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Non Fiction

Son of Memory

Kitta MacPherson

Memories are chemicals. Tiny tag teams of proteins and neurons. Super special, electrically charged gobs of ectoplasm. Researchers at the University of California have watched memories, mere specks, hatched live in the brain cells of sea slugs.

Some people´s brains overproduce a special kind of protein that boosts their memory. Called RGS-14, it sprouts in the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for producing visual memories – layer 6 of the V2 region, to be specific. Lab mice injected with this protein were 1,500 times better at remembering visual cues than normal counterparts. People born with an overdose of RGS-14 have what scientists call an eidetic memory.

Eidetic. It’s a word that comes from the Greek word, “eidos,” meaning “seen.”

People with total recall, also known as photographic memory, possess extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of visual images. Eidetic memory is a physical characteristic, like eye color, and can be inherited. Females carry the gene. But it usually is expressed in the DNA of their sons. My mother carried this gene. I do, too.

I know about the genetics of eidetic memory now because it was explained to me by Ira Black, a neuroscientist I met at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey while I was researching a story on stem cells for the newspaper where I worked. Neuroscientists like Black study the nervous system – including the brain, the spinal cord, and networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons. Black was interested in the molecules that controlled the operation of the brain and human thought. When I met him, he already was internationally known for his earlier pioneering work at Cornell University in the development of the nervous system and the role of growth factors.

“Look right in here,” he told me, offering up a view into his microscope
I spied neon-green, branch-like objects spattered across a sea of black. “They’re beautiful,” I said.

“Aren’t they?” he agreed, smiling in wonder. “Those are neurons,” he added. “Brand new babies.”

When he learned from me that prodigious recall was a family trait, he launched into a 30-minute lecture about eidetic memory. The conversation launched a friendship that flourished until 2006 when Black died of an infection related to a tumor.

I was six when I had my first encounter with this strange phenomenon, following an incident at St. Dominic´s in Oyster Bay, N.Y., our Roman Catholic elementary school. Sister John Vianney, a nun teaching fifth grade, served as an innocent provocateur. As class was about to start, a boy named John overheard her complain to a lunch aide that she felt tired and cranky. A nun who slept in the next room to hers in the convent had taken to snoring.

John watched her scan the five rows of wooden desks before her, each ten students deep. He took it all in, too. Girls in green jumpers and boys dressed in white shirts and black slacks gathered in clusters like unruly knots. A roar rose up. A girl with thin brown braids stood as solemnly as a priestess at the center of a circle, clutching a square of origami in her palms and proclaiming fortunes.

“Pick a number,” the seer said excitedly to the girl at her side.

John, his blond hair so short it was nearly transparent, placed a straw to his mouth. He blew grandly as if it were a trumpet. As his friends gasped, a tiny grey spitball arced finely. The paper crumb plopped on a corner bookshelf an inch short of Sister Vianney’s personal copy of The Secret Garden.

“Desks!” the nun barked.

Instantly, the class mobilized, boys and girls diving for their seats. Except for one.

“John!” she cried. He pivoted. He stood alone. “Please come up here,” Sister Vianney said. She planted her thick hands on her full hips. You could have heard a spitball drop.

“Yes, Sister,” the boy said.

John looked toward his teacher’s desk where he knew she stashed a thick maple ruler. The teacher whacked Tony DeLeo’s palms the week before for popping bubblegum. Tony, a cherub-faced thug, had burst into tears.

Not me, though, John thought, steeling himself.

Wide-eyed, Tony watched John now from safety, deep in the third row. Sister didn’t reach into the punishment drawer. Instead, she heaved a thick blue book off her desk and opened it near the beginning.

“Memorize this poem,” she said, handing John the volume.

John took the book, his knees dipping with its weight. Someone snickered. He studied the words on his way back to his seat. The poem, “Old Ironsides,” was written by someone named Oliver Wendell Holmes. Fancy name, he thought. The poem was three stanzas long. It was about a boat.

“Be ready to recite this for the class tomorrow, first thing,” she added.

Back at his desk in row four, seat five, John looked up. “Well…,” he began.

“Well, what?”

“I’m ready now.”

Sister Vianney brushed the white-banded frontpiece of her starched nun’s habit as if it pained her. “Come up here.”

The tall, skinny boy trudged up and returned the book. He faced his class and looked sideways at his teacher. “I can see it, Sister,” he whispered, his sky blue eyes looking innocent for once.

“Good,” she said, her brow crinkling because she didn’t understand what he meant. “Then say it.”

The boy looked out over a sea of crewcuts and ponytails. “Ay, tear her tattered ensign down, long has it waved on high,” he began. He mispronounced the fifth word as “en – SIGN.” He had never seen the word ´til that moment.

John spoke the twenty-four lines of Holmes’ poem as clearly and accurately as if he were reading it. When he finished, the room was still. Susan Wilson, in the front row to his left, was staring up at him, her lipgloss-stained mouth forming a lower case “o.”

The boy’s full name was John Kirkpatrick MacPherson. He was my big brother. We called him “Kirk.” He was energetic and edgy, a little wild, always in little scrapes. He climbed trees, hit home runs in baseball, and wore scabs on his knees and elbows year-round. He didn’t cry when he fell. Nor did he yelp when Mom poured hydrogen peroxide on his cuts and dabbed them with cotton balls. We knew Kirk was smart, with a flair for subjects that involved memorization, like history and spelling. But this gift for poetry was something new.

Sister Vianney was nonplussed by the performance. “Thank you, John,” she said. He had almost reached his desk when she thrust her arm toward him, holding the poetry book. “And tomorrow,” she said, “you can come in and recite ‘Casey at the Bat’ in here.”

After dinner that evening, my mother gathered her children – me and my three brothers – in our pale, blue living room with her prized cream-colored Ming Aubusson wool carpet at its center. Perched on a velvet wing chair, she told us of Kirk’s achievement. She spoke in hushed tones, as if she were revealing a great secret. It all had to do with our Scottish heritage, she said. The ancient people of Scotland, the Picts, had an oral tradition. All of their history was handed down, from one generation to the next, by poets with prodigious memories. The entire story of their culture was in their heads. The term “Picti” or “Picts,” meaning “painted people,” was first used by Roman writers at the end of the third century to describe them. No one knows what they called themselves or what language they spoke. These fierce warriors dominated the country, battling the Romans from the north side of Hadrian’s wall, until the ninth century when they united with the “Scotti” in a new monarchy to fight off the Viking conquest.

When she finished, she balanced Sister Vianney’s poetry book on her knees, and said to Kirk, “Go ahead.”

He stood quietly, eyes closed. He looked straighter, taller than before. He opened his eyes and he looked past us into his reflection in the wall-sized mirror that hung above us and through that, at something beyond. In later years, I would come to know that look – in other brothers and in my own children. But it looked strange to me then.

“Casey at the Bat,” the Ernest Thayer poem, was a lot more challenging than “Old Ironsides.” The story of the small town baseball team’s defeat one rainy day contained thirteen stanzas and fifty-two lines. I had seen Kirk read the book after school for a few minutes.

“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day,” he began. “The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.”

He worked his way through the tale. He broke his rhythm once, scouring his mind for a baseball score. My little brothers elbowed me from both sides. Would he stumble?

Kirk plodded on. Mom stood ready to prompt him, her head rocking as she looked anxiously up at him and back down at the text.

The opportunity for correction never came.

He could see it.