When we lose our memories, do we lose ourselves? How much of the essence of ourselves remains? Jules Montague, an Irish clinical neurologist, addresses on the fundamental questions in an age where it is often neurological change, not death, that first steals our loved ones away.
It’s the horror of “losing” one’s mind. It’s the existential question of our modern time, where the mind increasingly wears out before the body does.
Montague, who works with patients that are shedding their identities due to dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain injury and amnesia, draws on her clinical work, combined with the latest neurological research, to examine what remains of a person, when chunks of their mind go missing. She addresses with admirable clarity and enormous compassion the conundrum of whether one remains inherently the same, even when one’s personality changes radically, for example in dementia or multiple personality disorder.
The genesis of the book is in part Montague’s own response to scientific unknowns. The mother of her friend Anna — the woman who had driven the teenagers Anna and Jules to and fro from tennis lessons and discos — is diagnosed with an inoperable tumour on the frontal lobes of her brain, with the personality changes that can be so distressing to the families.
From being a somewhat remote and cold person, Anna’s mother suddenly becomes demonstrative and loving. “Anna asked me what [these changes] meant. Was this her mother’s true personality coming to the surface?” Or was it simply an effect of the tumour?
Montague reassures her tearful friend. This is really her mother speaking. Not the cancer.
“But since then, I have wondered how I could be sure of this. If her mother had become less affectionate, more hostile, would I also have claimed that this was her mother’s true self?
“Perhaps I had only claimed her mother’s pronouncement of love was authentic because Anna desperately wanted to hear it, because I desperately wanted to believe it. I still do.”
It’s a passage that encapsulate the humanity and empathy with which Montague approaches her subject. That does not mean there is any lack of scientific enquiry or rigour. She argues cogently, for example, for evolutionary advantage that the “fluidity of memory” delivers.
Far from being hardwired, becoming fixed once initially stored, they are inherently flexible. Memory, she says, “is a home constantly under reconstruction, not a video playing on a loop”. Because of our ability to constantly rewrite the story, we can edit the tortured bits to facilitate emotional healing.
Review by William Saunderson-Meyer
Lost and Found, by Jules Montague, is published by Sphere and distributed by Jonathan Ball.