(We don’t often run op-ed pieces here at GalleyCat, because when you get right down to it, it’s really all about what we think, anyway, but when our founder & CEO, Laurel Touby, presented a personal and empathetic spin on the publishing industry’s most recent controversy, we decided to make an exception.)
I feel sorry for Kaavya Viswanathan, who was unfairly accused of copying entire sections of another author’s work. Kaavya blames her photographic memory for the mistakes and I believe her.
I, too, suffer from a form of selective memory. Where Kaavya’s condition forces her to mentally photocopy paragraphs from other novels into her own writings, my mind snatches up and appropriates others’ life experiences, inserting them into my own. In his latest book, The Woman Who Mistook Others For Herself, Oliver Sacks calls this action “Memory Mirroring.” I am his primary subject, and I hope he finds a cure for this fast, because I hate being someone else so much of the time.
Just last week, for example, I woke up in the arms of my best friend’s boyfriend. I really don’t consider it my fault. She had recounted intimate details about their relationship on so many occasions, I couldn’t help it. I started thinking I was her! The night before, I had been out with the two of them, when she decided to head home early due to a headache. Next thing I knew, I forgot myself, and we were doing what couples without headaches do. The very next day, I tried to explain to her that borrowing her personality and love life were completely unintentional and unconscious side effects of my unusual memory disorder, but she wanted nothing more to do with me.
As with Kaavya, my symptoms first became apparent in college, at around age 20. My boyfriend at the time had given me an audio tape by Howard Stern. After immersing myself in the recording, I felt disoriented. For that entire week, I dressed in extra-large Bitch Magnet t-shirts and ripped jeans, swaggering when I walked. My voice became huskier, my breath smelled sour, I cursed like I had Tourette’s and I never shut up. I even asked a female clerk at Barneys if “the twins” were real. She slapped me. I woke up.
My worst incident, and the one that got Dr. Sacks’ attention, was when I was hauled out of the offices of Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue. I had taken an interest in the magazine’s editor in chief, Anna Wintour, reading accounts of her life in Women’s Wear Daily and other trade magazines. For the non-memory afflicted, this fascination would have been harmless. But I am told I showed up at 4 Times Square emaciated, wearing a page-boyish wig, dark red lipstick (not my shade), sunglasses and was ordering the staff around. When they wouldn’t let me past security, I muttered between clenched teeth, “Do you know who I am? How dare you! Call Si immediately!” Instead they called the police. All may have been smoothed over, but in my confusion, I began to loudly mimic the cops in their own New Jersey accents and they swiftly arrested me, not for disturbing the peace, but for impersonating an officer. That made the nightly news and the rest is history.
With my doctor’s help, I have learned to identify the triggers of my particular memory malfunction. Since close knowledge of another person’s life is one such trigger, I now keep a good distance from most people and avoid reading biographies, autobiographies or even long news stories.
However, today, I pored over the many news items detailing Kaavya Viswanathan’s life story and apparent fall from grace. At great risk of becoming Kaavya and accidentally plagiarizing from my writer friends, I feel an urgent need to tell Kaavya that she is not alone. Kaavya, my advice to you is stop reading. No more text books, no white papers, no magazine articles and especially no fiction. You can’t risk that tricky photographic memory of yours wreaking more havoc on your undeniable writing talents. See Sacks. He may be able to help. And finally, let this be your mantra, as it is now mine: While memory serves, it doesn’t always serve you.