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Who Is Su


When he met Su, Oliver Sacks found her case to be puzzling. “I had never before heard a story of someone losing virtually all memory of their previous life following a head injury,” he says. I told Su that her story is so incredible that I wondered if it was possible she was perpetrating a great hoax. She sympathized. “But I don’t know what I don’t know until I know it,” she told me.

Why hadn’t she seriously harmed her children or herself? What does she think prevented her from misconstruing a gallon of bleach for a gallon of milk? She knows from Jim that Patrick had once eaten fire ants, that she’d once made applesauce in a laundry-detergent container. The fact that no one got seriously hurt she attributes mainly to Jim. He labeled everything hazardous in the house with a cross and bones. “You were told that that was a rule,” Kassidy said to Su. And she was not prone to exploration. “Jim has a very strong personality,” Su told me. “There’s one way to do something and it’s Jim’s way. That was sort of the house I was raised in.”

When I reached Su’s parents at their home in Roanoke, Virginia, her 81-year-old mother, Janet, answered cheerfully, “Millers!,” as her 80-year-old father, Bob, manned a second phone on the same line. Their appreciation of the extent of Su’s losses had unfolded over time, they told me. They’d wanted to believe the experts—“The doctors kept saying there’s nothing wrong with her, and I thought, Yes, there is,” Janet recalled, “but if the doctors kept saying there’s nothing wrong with her, then, maybe, okay.

There were so many extenuating circumstances: They lived five hours away then, in Houston; Bob was working and traveling often; Su’s youngest brother, Mark, was still living with them. Su clearly didn’t remember them or anyone else (“Certainly a red flag,” Bob conceded). When she visited them a few months after her injury, Janet found her “out cold” on the floor, and though Benjamin said, “It’s all right, Grandma, she’ll be fine in a few minutes,” Janet did think, This is not normal. But Su and Jim had asserted their independence forcefully. Bob said he had flown to Ohio to plead with them not to marry and that he and Janet “were put in the position of having our daughter flaunt her own will against us, so that her married life was totally her decision, her bed to lie in.”

Su’s older sister Diane, with whom she is close today, was more straightforward. “To be honest, and I know it sounds horrible, I didn’t really like her very much.” she told me. The old Su had antagonized the family and “always sort of terrified” her parents. “I think it was easier for them to say, ‘She’s Jim’s problem now.’ ”

Which isn’t to say they didn’t worry. Janet fretted especially over Su’s driving; she’d been appalled to learn that, when driving down her street in Maryland, Su often pressed her garage-door opener in order to find her house. And yet even from her hospital bed Su had proved herself “an exceptionally quick learner,” Janet said, “and a good actress too.” They accepted her memory loss as they said she had, as “a lingering annoyance.”

“From our vantage point, she was doing it and seemingly surviving,” Bob said. “A significant concern? Yes. But an alternate solution? Well, we didn’t have one.”

Yes, Su told me in Northampton, she has wondered recently how things might have gone differently. And yet, difficult as her recovery had been, she is grateful for the outcome. She is convinced she and the children would have been shipped to her parents’ house, where, Su said, “they would have done everything for me—”

Kassidy interjected: “They would have treated her like a 4-year-old, or, like, a 2-year-old, or whatever—”

“—Which is what I was,” said Su.

“And you would have ended up in some supervised-living ­center,” Benjamin told her.

“And the fact that you got to Smith College,” said Kassidy, “if somebody’s being told their whole life that they have such a disability, and it’s such a horrible thing—”

“Yes,” Su agreed, “you’re not even going to try to go to Smith College.”

For a while, she ­mourned all she’d lost—“I would have cut off my left arm to have my memories,” Su said—until she realized that they were no longer hers to know. Indeed, she now says she is grateful she remembers nothing. Remembering some things would be worse.

“Now I think it would just fuck with me,” she said. “I would have to start all over again.”


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