Ausgabe 18/2005

British Musician Battles Amnesia The Man without a Memory

For 20 years, Clive Wearing has been forgetting everything that just happened. All day long, he believes he has just woken from a deep haze. Now, his wife has written a biography capturing his daunting fight for normalcy in a world that has no center.


Each time Clive Wearing sees his wife Deborah, he thinks they are being reunited after a long separtion.

Each time Clive Wearing sees his wife Deborah, he thinks they are being reunited after a long separtion.

Watching the Wearing couple is like sitting in on the rehearsal for a play: Again and again, Deborah walks in the door and Clive rushes excitedly forward. "Darling!" he exclaims, falls into her arms and cries with relief.

But it's no theater play. All emotions are real. To Clive Wearing, every reunion is the first in ages. He doesn't know whether his wife was just in the bathroom or maybe out checking the mail. He forgets about her as soon as she is out of sight. Just as he forgets about everything else: how to get out of his own house, what time it is, even the sentence he just uttered. Which is why he is so excited each time Deborah reappears: Was she gone for 20 years or just for two minutes? He hasn't the faintest idea.

In fact, Clive Wearing, a 66-year-old Brit, cannot remember a thing. Out of sight, out of mind. Barbara Wilson, a psychologist who has examined him several times, says: "It's the worst case of amnesia I have ever seen."

Total eclipse of the brain

In his former life, Clive Wearing was a music producer for the BBC and the choirmaster of the renowned London Sinfonietta ensemble -- but all that has been deleted out of his memory. Life before the illness has left few traces. Wearing knows that he is married to Deborah, but has no memory of his wedding day. He recognizes their children, but cannot remember how many he has. If you say "Winston" he will reply "Churchill," but denies ever having heard of the man.

Garden variety amnesia -- people forget about their past lives -- is not terribly uncommon. But forgetting on a continuous basis; that is very rare indeed. To Clive Wearing, the world is an ongoing riddle. He looks around and sees an unfamiliar room. Frequently, strangers stand in front of him and claim to be nurses. They claim that he has been living here for many years.

All Wearing knows is: He has just woken up from a deep haze. There is no other way for him to explain the emptiness within him. He has no memories, no images, nothing. For 20 years Clive Wearing has been continuously waking up.

And when he sees his wife again, his bliss is indescribable; He's not alone among strangers after all. His first question to Deborah, the most pressing and always the same, is: "How long have I been unconscious?"

Clive asks the same question, day in, day out, often several times a minute. "How long has it been? I did not see, hear or feel anything. It's like being dead, a long night that drags on -- how long, darling?"

And Deborah answers him -- sometimes several thousand times a day. She answered him for so long she couldn't do it anymore and ultimately divorced him and went to New York, in search of a new life, another man, perhaps even children. But in the end, she came back to Clive Wearing: "There's no other man like him."

Now, after 20 years, Deborah Wearing has written a book about her life with the man without memory (Deborah Wearing: "Forever Today. A Memoir of Love and Amnesia". Doubleday, London, 340 pages). To some extent, they are his memoirs. The book tells the tale of a person who is trapped in a moment that drags on eternally. And yet, when the two meet again, he often jumps up in joy and waltzes his wife around the hallway: "How beautiful you are. I could kiss you all day long!" He might have lost everything, but not his "Cliveness" as Deborah calls it.

Is Clive's state improving?

All the better, then, that Clive's condition seems to be improving lately. He seems more untroubled of late, and not as obsessed with waking up anymore. Recently, he even let himself be treated to a night at the cinema. And he has started to laugh at jokes again -- but they have to be short enough that he remembers the beginning.

Deborah Wearing is hopeful. It's not much, but it's a wonderful change compared to the horrors at the beginning.

In March 1985, just one and a half years after their wedding, Clive was rushed to the hospital with a bad case of encephalitis -- an infection of the brain. The infection spread quickly and he fell into a coma for more than two weeks. When he came back to life, MRI scans made clear just how bad the damage was. Several regions of his brain were severely damaged and the hippocampus -- which plays an important role in memory formation -- was totally destroyed.

Signs of major disorientation surfaced quickly during his convalescence. Wearing poured sugar on his potatoes and would shove the menu into his mouth. When shaving, he not only worked on his chin and cheeks, but he also shaved his forehead, nose and eyebrows.

Tears that flowed were soon forgotten

The couple's happy wedding day in 1983.

The couple's happy wedding day in 1983.

One day when Deborah Wearing visited her husband in the hospital, his face was a picture of complete horror at his condition. That evening he started to cry. He cried all night and all through the following days. His pillow was wet with tears; he was constantly thirsty because he had lost so much fluid. Even before he opened his eyes in bed in the mornings, his tears started to roll down his cheeks and at night he fell asleep crying. After one month he was still crying but the tears had stopped flowing.

For most of us, crying can have a cathartic effect, and we soon feel better. For Wearing, however, the tears were without effect. He forgot how many he had shed; they just drained out of his eyes.

During his crying spell, Deborah Wearing would often ask her husband: "Darling, what's wrong? Tell me." For a long time, he didn't answer her question; when he did, it was just one sentence: "I am utterly incapable of thinking!"

The medical findings were clear: Wearing was left with nothing more than short term memory. Generally, it's barely enough to remember a new face or a telephone number for a few seconds. Every new input deletes the old. In a normally functioning brain, important items are transferred to long term memory before being deleted. In Clive Wearing's brain, however, this transfer never takes place. His life is stuck in the present moment: Every perception that comes before that moment, is erased forever.

Conspiracy theory

As time went by, Wearing calmed down slightly. Once, his wife found him staring at a chocolate in his hand. Again and again, he closed his hand and opened it again. Each time, a new sweet -- one which he had never seen before -- reappeared. "How do they do it?" he asked.

Almost everything in his surroundings was a riddle. Especially when Wearing played solitaire to relax as he often had before his illness. As soon as he looked away, the layout of the cards had changed completely. He wrote down: "Cards NOT dealt by me."

Increasingly, his whole world seemed like a shell game. He feared a conspiracy and it was his mission to find his enemies. Again and again, Wearing would deal out the cards and then write down the pattern -- even going so far as creating a secret code that only he could understand. He didn't get far. Now, he not only found cards changed around by an unknown hand, but also an unknown note -- in his own handwriting but clearly not written by him. He had just woken up after all. Several times he asked: "Who has done this to me?"

Deborah Wearing gave her husband a diary. She thought it would aid him in conquering the past. And Clive diligently wrote down his day. But differently than his wife had thought he might:
11:45 -- Woke up for the first time.
11:48 -- Now really awake!
11:50 -- Finally awake, for the FIRST time!!

New entries continue down the page asserting that Clive is awake. Most are scribbled out, corrected and written over: "Now REALLY and unsurpassably awake!"

For many years, there is hardly anything else written in his diaries. Thousands of crumpled pages filled with scrawling notes written in the fervor of getting everything straight.

Brain alive at the sound of music

There is only one thing that helps him escape his maze: music. Everyday, Wearing sits at the piano and if someone puts sheet music in front of him, he plays it flawlessly. The structure of the pieces he plays provides order to his life, linking the moments. He rolls across the staves as if he were on the tram, his wife writes.

If the musician has no music in front of him, he plays what he feels like playing -- "and it's always the same piece," says Deborah Wearing. Her husband has no sense of repetition. The first melody that pops into his mind never bores him. Without memory, it seems, there is also no such thing as improvisation. Someone who has nothing old stored cannot invent anything new.

Today, Clive Wearing lives with his piano in a home for the brain-damaged. He spent the first years of his suffering in a psychiatric ward. Back then, there were no adequate homes for the likes of him and his wife founded an organization for the purpose of raising awareness for the cause. When working there, she often met people who suffered from amnesia like her husband. She remembers a visitor that always carried around several plastic bags full of notes. Everything he needed to know was written down, but he could almost never find the right note.

Another, called Peter, mastered his daily life with the help of post-it notes. His flat was plastered with these yellow notes -- each with an order for how to conduct his day. When he was finished with one task, Peter took down the note. He lived like a computer that executed its software line by line. Deborah Wearing, though, knew that for Clive, even the post-it note method was of no use. His moments of clarity were to brief. He would have forgotten what he was doing on the way from one note to the next.

So instead of manufacturing, Clive spent year in year out -- when he wasn't playing piano -- with the questions of questions: "How long was I unconscious? Five years! I did not see, hear or feel anything. Its like being dead, like a long night dragging on - how long?" Did his wife never lose her calm? "Of what use would that have been?" she asks. Deborah Wearing did not have the heart to leave him to wonder when he woke up. As time went by, the question kept coming at shorter intervals. In the end, they just came like gun shots, one after the other: "How long? How long? Tell me, how long?"

Deborah's despair

After nine years his wife had lost her answers. She thought of a double suicide: driving down to the seaside, explaining everything to him and then wading into the water. But he would forget what she explained immediately and save them. When a place in a home did finally emerge, Deborah got divorced and moved to New York. Back then she often talked to Clive on the phone and every time he seemed totally enthusiastic about hearing of her from New York and he wished her all the best: "I love you for always and for ever, darling." Sometimes they spoke longer than other times and ever; Clive seemed able to concentrate better on the phone. When Deborah and the man without a memory met again after a long time, he seemed altered. Did he not seem to hesitate when she came through the door? No scene, no waltz around the hallway? It was as if he had decided: Probably she had just popped off to the bathroom for a moment. Have the years, after all, left a mark in the brain of the amnesia-patient? That the path is blocked must not mean that there is nothing going on there. "I once told him that his favorite uncle Jeffrey had died. Ever since, Clive has never again spoken of him in the present tense," Deborah says. Also Wearing started to joke about himself like someone who knows about his idiosyncrasies. "I must be awful to bear," he often said. Deborah found him more touching than ever.

Wedding day soon forgotten

Three years ago they renewed their vows. Clive Wearing thought the reception was great, but he forgot all about it immediately. He returned to his convalescent home directly afterwards. Deborah went to her home near London, where she works as a press officer. She visits him often. Clive Wearing still suffers from attacks of despair, but it is easier to calm him down now. A nurse only needs to ask: "Shouldn't we make a cup of coffee for Deborah?" and Clive Wearing all renewed again, smiles happily and exclaims "Oh, what a brilliant idea! And do you think I could have one, too?" If Wearing is in a good mood, even a meal at a restaurant is no problem. And he vividly takes part in conversations. At a recent visit of his son, 38, he, being a perfect host, asked which grade the young man was in. Compared with before, Wearing exalts an astonishing calm and is very patient. His wife attributes his change to her prayers. Three years ago, she said, she "found God." Now she hopes that her prayers will be followed by small miracles.

The psychologists view

"Clive's memory, unfortunately, has improved only a bit," psychologist Barbara Wilson contradicts. She has examined him several times in the course of the last few years, the last time several weeks ago. "I find it hard to say. I know Deborah sees a lot more in it." And the fact that Clive is now able to have conversations? "That's normal for people with amnesia," says Wilson. "But just change the subject in between. He will not realize." Perhaps the test results don't make such great a difference. For years Clive Wearing has been scoring zero points in all tests. More important for him must be what life he can extract from a few moments of conscious existence. Until now the fright of having no past also deleted the little bit of present he was granted. But now the man without a memory seems to have come to terms with the great novelty of his life.

Clive is irrepressible in his love for his wife. He is also completely undemanding. He never begs her to visit and doesn't complain when she leaves. "I am very lucky with him," says Deborah Wearing now. "I have a husband who selflessly loves me." He listens when Deborah tells him about her daily life. And he always has something kind to say (even if it is very repetitive). In his former life, the man was a workaholic. "Music was everything to him," says Deborah Wearing. "He demanded a lot of himself and others." Now he is a lovely husband. "Clive has suffered," his wife says, "and he has matured." Clive often says: "We aren't two, darling, we are one." Recently, someone asked him to state his complete name. "Clive David Deborah Wearing," he answered. "Strange name. Who knows why my parents called me that."


© DER SPIEGEL 18/2005
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