Collective Amnesia: Why Are Teen Girls Losing Their Memories?
My teenage daughter was the first to point out this epidemic to me: Teen girls—all over the world, in the present, the past, the future—are losing their memories. Sometimes it’s total amnesia, sometimes it’s partial memory loss. Sometimes it’s due to a physical accident or mental trauma, sometimes it’s something far more sinister. But any way it happens, it’s a serious problem.
What’s the source of this epidemic? YA authors, of course. Yes, the same people who gave us infestations of wizards and hordes of vampires, who filled the galaxy with dystopian worlds. Now they’ve hit us with the worst plague yet: memory loss.
“All these books have some girl who lost her memory,” my daughter said to me when I handed her a stack of summer reading. I hadn’t noticed it, but as soon as she pointed it out, I realized she was right. Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac tells the story of…well, a teenage amnesiac, a girl who has lost her memory due to head trauma. Slated is about a teen girl whose memory is deliberately wiped out by the state because she has committed a crime. False Memory is about a girl who wakes up in a mall with no memory of who she is. When she goes postal on a mall cop, it’s pretty clear she does not have a normal past. Cinder and its sequel Scarlet feature a futuristic cyborg girl who’s only missing parts of her memory, but those parts turn out to be critical not only to her but to the entire planet. (Not too much pressure, huh?) Arclight is about a girl in a dystopian society who was rescued from the deadly Shades, but has no memory of her time among them. Then there’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox about a girl who awakens from a coma and has no memory of anything before her accident. And, of course, Unremembered, which is about a girl who survives a plane crash and….wait for it…has no memory of who she is or what happened. In fact, she wasn’t even listed as a passenger on the flight.
The list goes on and on, and it’s getting longer by the day. Which brings us to the question, why all the memory loss? Does it just provide a quick entry to plot—take away someone’s memory and boom, everyone wants to know who, what, where, when, how, why? It’s certainly effective. But if it were just a convenient plot device, you would expect the number of amnesiacal novels to be split 50-50 between male and female characters. And they’re not. It’s girls, almost always girls.
Is this a subtle form of sexism? Do authors subconsciously view memory loss as a distinctly female vulnerability? Would a guy who wakes up with no memory seem as tragic or conflicted as a girl who wakes up with no memory? There shouldn’t be any difference, but again, if there’s no difference, why are there so many more girls losing their memories?
Secrets are the other component of this epidemic. The characters don’t just suffer from memory loss. There are always secrets behind their memory loss. Things have happened to them that they need to remember or, more commonly, things have happened that people want them to forget. Sometimes they have hidden powers—ones that are being blocked by someone or something, ones that may be helpful or fatal to them, ones that, in a few cases, are even being encouraged. Often the novel is less about the tragedy of memory loss and more about the “specialness” behind the memory loss—what has been blocked or masked, repressed. And inevitably, the character retrieves her memory, defeats those who wanted to keep her in darkness, and proves that the human mind is more powerful than any external force.
Which brings up an interesting possibility. Maybe all these characters are losing their memories because this is, in essence, what society does to real girls. It says “Don’t be who you want to be. Remember nothing. Do nothing. Be nothing.” Maybe these YA novels aren’t creating a fictional tragedy so much as addressing a real one: the systematic depersonalization of young girls as they enter into adulthood, the sociological bombardment of their psyches to the point where it becomes impossible for them to remember who they are and what they’re capable of.
Viewed in that light, maybe this rash of girls losing their memories doesn’t represent an epidemic of vulnerability, but a wave of transcendence. YA authors aren’t saying “Girls are so fragile, their identities can be wiped out at the drop of a hat.” They’re saying “Remember who you are. Remember what you want. And be who you are. Only then will you be as powerful as you can be.”
That’s something we could all stand to remember.
What do you think? Does the wave of YA novels about girls losing their memories bother you, inspire you, neither?