Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Deficient episodic memory in my short story “The Bourne Indeterminacy”

I wrote my second completed short story, “The Bourne Indeterminacy”, about 2 years ago. At the time, I hadn’t yet learned about aphantasia or about the memory condition which appears often to accompany it. I first heard that condition referred to as SDAM (severely deficient autobiographical memory) but, to avoid begging too many questions, I prefer to use the expression deficient episodic memory, which I think is a broader category.

Looking back at “The Bourne Indeterminacy”, it’s clear to me that I was already feeling my way towards an idea of deficient episodic memory before I’d ever heard the expression. The unnamed narrator thinks a lot about films (such as The Bourne Identity) and other stories with amnesia plots and it’s clear that he finds them particularly compelling (as do I).

The narrator says that he can’t remember having asked his ex-wife, Karen, out for the first time. What he can recall is her account of that event. He’s describing the process by which so-called semantic memory substitutes for and fills in the gaps in episodic memory. When I wrote that passage, I wasn’t familiar with those terms, but the process seemed true to life. It corresponded with my own experience.

A year later, I wrote the story “Body” (which I’ve since renamed “The asymmetry of desire”). By then I had already found Blake Ross’s illuminating account of the discovery that he has aphantasia. I’d immediately felt that Ross’s post had the potential to answer a lot of questions that I’d had about my own mental and imaginative processes, but then I put it aside and forgot about it because I believed that Ross’s claim — that a large majority of the population, not including himself, had a vivid, graphic mental life — was both implausible and impossible to verify.

In short, at the time I posted “Body”, I wasn’t yet persuaded that aphantasia was an atypical condition (I’d even forgotten what it was called); and I hadn’t the slightest suspicion that it might have any implications for episodic memory. However, in “Body”, there’s a similar reference to that in “Bourne” to the substitution of “semantic” memory for episodic.

The narrator, a Mr Gordon, is asked if he can remember ever having wanted during his childhood to have a female body instead of the male one he was born with. Gordon does indeed remember this. At first he believes it happened when he was 10 or 11 but when he probes the recollection he sees that he was in fact much younger, in a playpen. He remembers having remembered the earlier memory. I don’t make this clear in the story but I now see that I was assuming that he doesn’t actually remember the original feeling. Instead, by recalling the fact of having remembered it as a 10- or 11-year-old (“semantic” memory) he can be sure that it occurred.

So it seems to me that in both these stories I was working towards (among other things) the idea that “semantic” memory might be used to supplement deficient episodic memory.

I’m still not sure that either of these stories is any good as a story, but at least I now think I understand both of them a bit better.