My Memory Lost and Found

By Jill Robinson

HarperCollins. 275 pp. $24

By Nina King, associate editor of Book World.

At the end of her 1974 memoir, "Bed/Time/ Story," Jill Robinson and her then-husband, Laurie, have survived--but just barely--the seductions of the '60s, notably drugs and drink, Esalen and the occasional orgy. Robinson followed this with a novel, "Perdido" (1978), that drew upon her Hollywood childhood as the daughter of screenwriter and MGM chief Dore Schary. She published one more novel before seeming to vanish from the literary radar screen.

Now in her sixties, Robinson has written a memoir that accounts in part for her silence. While swimming laps at a spa near her London home, Robinson has a seizure resulting in a coma that lasts several days. When she emerges from it, she has amnesia. She repeatedly fails to recognize her husband of 10 years; she remembers incidents from the distant past, but forgets things that happened yesterday.

She frets about her children left at home in Los Angeles, only to be told again and again that her children grew up and left home years earlier. She cannot remember whether her mother is dead or alive. The past is as slippery as the proverbial eel, as defiant as a sulky teenager.

"Bed/Time/Story" was an early example of the kind of memoir-- now very popular--that is less a record of notable achievement than an expression of robust self-absorption. But in "Past Forgetting," as in the earlier book, Robinson's evocative and often witty prose manages to make her plight almost as absorbing to her readers as it is to her.

This is a story of small advances and small defeats. There is no miracle cure, no dramatic moment when the past comes flooding back. Instead we follow the ups and downs of her treatment, in which her loyal and patient husband, Stuart, plays a central role, telling her again and again that her memory will return. "He's trying to reassure both of us," she thinks. "He sounds English. My life is over and I've come back in an old war movie."

The only real suspense comes from her seeming ambivalence about meeting again with her grown children--especially her son, from whom she apparently has been estranged. But that part of her past never comes clear. "Just when I think my memory is all there," she writes, "I hit a blank patch--always, always, always around the kids." We'd like to know why. Those readers who remember "Bed/Time/Story" may be tempted to extrapolate explanations from the earlier book, in which Jill's parental performance was less than stellar.

Like "Bed/Time/Story," "Past Forgetting" takes some obvious liberties with probability and continuity. Conversations from years ago are recalled verbatim. And second husband Stuart Shaw is quite unlike the man identified as her second husband in "Bed/Time/Story." The children also have different names in the two books. Allowing for the changes wrought by time, the two versions of Jill, however, are clearly recognizable as the same person, including her passion for clothes and her obsession with finding the perfect outfit for every occasion. "Worrying about what to wear comes before writing, before worrying what to make for dinner."

What keeps the book from being clinical or maudlin is the voice of the narrator--sometimes irritating, more often engaging-- a cross between New York wiseacre and California space cadet. She has a dry wit that she is sometimes able to direct toward herself as well as others. Sometimes, but not always. She scorns a celebrity hound who tries to exploit Robinson's friendship with Barbra Streisand. But her own chatter is filled with first names of the famous and the near-famous: Barbra, of course, but also Dennis and Jane and Bob and Anatole and Donna. (That's Hopper and Fonda and Redford and Broyard and Karan.)

Robinson attempts to understand what has happened to her in medical terms. Old records indicate that she has suffered from epilepsy since childhood--a diagnosis that probably was kept quiet at a time when epilepsy was considered a shameful disease. She supplements her own story with gleanings from her research in other fields, in particular the science of memory as practiced by Renaissance sages who built elaborate "memory palaces" in their imaginations to organize and retain their knowledge. She interviews people from her past, seeking to shore up her fitful memories with their presumably more reliable ones. And she talks with biochemist Steven Rose, author of "The Making of Memory." "Every act of memory is a reinvention," he tells her. " . . . When you tell a story or have an experience, the memory shifts as the tale is a little different the next time it's told."

Robinson's great fear during the long period of recovery is that she will never be able to write again. She needn't have worried. "Past Forgetting"--part memory, part reinvention--is a fine book.