Price was the first person ever to be diagnosed with what is now known as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM, a condition she shares with around 60 other known people. She can remember most of the days of her life as clearly as the rest of us remember the recent past, with a mixture of broad strokes and sharp detail. Now 51, Price remembers the day of the week for every date since 1980; she remembers what she was doing, who she was with, where she was on each of these days. She can actively recall a memory of 20 years ago as easily as a memory of two days ago, but her memories are also triggered involuntarily.
It is, she says, like living with a split screen: on the left side is the present, on the right is a constantly rolling reel of memories, each one sparked by the appearance of present-day stimuli. With so many memories always at the ready, Price says, it can be maddening: virtually anything she sees or hears can be a potential trigger.
The way we assess our lives and the ways we go about finding a cure are in lockstep; the form of the question holds its own answer. While the truth in religion for believers is the word of god, the truth of traditional self-help is locating and then satisfying the desires of the self. Despite its credentials, the new wave of scientific popular psychology is playing the same tune on a different instrument: the power of thought, the importance of organisation, and the reliability of the messenger remain the core messages. The truth now comes in details and data; god has been replaced by the physical universe that science can poke and prod, and the self is now ‘human nature’ to which we are all ineluctably bound. Maybe it is not self-help but rather our hopes of accurate self-assessment that are built around a core of magical thinking: that the will is stronger than the flesh.
I discovered I couldn’t dance when I was ten years old. My parents had signed me up for a ballet course in Toronto with a dour, shriveled Romanian teacher, chosen no doubt because of our shared totalitarian traumas. In her class I felt uncoordinated, impossibly gawky. My clearest memory is of trying to accomplish a gentle downward sweep of the hand. My teacher performed the movement. As I attempted to imitate her, she said, over and over, “but do it gracefully!” I could not figure out how to do it gracefully. I could not even see the difference between her gesture and mine. I came to the logical conclusion: I was terminally ungraceful. In fact, I couldn’t dance at all.
I quit ballet. I did have to dance again when I took part in the yearly audition held by a local school for the arts. I was terrible at acting and drawing too, but the dance test was my Waterloo. A teacher demonstrated a complicated choreography at the front of the room while we waited patiently in rows. Then he gave us a cue, and as if by magic, all of the other children repeated the combination perfectly. I, on the other hand, was a mess of arms and legs and confused desperation. I managed with twisted precision to be always facing in the opposite direction from the other kids, stumbling into them dangerously.
The problem with depression—the thing that makes it so hard to describe, and gives its sufferers a bad conscience—is its resemblance to unhappiness. Unhappiness is part of every life, and most people learn how to cope with it: by changing the conditions that cause it, or by distracting themselves, or by actively repressing it. A person who can’t deal with being unhappy is seen as a moral failure—childish, selfish, “difficult.” It is all too easy to apply the same judgment to a depressed person, as if depression just meant luxuriating in unhappiness. David Foster Wallace wrote a brilliant story, “The Depressed Person,” in which a woman worries that by describing her suffering she will only disgust her friends and even her therapist—a worry which itself feeds into her suffering.
But depression is actually the opposite of unhappiness, because it is precisely not “a part of life.” When you are unhappy, life is pressing you, hurting you, and you are forced to respond to it. An unhappy life is a problem, and to be absorbed in a problem is to be absorbed in existence. When you are depressed, on the other hand, there is no problem, because there is nothing to be solved. Existence itself seems to retreat, to leave you stranded, without purchase on things, people, yourself.
The novel centers on a small, independent video store in the town of Nevada, Iowa, in the late 1990s whose tapes start coming back with mysterious and sometimes terrifying clips spliced in the middle. What appears to be a chilling horror tale is also a perfectly rendered story about family and loss.
As a push for diversity in fiction reshapes the publishing landscape, the emergence of sensitivity readers seems almost inevitable. A flowering sense of social conscience, not to mention a strong market incentive, is elevating stories that richly reflect the variety of human experience. America—specifically young America—is currently more diverse than ever. As writers attempt to reflect these realities in their fiction, they often must step outside of their intimate knowledge. And in a cultural climate newly attuned to the complexities of representation, many authors face anxiety at the prospect of backlash, especially when social media leaves both book sales and literary reputations more vulnerable than ever to criticism. Enter the sensitivity reader: one more line of defense against writers’ tone-deaf, unthinking mistakes.