Like many American couples of modest but comfortable means, Susie McKinnon and her husband, Eric Green, discovered the joys of cruise vacations in middle age.
Their home in a quiet suburb of Olympia, Washington, is filled with souvenirs and trinkets from their travels. There’s a plastic lizard in the master bathroom with the words “Cayman Islands” painted on it. From Curaçao there’s a framed patchwork collage made of oilcloth hanging in the entrance hall. On the gray summer day when I visit them, we all sit comfortably in their living room, Green decked out in a bright shirt with “Bermuda Islands” emblazoned on it, from a cruise in 2013. As they regale me with talk of their younger selves and their trips to Jamaica, Aruba, Cozumel, and Mazatlán, they present the very picture of well-adjusted adulthood on the verge of retirement.
Except for one fairly major thing.
As we chat, McKinnon makes clear that she has no memories of all those cruises. No memories of buying the lizard or finding that oilcloth collage. She doesn’t remember any vacation she’s ever taken. In fact, she cannot recall a single moment in her marriage to Green or before it.
Before you start to brace yourself for one of those stories—about the onset of dementia, the slow dissolve of a marriage into a relationship of unrequited love, the loss of self—let me reassure you: McKinnon hasn’t lost anything. She’s never been able to remember those experiences.
For decades, scientists suspected that someone like Susie McKinnon might exist. They figured she was probably out there, living an ordinary life—hard to tell apart from the next person in line at the grocery store, yet fundamentally different from the rest of us. And sure enough, they found her (or rather, she found them) in 2006.
“I don’t remember being smaller or having to reach up for things. I have no impressions of myself as a kid.”
McKinnon is the first person ever identified with a condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory. She knows plenty of facts about her life, but she lacks the ability to mentally relive any of it, the way you or I might meander back in our minds and evoke a particular afternoon. She has no episodic memories—none of those impressionistic recollections that feel a bit like scenes from a movie, always filmed from your perspective. To switch metaphors: Think of memory as a favorite book with pages that you return to again and again. Now imagine having access only to the index. Or the Wikipedia entry.
“I know bits and pieces of stuff that happened,” McKinnon says of her own childhood. But none of it bears a vivid, first-person stamp. “I don’t remember being shorter or smaller or having to reach up for things. I have no images or impressions of myself as a kid.” She finds herself guessing a lot at what her experiences must have been like: She assumes the Cayman Islands were hot. Perhaps she and Green walked around a lot there. “It was probably sometime between 2000 and 2010,” she ventures.
The way McKinnon experiences life scrambles much of what we presume is essential to being human. No less a figure than the philosopher John Locke argued that memory, the kind McKinnon lacks, is the very thing that constitutes personal identity. It’s hard to even imagine what it would feel like to be without these kinds of memories; when we do, we picture disaster. Last year’s blockbuster Pixar film, Inside Out, hinged on the idea that if the main character loses her core memories, then her “islands of personality” collapse into nothingness.
McKinnon has no core memories that she is aware of. But there can be no doubt of her personality. She is a liberal white woman who married a black man despite her conservative father’s disapproval. A Catholic who decided somewhere along the way that religion wasn’t for her. She’s bashful and sensitive. Intuitive, curious, and funny. She has a job—she’s a retirement specialist for the state of Washington—and she has hobbies, values, beliefs, opinions, a nucleus of friends. Though she doesn’t remember being a part of the anecdotes that shaped her into this person, she knows very well who she is. Which raises the question: Just how expendable is this supposedly essential part of being human after all?