Lauren Aguirre: The Memory Thief and the Secrets Behind How We Remember—A Medical Mystery

Memory Thief

Memory Thief


Lauren Aguirre
Pegasus Books, June 1, 2021
Hardcover $28.95, e-book $18.99
Audiobook by Blackstone Publishing, $21.41
ISBN-10: 1643136526, ISBN-13: 978-1643136523

Aguirre reports:

In 2017, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced the identification of a cluster of 14 opioid overdose victims. All had developed sudden amnesia and severe damage to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. At the time, I was working at the PBS documentary series NOVA, where we covered the so-called amnestic syndrome in a brief blog post. Because brains and rare diseases have always fascinated me, I dug deeper and discovered that some of the clinicians who had reported amnesic patients suspected that the scope and significance of the syndrome were greater than it seemed on the surface.

Lauren Aguirre. Photo by Annie Valva.

Lauren Aguirre. Photo by Annie Valva.

I decided to leave NOVA to write a book, taking the syndrome as a jumping-off point to explore the nature of memory. Through a colleague, I found an agent who guided me through a lengthy proposal-writing process and found a publisher. My work was supported in part by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology.

One aspect of the reporting that appealed to me was the ability to follow along in real-time as clinicians investigated the syndrome and worked with a patient who participated in research. Two neurologists gave me text messages they had sent each other as they exchanged ideas about how to tease out the mechanism behind the damage. I also collected e-mails through a FOIA request. This allowed me to capture the turning points and blind alleys in the moment, not years later when people tend to arrange events into a neat and logical story. I believe this makes the book more interesting and more true to the actual nature of advances in medical science, in which the story is always unfinished. However, it was difficult to know how to structure the book without also knowing how it would turn out.

I wish I had grasped how much more work was still to come after my editor said my draft was good. Between polishing, fact-checking, expert review, finding images, clearing rights, and gearing up for promotion, I discovered, painfully, that I wasn’t even close to done.

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Jun. 2, 2021

Advance Copy

The path from idea to book may take myriad routes. The Advance Copy column, started in 2000 by NASW volunteer book editor Lynne Lamberg, features NASW authors telling the stories behind their books. Authors are asked to report how they got their idea, honed it into a proposal, found an agent and a publisher, funded and conducted their research, and organized their writing process. They also are asked to share what they wish they’d known when they started or would do differently next time, and what advice they can offer aspiring authors. Lamberg edits the authors’ answers to produce the Advance Copy reports.

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