About the Author
Marilu Henner is a New York Times bestselling author and actor best known for her roles in Taxi and Evening Shade and for her participation in The Celebrity Apprentice. Her life-changing books include Total Memory Makeover, Wear Your Life Well, Marilu Henner’s Total Health Makeover, and Healthy Life Kitchen. She lives in Los Angeles.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Total Memory Makeover Chapter One
Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it—memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.
I grew up as one of six kids in a busy, noisy Catholic family in a lower-middle-class neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago. My father was in the automobile business, and my family ran a dancing school in our garage. My mother also ran a beauty shop in our kitchen. Everyone hung out at our house, and we were famous for our parties. We thought of ourselves as the Kennedys of Logan Square, and it seemed to me as if everything that happened in our family was important and memorable. But it wasn’t just because of my family’s popularity; I can see now that my father had a lot to do with the development of my desire to remember.
One of my father’s favorite sayings was “There are three parts to every event: anticipation, participation, and recollection, and the greatest of these is recollection!” Perhaps it was because of his own great memory that my dad—a troubleshooter in the automobile business who made it a point to remember things about his customers—instilled in all of his kids this love for recollection. My family would spend weeks in the anticipation phase planning for one of our famous parties, imagining who was going to be there, figuring out what music would be played, what each of us would wear, the food my mom would serve, and what we all had to do to get ready for the party. The party itself (participation) was always the highlight of the season, whether it was a pool party at the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge, a beach party at Sand-Lo Beach, a record party where everyone brought a 45 and replenished my mother’s collection, or one of our famous Christmas parties with a hundred and twenty-five people packed in our garage/studio. These gatherings were always exciting, but even more fun was had the next day recounting, reliving, and analyzing everything that had transpired throughout the night before.
“Can you believe what she was wearing?” “Did you notice how much they were flirting?” “How great a dancer was that new guy?” We couldn’t wait to compare notes after every big occasion. In fact, reminiscing about the party was, in itself, an event not to be missed. Friends would come over to help us clean up just to be involved in the actual party’s “recollection party,” which then often needed its own recollection party!
Recollection became my favorite part of any event, and it would certainly last longer than the participation phase, and more often than not, even longer than the anticipation. Over time, we would continue to refer back to those party images and stories and carry them through to the next event and its recollection.
I loved these memory sessions and began to see everything in my life in this way: anticipation, participation, and recollection (APR). At these recollection sessions and in everyday life, I was so good at remembering the smallest details about everything that happened or was taught to me that I was nicknamed Univac and the Memory Kid. As one of six children (like a litter of puppies!) you are always looking for something that distinguishes you from the others, and although everyone in my family is very smart, no one had my memory. I walked around so fired up and in perpetual motion (another nickname) that my mother would often say to me, “Mari! Go run around the block a couple of times!” just to get me to burn off some of that excess energy that I was so famous for.
I also loved to mentally take note of everything, because it was my way of having homework just like my two older sisters, who were five and ten grades ahead of me. It gave me a certain power to know that I could spend an entire day “recording” everything for myself, putting it somewhere in my brain, and be certain that I would never lose any of it.
My Story of HSAM
Even as a very young child, I began creating exercises and routines that helped me develop my memory. One particular routine began on Saturday, October 24, 1959, the night before I was to receive my First Holy Communion. I was only seven years old and in second grade, but I knew that I was facing the biggest day of my life thus far, and I was so euphoric that I wanted to remember every little feeling I was having before going to sleep. I decided to play a little game with myself, in which I tried to remember every day that had led up to that moment starting with the most recent. What did I do a week ago? Two weeks ago? Three weeks ago? I even started to go back to the previous years and the year before that, remembering specific days from first grade and kindergarten.
Over time, this exercise became not only my routine to fall asleep, but also a way to mentally challenge and exercise my brain to the point that I could “time-travel” back to: What did we do each day of our vacation? What was I doing when I was exactly to the day my younger brother Lorin’s age? My niece Lizzy’s age? And it was not just about touching down on a fleeting image or a feeling from the past, but rather going deeper and deeper into memories and specific moments, exploring my past through the lens of the present.
As I grew up, what began as a mental game to challenge myself and relish my First Holy Communion became a nightly routine and a chance to revisit and meditate on my past day, week, year, or decade. Memories became so vivid that they started to feel like little visits to people and places that didn’t exist in my life anymore.
This activity was both fascinating and comforting to me. I was thrilled about my ability to do this and assumed most people could do it, as well. It wasn’t until I was eighteen that I realized my memory was different. It was during a conversation (on Sunday, May 24, 1970) with my best friend at the time, Ireen Rusniak. While listening to me recall in detail a story from our childhood and my being shocked that she couldn’t remember most of it, Ireen stopped me and said, “When are you going to realize that no one else has this crazy memory of yours?” That was the moment when I began taking note of others’ ability to recall their past. I realized then that my capacity was different.
From my dorm mates at the University of Chicago, who tested me on the day of the week certain events took place, to an old boyfriend who claimed he lost his past once we broke up, it became common knowledge to my friends and family that I had this baffling memory. Over the years, whenever people wanted to fact-check some event from their lives, I’d get a call asking, “What day was the school picnic three years ago?” “In what hotel in Philly did we stay that time?” “Remember when we went on that boat ride around Manhattan? When was that?” Many years later, researchers would tell me that this ability is called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, or HSAM.
Even though the A in HSAM stands for “autobiographical,” I still have a strong memory for the usual things. I was a good student, in large part because of my memory, but I do not have a photographic memory or anything like that. My memory is special in its autobiographical detail. I can remember almost every day of my life back to the age of seven (and every day since around twelve) and many incidents and things from my earlier years, all the way back to infancy.
I think it is very common for people to recognize which family members retain memories better than others, because our personal histories are so vital to us. While in some ways, it is no different than the person who can remember every Academy Award winner or the one who can recite baseball statistics, in many more ways, HSAM is very different from these other feats of the mind. Memorizing facts leaves them detached from a personal context. Reciting the dates of battles from the Civil War is very different from conjuring up images of your own past. (Unless, of course, you’re a Civil War veteran!)
Scientists have noted that there are three distinct characteristics of people who have HSAM: 1) They tend to spend a greater amount of time recalling their personal history as compared to most people; 2) they have an abnormal ability to remember specific events from their own past more clearly; and 3) perhaps most importantly, HSAMers (as we call ourselves) remember two hundred events or more in the span of any given year, whereas people with average memories generally remember only about eight to eleven. A person with HSAM can describe in intimate detail the events that took place on a particular date; including the day of the week the date landed on, what the weather was like, what they ate for lunch, what they wore, and many more seemingly trivial details. Along with our personal experiences, people with HSAM can also tell you current events that were taking place on that given day, as long as the event crossed our radar screen at the time. We also see all of our memories in the first person, unlike other people, who tend to vary in their perspective. In fact, about 70 percent of all people see their pasts in the third person (à la Scrooge!).
For all these seemingly amazing capabilities, people who have HSAM are not classified as savants or autistic. We are not calendar calculators with a system. For people with HSAM, the knowledge of days and dates is almost built in. We aren’t using mnemonic or memory strategies to remember events. When asked how we do it, we all say the same thing: “I just see it! It’s just there.”
I got to meet my fellow HSAMers on Monday, December 7, 2009, when my good friend Lesley Stahl had arranged to have us all get together for a two-part segment on 60 Minutes. Lesley has been a friend of mine for twenty-seven years, and on Wednesday, September 20, 2006, she and her producer Shari Finkelstein and I went to lunch. At around that time, 60 Minutes had been offered the story of Jill Price, the first person to be studied by Dr. James McGaugh, Research Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at UC Irvine, for her outstanding autobiographical memory. Lesley hadn’t been interested in the story, because she didn’t think that HSAM (or hyperthymesia, as it was called then) was that rare, having known me for so many years. During this lunch, it was clear that Shari was testing me with dates, but it wasn’t until she told me that she had gotten married on June 15, 1998, and I instantly asked her, “Why did you get married on a Monday?” that she knew Lesley was telling her the truth.
Three years later, 60 Minutes decided to do a bigger story on HSAM because at that time there were only four more people who had been verified as official HSAMers. Lesley called and asked me to be tested on camera, so there I was—on Thursday, November 5, 2009—put to the test by Dr. McGaugh’s team at UC Irvine. After correctly answering over five hundred questions, which included every memory test known to man, as well as hundreds of questions based on current events (“On what day did Princess Diana die?”) and my own life (“What was the date and theme of your senior prom?”), I was officially deemed the sixth person with HSAM. I was also given an MRI in order to check out the size and shape of my brain. When four of the other HSAMers (Louise Owen, Bob Petrella, Brad Williams, and the late Rick Baron) and I met the following month, we were not only asked several more questions to illustrate our ability, but we were also genetically tested for motor skills and had to submit samples of saliva.
As an example of how HSAM works, I will explain how I answered one of Dr. McGaugh’s first memory questions, “When did Princess Diana die?” I told him, “Well, she actually passed away on Sunday, August 31, 1997, but for me it was Saturday night, August 30. I had just come off stage at the Shubert Theatre where I was performing in Chicago and my friend and castmate, MaryAnn Lamb, grabbed me and pulled me into the dressing room where the TV was playing and said, ‘There was a terrible car accident in Paris, and Dodi Fayad has died and Princess Diana is hanging on for dear life.’ After we watched the TV for a while, a group of us went to Josie’s restaurant on Amsterdam and 74th Street, and next to me sat Michael Burresse, next to him his boyfriend Todd, then MaryAnn, Jimmy Borstelmann, my ex-husband Rob who was next to me, and at 12:35 Mary, the maître d’, came up to the table over my right shoulder and pulled me away from the table to tell me that Princess Diana had passed away. I went back to tell the others, and we all had a moment of silence. So, to answer your question, it was Sunday, August 31, 1997, but my experience with it was on Saturday, August 30.”
What It Feels Like to Remember
On my first day of testing, one of the questions Dr. McGaugh’s team asked was, “How does your memory work? For example, when given a date or an event, what happens in your brain that helps you figure out where you were and what you were doing and what day of the week it was? What do you see? Walk us through the process.” I laughed to myself because I’ve been trying to describe my memory process for so long now that I used to start with, “You know how a card catalogue works . . . ?” That progressed to my describing trays of photographs developing side by side, each image becoming more and more vivid as I recall it. This explanation later became, “You know how you can find a scene on a VHS tape by rewinding or fast-forwarding . . . ?” But all of these metaphors were thrown out the window when I first saw the scene selection menu on a DVD. I had found the perfect image. Watching several little movie clips running simultaneously is the closest parallel I can use to explain how I remember, which is unlike many of my fellow HSAMers, who often use the image of calendar pages flipping instead. I see any date I’m asked as though it were placed on a linear timeline, from left to right, January being the far left and December the far right. But it is simultaneous. All the days in a year are there in front of me, and I can choose to hone in on any one, but they are definitely not “on separate pages.”
Say, for example, you give me a specific year. The entire year lines up chronologically left to right as though on a timeline, and the easiest days to remember—a major life event from that year or my birthday or Christmas—fill in first. With the whole timeline scrolling through the months and days of that year, my mind then runs through it as though I were watching several movie scenes all at once. If I want to hang out awhile on a particular day, I can zoom in on that day’s experience. I can even stop the movie to dwell on a particular moment or image.
This process was put to the test on Monday, December 20, 2010, the day after the 60 Minutes story on HSAM aired. I was on CBS’s The Early Show, and the lovely host Rebecca Jarvis gave me the year 1975. This was a year I hadn’t scanned through for a very long time, but I immediately saw the left-to-right “timeline” of little video-like scenes, and on it my birthday (Sunday, April 6) and Christmas (Thursday, December 25) came up first. I knew I couldn’t stop for very long on the images I was seeing, because it was only a four-minute segment, and I wanted to be good television. I then saw what date Thanksgiving fell on that year (November 27, a Thursday, of course) and what day of the week Valentine’s Day wa...
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