The Agony of Endless Forgetfulness: Clive Wearing
Back in March 1985, Clive Wearing, a well-known English musician and music expert in his mid-forties, got hit by a brain infection called herpes encephalitis. This thing messed with the memory parts of his brain, leaving him with just seconds of memory—making it the worst amnesia case ever.
His ability to see and hear was fine, but he couldn’t hold onto anything for more than a moment. It’s like he’d blink, and poof, a new scene. His past memories? Almost all wiped out.
In 1986, a documentary called “Prisoner of Consciousness” showed Clive. He looked lost, scared, and aware that something was really wrong. But he wasn’t complaining about a bad memory. Instead, he felt like he was being robbed of all experience, like he was dead. His every waking moment felt like the first, as if he just woke up from being unconscious.
To anchor himself, Clive started a journal. But his journal entries consisted, essentially, of the statements “I am awake” or “I am conscious,” entered again and again every few minutes. He would write: “2:10 p.m: This time properly awake. . . . 2:14 p.m: this time finally awake. . . . 2:35 p.m: this time completely awake,” along with negations of these statements: “At 9:40 p.m. I awoke for the first time, despite my previous claims.” This in turn was crossed out, followed by “I was fully conscious at 10:35 p.m., and awake for the first time in many, many weeks.” This in turn was cancelled out by the next entry.
Deborah wrote of how, coming in one day, she saw him
holding something in the palm of one hand, and repeatedly covering and uncovering it with the other hand as if he were a magician practising a disappearing trick. He was holding a chocolate. He could feel the chocolate unmoving in his left palm, and yet every time he lifted his hand he told me it revealed a brand new chocolate.
“Look!” he said. “It’s new!” He couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“It’s the same chocolate,” I said gently.
“No . . . look! It’s changed. It wasn’t like that before . . .” He covered and uncovered the chocolate every couple of seconds, lifting and looking.
“Look! It’s different again! How do they do it?”
As the months passed without improvement, Clive ended up in a psychiatric unit for six and a half years. A psychologist in 1990 recorded him saying it felt like one night lasting five years—no dreams, waking, touch, taste, smell, sight, sound, or hearing. It was like being dead. The only times he felt alive were when his wife visited. But when she left, he’d plead with her to come back at lightning speed.
Seven years later, Deborah’s hard work got Clive to a better place for brain-injured folks. It was nicer than a hospital. Clive, once heavy on tranquillizers, began enjoying walks and fresh food. At first, he was calmer but still had angry outbursts, spending lots of time alone. In the last six or seven years, he became more sociable, talkative. His days, once empty, were now filled with conversation, even if it was a bit scripted. Clive, after this long, hard journey, found a bit more