Oliver Sacks may have a new case study in Hillary Clinton. The neurologist and author who writes about people afflicted with bizarre disorders (e.g., "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat") might find Hillary's faulty memory an avenue for new research.
It's the case of "The First Lady Who Mistook Herself for a Risk-Taking International Diplomat." The patient is a 60-year-old white female, known for her intelligence, impeccable work ethic and emotional reserve. Although capable of bouts of absent-mindedness -- especially when subpoenaed billing records are involved -- the patient is cautious to a fault.
Onset of the symptoms began a few weeks ago. Friends and colleagues of the patient started to worry when she exhibited a grandiosity verging on delusion. She insisted she played a "major role" in the foreign policy of the administration of her husband. A team of researchers has scoured the memoirs of Clinton administration foreign-policy officials and the documentary record for evidence that she played such a role, and found none.
Although such exaggeration is typical in the patient's line of work, the episode suggested the possibility of a dangerous disassociation between the patient's recollections and reality.
"I helped to bring peace to Northern Ireland," the patient said, heedless of all and sundry who said otherwise. She said she was "intimately involved" in the peace process and had an "independent" role in it. U.S. negotiator George Mitchell gently countered that she was "not involved directly," and former Northern Ireland official David Trimble called her a "cheerleader." The patient hewed to her imaginary version, a sign her condition had continued to deteriorate.
Worrisomely, her accounts got more dramatic and less truthful over time. In her memoir "Living History" published in 2003, well before her current affliction, the patient describes dutifully accompanying her husband to Northern Ireland, where she had tea with women committed to peace and her husband was greeted by rapturous crowds ("I was filled with pride and respect for my husband").
Her panicked friends considered an intervention when she announced she had "landed under sniper fire" in Tuzla, Bosnia, and had to duck and run to her vehicle. Reporters present at the landing said it didn't happen. The patient stood by her confabulation, saying she specifically remembered it -- even though, again, it curiously wasn't included in her memoir.
It began to seem there was no way to pull the patient back from spiraling ever downward into her private world when a news video directly contradicting her Tuzla account provided a rude shock to her aberrant memories. The patient reacted defensively. She said she had merely "misspoken," that she was "human," and that she was going to be fine, fine, fine. This is the moment of the patient's greatest vulnerability, but also holds the greatest potential for a breakthrough of self-understanding.
Has the patient experienced some recent trauma or other participating event that could have disturbed her memory? There is an unhealthy obsession with a young African-American man, but that has been steadily building over the course of a year. The onset of her impairment corresponds almost exactly with the airing of a "3 a.m." ad about how the patient would be best suited to answer a red phone in a crisis. The ad appears to have created unbearable psychological pressures.
The patient believes she is acting rationally, but subliminally her mind is working to provide all the national security and crisis experience that, deep down, the patient knows she lacks. She is suffering from "Impaired Memory Self-Inflating Syndrome," a rare disorder to which vaultingly ambitious formerly front-running presidential candidates are prone. Her husband has long exhibited acute symptoms. There is no cure, only understanding and a course of treatment to limit the outbreaks.
Recommendation: A toning down of the so-called experience argument that has created such internal stress. Careful observation of the patient will be necessary, pending the results of the Pennsylvania primary.