All Our Yesterdays
January 23, 2005 12:10 PM   Subscribe

The Death of Yesterday Twenty years ago, an everyday virus destroyed Clive Wearing's brain. Now, all he can remember is music -- and his wife. Here, Deborah Wearing tells how their enduring love has become the one constant in a marriage without memory.
posted by matteo (29 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In 1985 Clive was struck down with one of the most extreme cases of amnesia ever recorded. A virus destroyed a part of his brain essential for memory. It's not only most of the past from before the illness that he can't recall. It's practically everything since then. Every conscious moment is like waking up for the first time. New information, as Deborah describes it, 'melts like snow, leaving not a trace'. The one part of his previous life that he does remember - when he was a sought-after conductor and classical music producer for Radio 3 - is Deborah. Every time he sees her again, even if she's only been out of the room to make a cup of tea, he'll greet her with a rapturous hug.


Recently he was asked to give his full name. 'Clive David Deborah Wearing' he replied firmly.
posted by matteo at 12:11 PM on January 23, 2005

I saw a video about this guy in psychology class in high school- completely fascinating stuff. Hss wife must be an incredibly strong, courageous woman. Imagine having a spouse who can't remember the day you got married, the first time you made love (or even the last time for that matter)...this is truly a remarkable story.
Seeing the guy perform is really incredible. In the video I saw he was playing piano- he played a gorgeous piece and the whole time his body was spastically jerking back and forth, almost thrashing, and yet he played wonderfully. The look on his face was hard to place- tortured and painful, certainly, but also rapturous. Thanks for the link, matteo.
posted by baphomet at 12:29 PM on January 23, 2005

Great link, great story, even if it does remind me of an Adam Sandler movie.
posted by ChrisTN at 1:23 PM on January 23, 2005

Brilliant article. Thanks matteo. I too saw his story on a pbs documentary awhile ago (6-7 years?). Heart-wrenching.
posted by alteredcarbon at 1:25 PM on January 23, 2005

I just recalled that he played the piano so beautifully. Amazing. Funny how our memories bubble forth and ironical it can be.
posted by alteredcarbon at 1:28 PM on January 23, 2005


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posted by amberglow at 1:30 PM on January 23, 2005

I especially like how you tagged it using a capital 'L'. Love, indeed.
posted by geekyguy at 1:34 PM on January 23, 2005

Obligatory reference also to Memento. I also saw the documentary, and it's not surprising she quit. The article somewhat underplays the difficulty that the profound brain damage also meant he was incapable of insight - unlike the hero of Memento, he didn't even believe his notes (page after page saying he'd just woken up) were his own writing.
posted by raygirvan at 1:43 PM on January 23, 2005

Yeah I saw the original BBC piece as well (in cog sci class). I understand that there has been another TV piece made about his case in 1998; however, up till now I have been unable to find it. These lecture notes mention it however, as well as the fact that Wearing seems to have undergone at least some kind of change, however subtle (calling it progress would probably be an overstatement): apparently, the ubiqitous "How long have I been ill?" has become a mere "How long?".

However sad Wearing's case, it is of great interest to cognition researchers, to whom people who lack some kind of mental capacity are of great interest for confirming existing theories about the brain. For example, his (partly) unaffected musical skills can be explained by the fact that the cerebellum (in the back of the brain) retains some very meticulous motor skills, as opposed to the hippocampus (which Wearing's brain now basically lacks) which is involved in the formation and retention of new memories. As one of my teachers says, "You can be as senile as a doorknob and still play great tennis".

Great post, matteo.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:54 PM on January 23, 2005

This man's case, or a similar one, was described in Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.
posted by emelenjr at 2:42 PM on January 23, 2005

That'd be "Jimmie". The full chapter is online here: The Lost Mariner.
posted by raygirvan at 3:07 PM on January 23, 2005

Fantastic post, Matteo. I just sent the article to Oliver Sacks.
posted by digaman at 3:17 PM on January 23, 2005

I was initially reminded of the first story in the book, raygirvan, because of the mention of music, but you're right — Jimmie's case more closely resembles this one because of their similar memory deficits.

Someone here knows Dr. Sacks (well enough to e-mail him an article)? I think that's incredibly cool.
posted by emelenjr at 4:15 PM on January 23, 2005

This is lovely. It's sort of like Alzheimer's, but instead of watching your loved one forget who you are, they forget everything else.

I wonder, if I were in Deborah's situation, if I wouldn't begin to feel like his emotions were artificial. We usually think of love being born out of a shared past, a shared character, and a history. He doesn't remember any of that - he just remembers that he loves her. Without the backstory, his love is kind of like love at first sight - more superficial, somehow. (I think that's how I'd feel, anyway, and it would be a struggle to reciprocate the other's affections).
posted by painquale at 4:31 PM on January 23, 2005

I saw a segment about him on a PBS series called The Brain. It was so amazingly interesting - imagine living in the moment, for real - and heartbreaking that I taped it. It's the only VHS tape I have that I've ever rewatched.
As I remember, one of the fascinating things was that he did the thrashing thing until he started to play, and then he was fine, seeming completely normal, able to read the music and remember the notes. But when the piece ended, he went back to confusion and physical paroxysms.
And his exhuberant love for his wife, treating her always as if she had just returned from a year away, was so very touching.
posted by CunningLinguist at 4:35 PM on January 23, 2005

Of related further interest: Finding Nemo 'gets amnesia right'. The cartoon fish Dory is a apparently a realistic portrayal of this anterograde amnesia (unfortunately Dr Sallie Baxendale's BMJ paper is no longer online free). Alcohol-induced blackouts and one effect of Rohypnol are further examples of the same type of amnesia.
posted by raygirvan at 5:05 PM on January 23, 2005

Great post. Thanks, matteo.
posted by languagehat at 5:39 PM on January 23, 2005

excellent article. thanks!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:46 PM on January 23, 2005

The Day His World Stood Still: an account of another classic case, Henry M. It confirms an interesting detail mentioned in Memento: that such patients can still exhibit motor skill learning.
posted by raygirvan at 8:31 PM on January 23, 2005

Latro in the Mist, by Gene Wolfe (fiction)
posted by Ritchie at 9:58 PM on January 23, 2005

I heard Deborah being interviewed on BBC Radio 5 this week. Even the poor presenter couldn't diminish the vibrancy of the Love that these two share. Apparently the episodes of lucidity are becoming longer and Clive can actually follow movies now.

Deborah sounds like an incredible woman and I truly hope that they can be fully reunited.
posted by jackiemcghee at 3:25 AM on January 24, 2005

I just realized I've got the Sacks' book, Memento, Finding Nemo, and 50 First me this is true horror. One of the few things a cynic like me has actually cried about(even that stupid fish!).
posted by MrMulan at 5:22 AM on January 24, 2005

'I realized that we are not just brain and processes. Clive had lost all that and yet he was still Clive. Even when we didn't see one another, when we were six months apart and only spoke on the telephone, nothing had changed. Even when he was at his worst, most acute state, he still had that huge overwhelming love ... for me. That was what survived when everything else was taken away.'

This reminds me a bit of Dark City... especially the scene where John is talking to Emma, trying to explain to her that their love, her affair, everything has been fabricated... and she doesn't get it. She says "I love you... you can't fake that.." and suddenly, *he* agrees....
posted by weston at 9:08 AM on January 24, 2005

Weston: Yeah but Dark City had a happy ending(cop-out), and what sucks for Deborah and Clive is that there is no happy ending for them...not even a happy journey for that matter.
posted by MrMulan at 10:09 AM on January 24, 2005

Love lives.
posted by Doohickie at 10:36 AM on January 24, 2005

posted by trillion at 12:56 PM on January 24, 2005

For 5 days my brother had a similar loss of short-term memory. He'd awaken frequently and ask the same questions he had asked 5 minutes before.

For those 5 days, he only recognized his family - not his oldest or closest friends - but he did remember his brand-new girlfriend (now his wife).

Truly, love is exception-making.
posted by AuntLisa at 6:12 PM on January 24, 2005

Making Memories Stick
posted by homunculus at 9:30 PM on January 24, 2005

I guess I thought Memento was overrated, really.
posted by nanojath at 9:30 PM on February 22, 2005

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