Convocation 2012

Permanent record

For Marilu Henner, it’s like her entire life happened yesterday.

Carrie Golus, AB’91, AM’93

Marilu Henner, X’74, can remember every single day of her life since she was 12 years old in 1964. She can recall almost every day back to age seven. In her earliest memories, she’s still a baby.

For decades Henner—nicknamed the Memory Kid and Univac, after an early computer—sought the perfect analogy to explain her baffling memory. “You know how a card catalog works?” she used to say. When VHS tapes became commonplace, she talked about a tape that she could cue. Then the DVD was invented, and she had the perfect metaphor: her brain had a scene selection function.

When she thinks of a certain year—say, 1976—the major dates come in first. “I see, oh yeah, Christmas was on a Saturday. My birthday was on a Tuesday. And it just starts filling in, filling in, filling in,” she says. “Simultaneous little videos are playing next to each other, all these 365 days—well, that year, 366. Some of them are a little dark and haven’t come in fully yet, but if I sat here for like 15 minutes, I could do every day of 1976.”

Henner is one of only 33 known cases of highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) in the world. Originally called hyperthymesia (a term Henner doesn’t like because it sounds like a malady), HSAM was identified by James McGaugh, professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, in 2006. Its two defining characteristics, McGaugh wrote in the journal Neurocase: “the person spends an abnormally large amount of time thinking about his or her personal past” and “the person has an extraordinary capacity to recall specific events from their personal past.”

When McGaugh’s team scanned Henner’s brain, they found that several regions related to memory were much larger than normal. They also tested Henner by giving her ten random dates throughout her lifetime (beginning at age 15) and asking her the day of the week, what she did, and a public event that happened within a month. Henner received a perfect score.

In 2010 Henner was featured on a 60 Minutes special about HSAM. Until then, she was probably best known for her role as Elaine Nardo on the sitcom Taxi, which ran from 1978 to 1983, or for her roles on Broadway. She’s appeared twice on Celebrity Apprentice, making it to the final five in the spring 2013 season. Henner has also written a number of best-selling health and lifestyle books, including Marilu Henner’s Total Health Makeover (1998), I Refuse To Raise A Brat (1999), and Wear Your Life Well: Use What You Have to Get What You Want (2009).

Since the 60 Minutes episode aired, Henner has become as famous for her memory as for her acting. Her most recent best seller, published last year, is Total Memory Makeover; she also consults for and appears on the TV drama Unforgettable, which stars Poppy Montgomery as a detective with HSAM.

Henner’s astonishing memory means she has missed out on one common human experience: never in her life has she said to someone, I’m sorry, I just forgot. She isn’t quite superhuman: “My kids always tease me about how Mom never can find her keys.” But after a little fruitless searching, she’ll stop, replay the tape in her mind, and know exactly where they are.


Sunday, October 6, 1968

“The very first time I ever went to the University of Chicago was—let me think, exactly (pause)—it was October 6, 1968. It was a Sunday. I was a junior in high school. I went to a conference there and I fell in love with the school. It was the only school I applied to. And because I had really good grades, and I had four scholarships, and I was named Outstanding Teenager of Illinois in 1970, I figured I could probably go anywhere I wanted to go.

“But the first real day that I was on campus was September the 21st, 1970. That was a Monday. It was this kind of sunny, brisk Chicago fall day, warmer than a lot of other days. I had this huge, kind of rust-colored, almost like a horse-blanket cape.

“You have to understand, I graduated from high school at about 130 and I went to the University of Chicago at about 156. I put on 25 pounds that summer. I’ve always been from the school of, if you can’t hide it, decorate it. So I was wearing size 34–34 jeans, and huge platform shoes, and a big man’s shirt kind of thing, to cover my newly gained stomach weight, and this enormous horse-blanket cape. I was walking on campus and Women’s Wear Daily was there, and they shot a picture of me. There is a picture in their September 25 issue.”

I requested the September 25, 1970, issue of WWD from Interlibrary Loan without bothering to consult an index.

The article, “Rapping on Campus,” featured students from Mills, Barnard, and Vassar, as well as UChicago, “rapping” about the war, Women’s Lib, and other contentious topics of the time. Henner shared her assessment of drug use: “a social crutch.”

And indeed, that was some cape.

Convocation 2012


In Total Memory Makeover, Henner credits her upbringing, as well as her innate talents, for her unusual memory. Henner grew up in Chicago’s Logan Square, one of six kids in a colorful Catholic family; her mother ran a dance school in the garage and a beauty shop in the kitchen. “We were famous for our parties,” she writes. “It seemed to me as if everything that happened in our family was important and memorable.” After every party, the family would have a “recollection party” to recount and analyze the events of the night before. One of her father’s favorite sayings was, “There are three parts to every event: anticipation, participation, and recollection, and the greatest of these is recollection.”

But what about the less pleasurable memories? The embarrassing, the sad? One might assume that Henner has lived a charmed life, and that is why she sees her encyclopedic memory as a blessing.

But Henner’s first book, the autobiography By All Means Keep on Moving (1994), shows she’s endured her full measure of pain. At 17 she lost her father; he had a heart attack during an argument with her brother at one of those famous family parties. Nine years later, her mother’s arthritis became so serious she had to have a leg amputated; she died in her late 50s. “With each ‘bad’ memory comes a major life lesson,” Henner writes in Total Memory Makeover: her parents’ deaths at early ages inspired her lifelong obsession with exercise and healthy eating.

Henner points out that in her particular career, distressing experiences are actually valuable: “As an actor, you’re encouraged to go back to our painful memories,” she says. “Actors train themselves to do that.” Years of analysis, beginning at age 23, have also contributed to her relentlessly cheerful outlook. Her analyst, Ruth Velikovsky Sharon (with whom she coauthored I Refuse to Raise a Brat) was astonished at Henner’s ability to retrieve childhood memories and relate them to adult experiences. Sharon worked with Henner’s entire family, she says: “all six brothers and sisters, for ten years every two weeks.”

The sharpness of her recollection of her parents’ deaths will never soften with time, as it would for most people, including her siblings; none of them has HSAM. Nonetheless Henner sees her memory as “an insurance policy against loss.” While cleaning out a guest house earlier this year, she discovered a box of her mother’s clothing. Henner could remember exactly when her mother had worn each outfit, what she herself had worn on those days, and what they did together. “Because everything is available to me, on not only a visual level but an emotional level, there’s never really that sense of loss,” she says. “Even though they’ve both been gone a very long time, it’s really like I just saw them yesterday. Today.”


Thursday, January 7, 1971

“It was Thursday, January the 7th of 1971. I had gotten this coat. It was kind of a cherry-colored coat, a very rich color. I was walking with Michael and I thought, in my own head, ‘Oh, I look so cute today.’ I was a little chubby, but I didn’t care. I was rocking this coat.

“And this coat, when you took it out in ice-cold weather, totally froze stiff. It was like buckram or something, a plasticky kind of material. It was crisp. You could have cracked it. And I remember thinking, Oh my God, I hope he doesn’t notice that my coat is stiffening up around me. I was trying to pat it down because it was popping up.”

Michael Brown, AB’74, remembers being underwhelmed by Henner’s memory when they first met. “When you’re 18, in a dormitory, and someone says, ‘I remember every day of my life,’ you may or may not believe it, but either way it’s not nearly as impressive as when you’re 50,” he says.

Brown made an impression on Henner, though. “Michael cut such a striking figure at the University, because he was so tall and handsome. He was this enigmatic sort of figure. Very quiet but imposing.” He was also dating one of her close friends. So even after they broke up, Henner concealed her crush.

In 1980 Henner and Brown had a chance meeting at the city hall in New Orleans. Henner was just about to marry her first husband, actor Frederic Forrest, whom she met while filming Wim Wenders’s Hammett (not released until 1982). Brown, who had been living with his wife in Brazil, did not realize Henner was famous.

By 2001 Brown was divorced and Henner twice divorced; both were living in California. A mutual friend, Paul Hewitt, X’74, gave Brown her phone number. He phoned, they had dinner, and within a week they were a couple.

“Michael and I, when we got together, we had this history. It was very rich for us,” says Henner. “It was definitely rich for me, because I remembered so much.”

They were married on December 21, 2006. It was a Thursday.


Convocation 2012

Wednesday, November 22, 1972

“The morning of November the 22nd, 1972, I got a phone call from my friend Jim Jacobs [cocreator of Grease]. ‘Henner. First rehearsals for the national company [of Grease] start tomorrow. We haven’t cast Marty, I’ve kept the part open for you, so I want you to come to New York and audition.’

“And I said, ‘Jim, I have two papers due this week. I’m on my way to the library this morning, I’m in a show at school, I’m dating somebody. I can’t just up and leave for New York.’ And he said, ‘OK, you’re going to be sorry.’

“I started to walk toward the library, and my car was parked in front. That never happened. I always had to park far away. I looked at my car, I looked at the library, I looked at my car, I threw my books in my car and went off to the airport and got a student standby ticket to New York.

“So I went to the theater where Grease was performing and auditioned, and they said, ‘Wait in the restaurant next door.’ They came in and said, ‘OK, you have the part. Be here for the first rehearsal tomorrow.’ And I was shocked. I literally only had the clothes on my back. I had these dark green pants, sort of like bell bottoms, and this cream-colored Henley shirt.

“So I did the rehearsal and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you 15 hours to go home and come back tomorrow. You’ll be a little bit late.’ So I literally went home that night, packed up my apartment, said goodbye to my boyfriend at the time, told the people in the show I was doing, ‘You’ll have to cast someone else. I’m so sorry,’ wrote a letter to the bursar, shoved it under the door, and left for my mom’s house on Logan Boulevard. I literally had 15 hours to go home and change my life.”

Although Henner often flips through her memories for pleasure—What was I doing a week ago? Two weeks ago? What was I doing when I was my sons’ ages?—she is not prone to nostalgia. In the structure of her memory, “every year has its own little book to it, a little calendar,” she says. “Each year of my life has the same kind of weight and vividness. Not that I don’t have fondness for certain times more than others, but it’s not like there are golden periods that are different from everything else.”

Her husband possesses a more typical memory: nostalgic for the beginning of his College years, less so for the end. A few years before Henner drove a pretend cab on TV, Brown drove an actual cab to put himself through school; he was mugged more than once. “It was a very tumultuous time. The economy was terrible. That colors the way I remember it.”

After earning a degree in geography, he found a job at one of the few places that was hiring: the South Works of US Steel on 87th Street. Brown was one of thousands of men laid off as the plant scaled back production; it closed completely in 1992. “We lived through a real changeover. The Rust Belt became the Rust Belt in that time,” he says. In his memories, “I relate a lot of things personally to the bigger picture.”

In 2004 Henner and Brown attended the 30th reunion of the Class of 1974. They asked an old College friend who lived in Chicago if she wanted to get together. She said no. “Her memories of College were so special, she wanted to keep all of it preserved the way it was,” says Henner. “She didn’t want to see us.”

I ask Brown what it’s like to be married to someone with HSAM. “Intimidating,” he says. He tried some of the exercises in Total Memory Makeover. (One exercise is to keep a daily record of your own anticipation, participation, and recollection; Brown’s calendar publishing company, BrownTrout, offers a Total Memory Makeover calendar for this purpose.) He can go deeper into his memories now, he says, but “not to the level that she can do it. Certainly not with the ability to tag it with the dates and everything.”

Brown has his own exceptional memory, Henner says: “He knows more trivia. If you were playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire you would want him as your lifeline. It’s a really different part of your brain.”

But if, for example, she asked him to pick up the dry cleaning, and he didn’t, there would be no question which one of them had forgotten the conversation, right? “Right.”

And while all couples have the same arguments over and over, Henner can name the exact date and location when they last had it. “Just this week I said, ‘Come on, you don’t remember Saturday, July 5th of 2003?’”

“Remembering the exact date doesn’t win the argument,” Brown points out.

“Michael always says, ‘What man ever wins an argument against his wife anyway?’” says Henner. “‘At least I have an excuse.’”


Henner’s College friends used to enjoy testing her ability to name the day of the week when given a date or an event. It’s hard not to want to quiz her, especially since she’s so remarkably tolerant about it.

I interviewed Henner twice by phone. The second time, I ask if she remembers the date we first talked.

“It was March 1, wasn’t it?” she says. Of course it was. I had looked it up.

I ask if she remembers my phone number, which ends in 4811. She doesn’t. But that’s because her assistant had placed the call.

“I know 4/8/11 was a Friday,” Henner says. Just before we hang up, she says, “Now I will never forget that your phone number is that Friday and what I was doing.”


(Photography by Nathan Keay)