland late in August and moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in order for me to start at Smith College in the fall. From that point on, Dan and I rarely spoke and I haven’t seen him in person since August 2011. He interviewed my parents, my sister Barb, and Neal at one point, and also spoke to Jim a few times when he had specific questions. But for the most part, aside from a handful of e-mails, we didn’t really collaborate at all. I did my thing, and Dan did his.

    It had been my original plan to try to write for the book every day, seven days a week. But I found it extremely hard to work on my book on the days and weeks when I also had to write papers for my Smith College classes. For whatever reason, I couldn’t ever switch gears effectively between academic writing and the kind of writing I used when telling my story. Because of that limitation, great portions of the book came from hours and hours spent writing during my winter and spring breaks from school. And then additional large sections were written in Josten Library during the summer after my first year. Mostly because it was one place on campus that was quiet and had air-conditioning.

    Do you think your friends and family will be surprised by some of what they read in this book? What do you hope their reaction will be?

    I didn’t initially think who people that know me well, especially my family, would be shocked by what I had written. But when I e-mailed out copies of a nearly finished manuscript to my parents and my brothers and sisters, I got some surprising reactions. Some of my sister Barb’s comments: “How did you manage to survive this?” And “I want to cry at parts of your story and I can only be thankful that you don’t remember much of what happened during this time.” And then my brother Mark: “The whole story helps me to understand the context through which you were functioning. I (probably like everyone else) just assumed after a little while that you were fine. Thank you for helping me to understand the whole picture.”

    My parents’ reaction was a mixed bag. I am certain they are proud of me, but I got a phone call from my mom late in August, and she mentioned that she hadn’t been sleeping well “since reading my book.” I was intrigued. She went on to say that all of the “language” and “the teenage sex” were getting to her and that I shouldn’t include any of that stuff. She said things like “What will all our friends think?” and “I raised you kids better than that!”

    I was certainly upset by her reaction, because, like most authors, I want people to read my book and like it, or even love it! But I also know realistically that not everyone who reads my book will like it, or even believe it. And I will have to learn how to be okay with that.

    You hadn’t seen most of your medical records until you started working on this book, and then, you say, they raised more questions than answers. How did it feel to see the discrepancies between what different doctors said? How did you decide, especially so long after the fact, who to believe?

    had not seen any of my medical records from Texas until 2012, and I was more than a little disappointed by them. I was truly expecting that after reading through these official documents, I would somehow have all the answers to all of my questions, and then writing this book would be a snap, or at least easier. Instead, the medical records did just the opposite by raising even more questions. I ended up having to depend on what people told me about my time in the hospital instead of accepting a lot of what was in my records as the truth. I honestly still don’t know what to make out of all the inconsistencies and outright mistakes detailed in my records.

    How have common perceptions of amnesia—what you refer to as “Hollywood amnesia”—affected how people respond to your story?

    Most people have a fairly consistent reaction when they find out about me: “OMG! You’re kidding! You don’t remember anything from your childhood?” Sometimes I get: “You poor thing!” But the thing people have to keep in mind is that I don’t know any differently. This is my life. And for a long time I didn’t even realize that I was impaired in any way, so, except for the lightning episodes, and almost unknowingly trying to blend in, I was fairly unaware and mostly content.

    For me, what is especially interesting now is connecting with other people in the TBI community who have had similar experiences with amnesia, and similar reactions from the medical community regarding their amnesia.

    I recently discovered www.brainline.org, a fabulous website that posts information on “preventing, treating, and living with traumatic brain injury.” Publishing this kind of information online opens up endless avenues for discussion, ideas, treatments, and services to anyone dealing with TBI in any way.

    You mention that some people prefer your new personality to who you were before. Do you find statements like that hard to deal with? How do you typically respond?

    For many years I think I was mostly confused when people would say things like that. I didn’t necessarily equate “personality” to “the way I acted” or “my character.” I was under the impression that my “personality” was me. I thought of it as more “person me” because the end of the word, ty, even rhymed with, and was therefore connected somehow to me. Go figure! I would get frustrated and confused that people would say that I was not meanymore, and yet somehow that was a good thing. But then I would also be told, “You always loved to swim!” or “Don’t you remember when we went [somewhere] and you did [something] and you were so funny?” I never knew quite how to react. Most of the time I just laughed and went along with whatever was said.

    In 2010, when I started to openly talk about all of this, I began to gain an appreciation for what it meant to be my own person, with my own thoughts and feelings about things. Taking classes and working toward a degree at Montgomery College helped me to realize that I could think for myself and develop my own personality. And it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have the same personality as I used to. Who I “used to be” was all but irrelevant. This new awareness that I had for myself was a really big deal!

    These days I attempt to ignore it when such things are said. I have a little bit more faith in myself now than I used to, and I am who I am. Not to say that it isn’t incredibly easy for me to slip back into my old habits, where I actively try to figure out “who exactly am I supposed to be right now” and “how am I supposed to be acting.” But for the most part, I just try my best to be me. To be Su.

    You talk a lot about how your kids took care of you when they were young, and mention that you and Kassidy grew up together. Now that your kids are grown up, do you feel that your relationship is more parental, or are you something more like friends?

    Remember, I am more grown up now, too!

    I don’t think I ever had what could be honestly called a “parental” relationship with my kids. I acted like a parent sometimes by doing and saying stuff that I observed other parents doing and saying. Especially when we were out and about with other families. But when it was just the four of us, we acted more like siblings with each other. We argued like siblings, we shared inside jokes like siblings, we competed with each other like siblings often do, and sometimes we even teamed up with, and against, each other.

    So many parenting books talk about how it is best if parents give their children definitive rules and guidelines, because children crave those kinds of boundaries. Parenting books will often also say that one of the worst things parents can do is to try to be friends with their children. But then I think there are probably as many different ways to raise children as there are parents and children. In my case, my kids and I continue to be the best of friends.

    How did you choose the song title that starts off every chapter?

    Each chapter had a dozen or more songs associated with it when I began writing. As chapters became more finalized, I either totally got rid of or sometimes just moved certain song titles to other chapters. Somehow they needed to feel to me as if they fit with the chapters. I wanted every chapter title to give subtle hints—and sometimes not so subtle—to the reader as they read.

    One other “rule” I had for myself was that a different band or artist would represent every chapter. I could have just as easily picked songs from only the Who or Queen or Pink Floyd, for example, for every chapter, but I wanted the variety, because there’s so much music that I love.

    Are you still enrolled at Smith College? What are you studying? What has been your favorite thing about being there?

    I am currently enrolled in my first semester of my senior year at Smith College, with my plan being to graduate in May 2014. I am a proud member of the Ada Comstock Scholars—the one hundred nontraditional-age students on campus. In fact, one of my best Smith memories was performing in the first annual “Ada Monologues” in the spring of 2012.

    I am a music major at Smith, with a book studies concentration. As a drummer, my future aspirations include being part of a local rock band someday. Unfortunately, that particular aspiration hasn’t always fit in too well with the mostly classical course of study here at Smith. But I have had fun being a part of, and performing with, the Smith College Glee Club, the Chamber Singers, and the Smith Handbell Choir.

    Since being at Smith, I have become a strong proponent of a liberal arts education as I learn how to think about, write about, communicate with, explain to, argue with, and consider differing opinions of people throughout the world. I also have had a wonderful work-study job in Smith’s main library—Neilson Library—since my first semester. I get to work for the best supervisor ever—Joe Bialek—processing new books and media; processing and sending broken, sad books to the bindery; searching for lost books; and occasionally shelving. I sometimes think that what I have learned working every day in Neilson Library is just as important as what I have learned from my professors and fellow classmates in my classes.

    What’s next for you? What do you hope to do when you graduate from Smith?

    I plan on staying here in Paradise—a nickname for Northampton, Massachusetts, because it was known as “the Paradise City” in the 1850s—and I hope to write another book or two.

    There are so many other situations, people, and anecdotes that, for whatever reason, were edited out of this book. In a perfect world, I would be given the chance to rewrite and publish a lot of that material, giving me the opportunity to explain even further what it is like to live both as someone with TBI as well as offer some more insight, from Jim’s perspective, as to what it is like to live with someone with TBI. Plus, I would very much enjoy writing about my adventures as a student here at Smith. My time here has been quite the wild ride.

    I also have a vague idea in my head for a series of children’s books that might help explain TBI in a more kid-friendly way—without all the language and teenage sex. I am certainly no artist, so I have preliminarily asked my sister Diane if she would perhaps be willing to be my illustrator. What fun it would be to work so closely with Diane if these books actually become a reality. You end by saying that you hope your story brings awareness of traumatic brain injury. What can your readers do to help spread the word about the devastating affects of this condition?

    If something should happen to me, somehow preventing me from having the chance to do anything more in my lifetime, it is my greatest hope that this book can one way or another at least start to help people understand and appreciate exactly how debilitating TBI can be. This condition exhibits itself in people in so many different ways, with very few of those ways even considered to a skeptical medical community. It would be great if people with TBI could find their own ways to speak out and spread the word about their conditions and their own experiences even if it means getting viewed by others with suspicion. I never realized what a horrible disservice I did to people with similar circumstances as me by staying quiet, and trying to be invisible, for so long. Looking back, I was kind of selfish. And I cannot explain the great relief it has been to share my story.

    I also cannot stress enough how important it is for caretakers of people with TBI to please be patient. It is oftentimes left up to you to be the one and only advocate for your struggling spouse, parent, child, sister, or brother. And that role is not going to be an easy one for a variety of reasons. Doctors, nurses, therapists, and even friends and relatives may think that you are just as crazy as the person suffering from TBI. The person who you are trying your best to care for may drive you to drink, or worse. If there are children involved, please look out for their safety. It was but for the grace of God that Benjamin, Patrick, Kassidy, and I all lived to tell this tale. But I think my story shows that with time, remarkable things can happen.

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