Perspective shift

Life's unexpected turns
At 31, writer Anne Howell (BA '85) woke up in hospital, believing that she was a nine-year-old girl. She had no memory of her family, her baby daughter, or much else. With a case of retrograde amnesia, Anne had to rediscover who she was, including how to read, write and study again.
Anne Howell shot from behind looking into a mirror so her reflection is staring back. Her head is shaved in places following her surgery.

Anne Howell after her second operation. Photography by Andrew Worssam.

In my 20s, I studied English Literature, Philosophy and Arts at the University of Sydney, then worked as a staff newspaper journalist and magazine features editor for many years.

In 1991, while pregnant, I suffered a stroke two days before giving birth. CAT scans revealed I had a life threatening malformed artery located on the outer brain, much like an aneurism. Eleven months later, I underwent neurosurgery, then caught meningitis, which left me in a coma. I woke up with amnesia, thinking I was a young girl.

I had no idea where I was, or why I was in excruciating pain. Nothing made sense. It was all very sci-fi. I had lost my memory of near everything in my life, as well as knowledge of the broader world. When I first saw my mother, she seemed extraordinarily old. She indicated that my ‘husband’ was coming to see me. I thought, ‘So adult of me. How is it possible?’ She didn’t mention that I also had a daughter. I found that out when my partner walked in holding this odd creature, beautiful but unearthly strange. Not knowing what a baby was, I was staggered to learn she was mine.

Young Anne Howell leaning over in front of a tree smiling with a baby who is on a scooter.

Recovering with a child she couldn't remember. Photograph supplied by Anne Howell. 

Slowly, memories surfaced through triggers – smells, sound and sights – but for a long time I couldn’t read or write. I tried reading my daughter’s books, but the letters turned into insects and walked off the page. I ended up learning to read an adult book, persisting for hours until I had a breakthrough. That changed everything.

On an ambitious whim, I decided to study philosophy again, imagining that the world’s top thinkers would reboot my poor brain. It was so rewarding; I’m still surprised at how I kept up. Despite medical professionals telling me to aim low, I had a sense of brain plasticity, that I needed to be very proactive about working my brain if I wanted to have a decent life, and pushed myself hard. Eventually I returned to newspaper journalism, then began studying creative writing. I obtained my PhD with a novel and thesis in 2013 at the University of Wollongong, then started writing my memoir, All That I Forgot.

Anne Howell's memoir, All That I Forgot

Anne Howell's memoir, All That I Forgot, Bad Apple Press, 2022

I wrote it to make sense of the amnesia experience for myself and readers. Not all my relatives were forthcoming with information on my earlier life, so it took investigative work to piece together my history. I analysed my now-rich store of memories and did much research. I wanted to explore the reconstructive nature of memory and also give a sense of what it’s like to rely on others for one’s stories of the past. I’m probably not the person I was before – although I am told my sense of humour is intact.

As someone who has experienced childhood twice, I was given a fresh perspective. It reinforced my belief in lifelong learning.

Written by Anne Howell for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Anne's memoir, All That I Forgot, was released by Bad Apple Press in 2022. 

15 May 2024

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