Humans Made of Memories
Bethany Morrow’s “MEM” is a science fiction book that also illuminates my grandmother’s experience with dementia
Dementia impairs not only memory but the personality and ability to reason. A once sensible person appears illogical. Someone with a mind that rarely forgot details has them go fuzzy — blurring the whole picture not only the edges. The loss of memory, as I’ve witnessed, rewrites everything about a person. When it started happening to my grandmother, I readily found explanations for her haze: too much medication, malnutrition, dehydration, water retention, insomnia. The birthday cards and holiday tins she sent, ones that used to arrive like clockwork, had all but stopped two years earlier. The money sent to her? “Who the hell knows,” my mother, her de facto caretaker, answered when asked. Everyone in my family found an excuse for why my grandmother had suddenly become impaired, why the woman we knew didn’t match the one we witnessed and heard about.
Dementia, Alzheimer’s, a gradual loss of self has been written about in our reality, but in Bethany Morrow’s debut novel MEM, memory loss and removal serves as the impetus for a fight for freedom. The primary character, Dolores Extract №1 (aka Elsie) made similar excuses as I would for my grandmother’s memory loss. Elsie observes her friends “…. losing track of time; … misplacing a teaspoon though she held it in her hand; … missing the trolley stop she used for ages. It turned out these were a very small price for her to pay…” The price to pay for losing memory or, in the case of MEM extracting it, made Elsie a guide for me to consider how instrumental memory is to our personality. Within Elsie’s friend something appears to be missing that she cannot latch onto. For Elsie, once the truth is revealed to her, once she cannot ignore those “quirks,” her friend’s distance is clearly a loss she could not help. It was also one she did not choose. Those parallels struck me hard, because being “in” on the reasoning doesn’t make it any easier; it can, in some ways make the reality scarier.
In Bethany Morrow’s debut novel MEM, memory loss and removal serves as the impetus for a fight for freedom.
When my grandmother’s mind began to fade, it was the little things that got my mother’s attention. The newly purchased box of Ritz now depleted; my grandmother claimed a visitor had eaten all of it. My grandmother insisted she’d talked to people just that day whom she hadn’t corresponded with in weeks. Missing checks, no deposits, depleting bank accounts. She insisted she took pills that upon recount she couldn’t have. These bits added up to bigger holes. My mother called me while I was walking up Queens Blvd, “I think your grandmother has dementia, like her mother.”
These bits of the everyday — something many of us take advantage of in abled bodies and neurotypical minds that recollect process — are lost due to the larger parts of self that have been removed and faded. There is no healing from memory loss. It’s not the same as those “brain fart” moments folks snap their fingers to in an attempt to recollect a name, a destination, a moment. This is far more permanent, the reality blurring, the insistence on why unclear as well. And the frustration, as my grandmother showed, was one of the biggest parts. Having someone witness your decline in real time can’t easily be overcome, no matter how much people like me and Elsie tried to explain it away.
In the world of MEM, Elsie is the titular Mem: a clone of a person (a Source) imbued with certain of the Source’s memories, which they live over and over. But Elsie is not simply a Mem; she is also an anomaly, the longest surviving extraction from another person. As a Mem, as a woman even, Elsie is property, yet she has the opportunity to live as any individual would. Inexplicably to those who came before and after her, Elsie exists as more than Mem, though not quite human to the larger population — it’s an odd and fraught dichotomy. The book begins with Elsie’s return to the Vault, the place of her “birth.” She’s been summoned back as the property she’s deemed to be by those who want her to exist within the confines of her origination, no longer able to live a life of her own making.
As Elsie explains, when Mems look at you they do not see you. “She was trapped in a single moment. She and every other memory were, quite literally, single-minded, replaying themselves every minute of every hour of the day and then watching their origins at night.” They see someone else, are in a different moment altogether. Elsie, as an extract, experiences memories, but she does so as a clone of Dolores, a replication of who Dolores could have been sans extractions. At one point my grandmother did not see my mother, her eldest child. As her dementia crept up and bloomed out, she yelled at my mother, saying she should be ashamed of herself. In that moment my mother realized that her mother was seeing not her, but a woman who had been a part of the dissolution of her 40-year marriage. It was one of the few times my mother yelled back, which turned out to be what it took to snap my grandmother out of this moment. When they talked later my grandmother admitted she hated this, all of it. “I know,” my mother said in an attempt to soothe though this moment in itself would also be lost among many recent memories. My grandmother would mourn many things in her life, but in her last year her inability to retain a sense of self unraveled her as much as it did those of us watching over her.
Much of MEM interprets the reality of recollection; memory itself is a strong indicator of who people are and what makes people whole. As I read it, the book emphasizes how much the essence of an individual depends on memory along with the turmoil and beauty within those retrospections. In MEM, the extraction process creates carbon copies of the Source housing a memory of the Source’s choosing. Aside from Elsie there are shells left behind as Mems expire or become worse off. It’s not only the Mems, but the Sources who may be husks of who they were or could have been. Chapters, passages, moments, brought me back to the loss of memory and its importance, especially within families, in attempting to carry legacy from one generation to another. The memory of an impermeable Black woman was altered when witnessing my grandmother’s mood shifts and her suspicion for everyone around her. This is a memory I know I won’t forget.
Does memory make us more or less cautious, more or less mindful, more or less guided in how we pursue our lives? Would my grandmother’s life be different if she didn’t remember the tragedies of losing a child months after birth or another one killed due to an inside job at a bank, his name never once mentioned in the local papers of the time? My grandmother didn’t get to handpick the memories she lost, as wealthy Sources do in MEM, ones that were intended to help them “heal from painful memories” though “the poor had as many as the wealthy.” In fact, the ones she still held on to didn’t seem to cater to what she’d prefer to recollect at will. The painful ones surfaced most often, and perhaps in lieu of that the good ones tended to recede into the background. A certain amount of willfulness was shed as well, an understanding as to what was happening in moments and how depleting it was to know none of this was under her control. In MEM not everyone is in the driver’s seat as to the results of extraction. As Elsie states, “The overwhelming majority of extractions continued to be exercises in purging.” And this “purging” doesn’t come with guaranteed results—it actually creates a big question mark, much like dementia. With dementia there’s no guarantee of anything except this will not stop. It won’t necessarily get better, as I had hoped time and time again as months extended to a year to a couple years. Like dementia for the one dealing with it firsthand and those seeking to provide relief, in MEM and in life, memory loss is not without consequence for all parties involved. But for the wealthy it’s an attempt to protect. The hurtful moments gone or the good ones meant to live on beyond the body of the inhabitant of said memories. This was not so much about retaining culture as it was about retaining power and blissful ignorance. But, for my family, for me, the loss of these memories meant a burden on family to protect what’s been passed down, to try and extract what hadn’t yet been said. To be able to take the good or bad would allow us to understand the person we were speaking to, but the reliving of these moments and the attempt to understand where they came from became difficult as it does for Elsie, as it does for Dolores, as it does for those who care for them both.
In “MEM” and in life, memory loss is not without consequence for all parties involved.
There seems to be a scary legacy in my family that those who are the most verbose, the most ardent and active in preserving the family, end up losing their memories in old age, particularly the matriarchs. I wonder how memory is so unique to each of us but also incredibly necessary as well. The storage of these moments over time, layers upon layers of accumulated knowledge and experiences that allow us to become who we are and to lose those stories, those people, those recollections ultimately casts a fade on our family, our history, our culture. For Dolores, the real Dolores this became evident physically as well as emotionally.
The consequences blend into an erasure of self. Who are you without those inherent memories that lead you to make decisions based on experience? Who was my grandmother without the knowledge of what the South was as a child, as a visitor when she cared for her grandparents in old age, and as a returning inhabitant in old age. The woman she was who was active, who was persistent, who cared for those in the generations that preceded her and came after her would now need a caretaker, was now suffering the same fate she’d seen her mother face as not being able to pinpoint even when this happened but knowing, simply, it was in the past. This will that drove her to get up everyday was sapped and I think with the lack of those memories that struck her as to who she was a clear identity she became, and she admitted this as she had seen it up close in those spurts of recollections that came back to her “a problem.” Where we didn’t see her that way, we couldn’t ignore that she wasn’t who she used to be because of this loss, not due to extraction but without any willful justice that we could perceive. In MEM the extraction process is a luxury; even the creator of the procedure notes it as such, recognizing that even those in a lower socioeconomic class could use the option, but even if they could afford it would they use it and would they do so as frequently as the upper class does to “protect” themselves from harm and hurt? Would that translate across class or mainly be seen as optional?
Who are you without those inherent memories that lead you to make decisions based on experience?
One of the last moments I got to sit with my grandmother in her bedroom to ask a little about her migration from South Carolina to Nassau County. The smoke from a cigarette held between her fingers spiraled upward. The smell of it filled her home and clung to my clothes like a second skin. In her nightgown she sat slightly slumped in bed, speaking in her Southern smoker’s drawl, slower than usual. She sounded like herself, chuckled at a flicker of a memory only she knew, and tried to relay to me to type. It was one of those moments when I attempted to fool myself into thinking, “Perhaps this dementia is not as bad as we all think it is.” My grandmother was telling me that my grandfather failed to inform her of the right station (bus or train) to meet him at when she got to Hempstead. It was 1950, there were no cell phones, and as fate would have it they’d link up. “How’d you find each other?” I asked. She scoffed, “Kindred spirits, I guess.” After a few minutes — these conversations didn’t take place more than ten or so minutes at a time — she expressed her exhaustion and I helped her back into bed. Whether that moment was solely happy or tinged with regret, I couldn’t say. But in the memory I have a strong sense my grandmother wanted to hold onto as long as she could.