'I Don't Know How to Forget'
Meet Jill Price at one of her favorite L.A. restaurants, and she'll scoot into a booth and start to reminisce. "On Wednesday, Dec. 11, 1996, my friend and I came here hunting for the perfect crab cake," she says. She also remembers Saturday, Nov. 4, 1995 (she saw on the TV that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed) and Friday, Sept. 20, 1985 (her first visit to the eatery; she wore a large hat). "It's all flashing through my head," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm totally in the moment—I just have a split screen of my past too."
Put scientifically, what Price, 42, has is the first-ever diagnosed case of hyperthymestic syndrome (see box), which allows—make that forces—her to recall every day of her life from the age of 14. Given a date, she can tell you the day of the week it fell on, what she did and any historical event she heard of that day. "It's like I walk around with a video camera," says Price, a school coordinator who chronicles her experiences in a new memoir, The Woman Who Can't Forget. "My memories are nonstop and involuntary." And real. Says Dr. James L. McGaugh, a neurobiology professor at the University of California, Irvine, whom Price contacted in 2000: "She named the dates of the last 24 Easters with one error—and she's Jewish! It was astounding."
So far, MRIs have revealed no sure cause, though part of her brain "appears larger than normal," says McGaugh. Price has her own theory. "It started at 8, when my family moved to California," she says. "I held on to everything. I organized memories by date and it started to feel like a calendar." Her recall fine-tuned itself, she says, until Feb. 5, 1980: "I don't know why, but from that day on, I remember everything."
It has been a mixed blessing. Friends rely on her as the keeper of their shared adventures, and "I love to see their excitement when I remind them of something," says Price, who also relishes thinking back on good times: "I get this warm, rushy feeling."
Yet she was only an average student, and the immediacy with which she experiences her past can be agonizing. Her husband, Jim, a mechanic, died from complications related to diabetes in 2005, but to this day, "I'm back in that moment, the smell of the hospital, him on the table," she says. "It rips my heart out." Adds her dad, Leonard Rosenberg: "Memory takes the edge off bad experiences—like an oyster making a pearl over a grain of sand—but Jill can't. It's hellish."
Living with her parents in L.A., Price still meets with researchers, who hope studying her could lead to advances in treating memory disorders. "I wouldn't want to not have this," she says, eyes wide. "It torments me. But it might be a gift for someone else."
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