Before my accident, I’d always thought of amnesia as a far-fetched plot device in soap operas and B-movies. Now I know from experience: Being inside the condition is terrifying.
Many years ago, I was in an accident where I suffered a serious head injury. I had both short- and long-term amnesia. I didn’t know who I was and I couldn’t retain new information. If someone left the room for 10 minutes and then returned, they’d have to re-introduce themselves. Hi, I’m Robert. We’re really good friends, we used to work together. I’d brush my teeth, sometimes several times in a row, not remembering I’d already done it until someone stopped me.
At first, the detachment was oddly peaceful; I literally had no cares. Then it wasn’t. Pieces of memories returned, which only highlighted what was still missing.
My apartment was filled with clues to the life I had before my accident — the sweet, affectionate long-haired cat whose name I didn’t know, notes on my desk from the last story I’d written for work. None of it meant anything. At first, the detachment was oddly peaceful; I literally had no cares. Then it wasn’t. Pieces of memories returned, which only highlighted what was still missing.
One of the few comforts I found was watching movies about amnesia. The idea came to me abruptly, and I asked friends to cull titles. I couldn’t always follow the storylines; I watched the movies over and over, rediscovering them anew each time. Something about seeing other people try to piece together their identities, just like I had to do, made me feel less alone. Here are five of my favorite movies about amnesia, to watch if you ever have amnesia.
“I guess I already told you about my condition.”
The mother of all amnesia movies, Memento begins at the chronological end of the story and ends at the beginning. It’s the tale of a man with short-term memory loss trying to find his wife’s killer. As he investigates her murder, he tattoos information and clues on his body so he won’t forget them. When I first saw Memento in the theater with a friend, we endlessly post-gamed, trying to make sense of the chronology. But on my second viewing, when I had amnesia, the reverse chronology and intentional story gaps worked! Because my brain was operating the same way. Sudden lapses, disorientation, nonlinear developments — everything made perfect sense.
“You’ve got to help me remember … People are trying to kill me.”
Why is it that in virtually every movie where a man loses his memory, he discovers that his true identity is that of a trained assassin, secret agent or spy, (see also: The Bourne Identity), but when an onscreen woman loses her memory, she just forgets who her boyfriend is (see also: 50 First Dates — or rather, don’t see it)? Total Recall, at least, belongs in the former category. It stars a young Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid (if that’s even his real name), a construction worker who may or may not be a secret agent traveling back and forth to Mars. It’s a solid action movie, with dated but still-entertaining special effects and a quintessentially ‘80s vision of the future. Watching it with a head injury gives one hope — if Schwarzenegger can piece together his true identity, so can we all.
The Bourne Identity
“I don’t want to know who I am anymore.”
An Italian fishing boat picks up a bullet-ridden amnesiac (Matt Damon) floating in the sea. He has no idea how he got there, or that he is really a trained assassin (see also: Total Recall). The first and, let’s be honest, best film in the Bourne series. The thing about amnesia is this: You’re the only one without the answers. The people around you don’t have amnesia; everyone knows everything except for you. At a certain point in the movie, our hero embraces his state and amnesia becomes his superpower, freeing him from his past. If he stops trying to find out who he is, what a nice, unencumbered life he could have on an island somewhere.
“There was an accident. I came here.”
A glorious exception to my “50 First Dates rule,” Mulholland Drive is one of my all-time favorite films, and not only because the protagonist is an amnesiac without boyfriend problems. (Rita has bigger concerns than forgotten lovers.) Following a car accident, she wanders through Hollywood in the wee hours, carrying a purse full of hundred-dollar bills and a triangle-shaped key to who knows what. Also, someone might be trying to kill her. Dreamy-slash-nightmare-y David Lynch is truly just what the doctor ordered when you have amnesia: disjointed narratives. Altered realities. There’s no mystery to be solved; just go along for the ride. Everything’s going to be okay.
50 First Dates
“About a year ago, Lucy was in a terrible car accident — she lost her short-term memory …”
Here’s the one not to watch. When, years after my accident, people learned about my amnesia, they’d frequently ask, “Oh, like 50 First Dates?” and chuckle. No. Not like 50 First Dates. Look, I really tried to watch this movie, several times, and couldn’t get through it: Adam Sandler plays a commitment-phobic veterinarian who falls in love with a whimsical bohemian (Drew Barrymore) with no short-term memory. The film ends (spoiler alert) with Barrymore’s character never getting her memory back. She goes on to live her whole life as a perpetual blank slate, unable to create new memories or even recall the daughter she now has. It’s depressing. Fifty First Dates is not a great watch when you have amnesia. Or ever.