How the Science of Memory Seduced Joyce Carol Oates

The author speaks about scientific ethics, exploitation, her fascination with neuroscience, and her part in the PEN Charlie Hebdo controversy.

01.19.16 5:01 AM ET

In Joyce Carol Oates’ 2015 memoir, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, the 77-year-old author frequently stresses the unreliability of memory. After introducing her deceased husband, Raymond Smith, she abruptly interrupts the narrative: “I’m sorry,” she writes, “but I am not able to write about Ray here.” 

Oates returns to the unreliable memory in her new novel, The Man Without a Shadow, about an amnesiac lab subject, Elihu Hoopes (“E.H.”), whose short-term memory loss is probed by a group of prestigious neuroscientists. A bout of encephalitis fever at age 37 damaged E.H.’s brain so that he can retain only 70 seconds of information, though he remains witty, artistic, and a wizard at crossword puzzles. 

To Margot Sharpe, a 24-year-old Ph.D. neuroscientist at the institute, he is also a flirt: playful and coy, he “shakes her hand in a way both courtly and caressing” when they first meet in the lab in 1965 and “leans close to Margot as if inhaling her.” 

So begins their peculiar, secret love affair and, in tandem, the vertiginous ascent of Margot’s career over the decades-long “Project E.H.” 

The novel is in part a manifestation of Oates having to confront her own memory and grief while writing her first memoir, A Widow’s Story: A Memoir (2011)—about the death of her first husband in 2008—and, subsequently, The Lost Landscape

“I find it so fascinating, quite apart from my novel, how selective our memories are,” Oates told The Daily Beast, speaking by phone from Berkeley, California, where she is teaching an advanced fiction workshop at UC Berkeley this semester. 

“I think we try to create plausible scenarios to try to remember what we said to someone five years ago,” Oates continued. “To be honest, I don’t remember what I talked about with people throughout a lot of my life.” 

It is no coincidence that the novel centers on a community of neuroscientists: Oates is now married to Charles Gross, a neuroscientist at Princeton University (the two spend most of their time at their home in a rural area outside the university town), whose expansive science library was a reliable resource for Oates when writing the novel. 

Gross himself was a resource as well: He read a first and final draft of the novel and “saw that the science was correct, which was very important to me,” Oates said.  

Oates’s writing is particularly penetrating when fictionalizing the stories of real-life people, as she did with Marilyn Monroe in Blonde.

Her latest novel was inspired by a well-known amnesiac in the neuroscience community: a man known as H.M., whom Gross worked with. He is also the subject of neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin’s Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesiac Patient, H.M. 

Oates said she was intrigued by the way that scientists view the world and their experiments “as the consequence of causes and events, whereas writers and artists are more focused on the sensuousness of the world and the way things look.” 

“Margot is a conceptual person, so when she meets E.H., she views him as a kind of phenomenon,” she said. “I’ve never really looked at someone like that until I wrote this novel.” 

She went on: “That [Margot] and her team are already thinking about slicing his brain up when he dies is chilling to me. And yet if you’re a scientist, that’s the way that you think. Even when Margot is holding E.H.’s hand and is in love with him, her mind is working on some great new article she’s going to write about the experiment.” 

Years after the experiment began, with Margot now secretly “married” to E.H., she asks herself and the reader: “Is [she] guilty of deception, and does it matter? Has she behaved unethically, as (some might claim) she’d behaved unethically through her career?”

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The story demands that we grapple with these questions: Was E.H. exploited as a scientific experiment? Did Margot exploit him by convincing him that they knew each other in grade school? 

Margot doesn’t think so. She believes that “most of life is a masquerade, especially the sexual life. And what is love but the most powerful of masquerades.” 

The subject matter may be a departure for Oates, but such fortune-cookie observations are not uncommon in her writing. 

The questions that Margot poses in her amnesiac logbook—“How do we know who we were, if we don’t know who we are? How do we know who we are, if we don’t know who we were?”—reflect Oates’s chin-stroking outlook on life.

She writes and thinks with such nuance that it occasionally seems like common sense is lost on her, particularly when she weighs in on politics and current events. (Unsurprisingly, she is prolific on Twitter and has 140,000 followers.) 

Oates was among the 200 members of PEN America who signed a letter stating that Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose staff members were murdered by Islamic extremists last year, wasn’t worthy of a prize for journalistic courage.

The letter criticized the magazine for mocking a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized,” and that Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet “must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.” 

When I asked if she thought Charlie Hebdo was a racist publication, Oates calmly replied: “No, no, no. Basically I was supporting some friends, eight people or so, who had signed the letter. Otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten personally involved at all. I didn’t really have a whole lot of emotion or care about—I wasn’t really against [Charlie Hebdo].” 

One would think that she might have supported her friends in other ways—why sign a letter that stated Hebdo was racist if one doesn’t agree with that sentiment? Again, Oates does not think linearly about these things. 

“It was sort of a meta issue,” she told me. “PEN is supposed to be for freedom of expression, but when these writers dared to have an expression that was a little different, they were attacked.” 

Oates declined to comment on her Twitter activity, including a recent, notorious tweet about ISIS: “All we hear of ISIS is puritanical & punitive; is there nothing celebratory & joyous? Or is query naive?”

Querying something is not naive, but it reveals Joyce Carol Oates to be a more circuitous and opaque thinker than one given to spouting simple or popular pieties. 

There is much to take away from this kind of thinking as it manifests in her new novel. Oates doesn’t believe that scientific experiments on an amnesiac patient are exploitative. The issue is more complex than that. 

“All of the medical technology we have came from animal experimentation, which is horrible,” she said. “But as my husband points out, without that we wouldn’t have much science.”