Proust’s madeline, the pill

In 1998, Pagan Kennedy realized she’d lost access to some of the sensory details of her childhood. She began to imagine a pharmaceutical equivalent to Proust’s madeline — a pill that “could restore lost memories and the powerful emotions connected to them,” that would allow the user to “experience any lost pleasure — a long-ago tryst, say — over and over again.” And then she embarked on a novel (Confessions of a Memory Eater) about just such a drug.

When I was in my teens and 20s, I used to be able to experience something like Proust’s madeleine moment. I could revisit scenes in vivid Technicolor: the cicadas buzzing through the burnt summer lawns of my childhood in Maryland; the sweaty nickel in my hand as I waited for the ice cream truck; the drop of blood that appeared on my best friend’s finger, like a magic ruby, after she pricked herself with a needle to show her undying allegiance to me.

But by my 30s, those memories had started to fade. What I was left with was a memory of what my memory used to be like, a poignant awareness of my own deficit. I first noticed this about eight years ago: One day, rooting through a drawer in my mom’s house, I came across a photo of myself as a girl. In the photo, I’m about 5 years old, decked out in a swami robe, my eyes hidden behind enormous Jackie O sunglasses. But I could summon no memory of that day, no explanation, though I had the conviction that I used to know what that picture was all about, that there was some important story connected with it. It felt like I had lost a key that unlocked some inner door. I could still press my ear to it, could still run my hand against its grain and examine its hinges, but I would never get through that door again.

And so I began my novel about memory. I knew at the time that several companies, including one appropriately called Memory Pharmaceuticals, were working to develop real treatments for memory loss, but I didn’t pay them much mind. My drug would be different. It would be recreational-Proust’s madeleine reduced to tiny chemical specks. My drug would launch the user into the best moments of his life, allowing him to savor long ago joys, allowing him to meet his boyhood self….

[I]n the course of writing the novel, I saw just how dangerous this drug might be. The past is potently intoxicating, and if we could ever taste it purely, undiluted by forgetfulness, we would, I came to believe, disappear into ourselves.

A drugmaker called Memory Pharmaceuticals is testing a less potent long-term memory drug with a name strangely similar to Kennedy’s imaginary creation, Mem.


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