How Will We Remember The Pandemic?
The Atlantic|May 2021
The science of how our memories form— and how they shape our future
Por Melissa Fay Greene

My plague year began on the evening of Wednesday, March 11, 2020, when I was compelled to cancel the Atlanta-to-Denver plane tickets my husband and I had purchased for the next day, for a long visit with our oldest son, daughter-in-law, and small grandson. I was all packed.

For the first half of the week, I’d tried to configure the increasingly ominous COVID-19 news in ways that wouldn’t keep me separated from that curly-haired 3-year-old boy. Several of our adult kids had attempted to pierce my denial, calling and texting to say, “Mom, it doesn’t feel safe.” Wednesday night, when I saw the Denver family ringing me via FaceTime, my heart dropped. Upstairs, weeping, I unpacked the picture books and little wooden toys.

My husband, meanwhile, said that everyone was overreacting, even our son who works at the CDC. But that same night the NBA suspended its season. Oh, my husband thought, this must be serious! At that moment, his plague year began.

In the weeks that followed, as friends and neighbors recounted similar stories of when normal life stopped for them, I began to wonder about the tales we would someday tell of the pandemic. For the rest of my life, would my story begin with the cancellation of two Delta tickets for Flight 1355, ATL-DEN, scheduled for March 12, 2020? Would my husband eternally narrate the fact that, on March 11, 2020, the National Basketball Association suspended the 2019–20 season after Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz center, teste d positive for the coronavirus? And—bigger picture—what would we as a nation remember?

The pandemic has not been a single, traumatic “flashbulb” event like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the fiery disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger, or 9/11. Instead, it’s a life period in which everybody’s memories will be embedded, more like the Great Depression or World War II, or My High- School Years or When I Was Married to Barbara. Starting in March 2020, hundreds of millions of Americans began forming their own impressions of it. As psychologists and anthropologists who study memory will tell you, we tend to layout our anecdotes almost like short stories or screenplays to give our lives meaning; our plots (do they have silver linings? hopeful endings?) can reveal something about how we handle setbacks.

We’re already shaping our future pandemic narratives—the stories we will tell as individuals, as communities, as societies, and as nations about this epoch. The process of crafting these stories will help determine our resilience and well-being. How we tell our stories can transform how we move forward from hard times.

1.WHAT WE REMEMBER— AND WHAT WE FORGET

“There were so many unknowns at the beginning of the pandemic,” Alex Enurah, an internal-medicine-trained hospitalist at the Medical Center of Aurora, in Colorado, told me when we spoke via Zoom recently. He had a dark beard of rich gloss and density, and maintained an expression of attentive listening and kind concern. “First, will it really cross the seas to the U.S.? How hard will it hit us? Who’s going to get it?” As the virus ravaged Spain and Italy, the questions built, along with the foreboding sense “that something big was coming, with little time to prepare.”

Born in 1986 in Moscow, the son of a Nigerian father and a Russian mother who met at university while completing doctorates in mathematics, Alex grew up in Baltimore. His wife, Lynn VanderWielen, a tall white woman from Wisconsin farm country, is an expert in public-health-program evaluation. Their three-bedroom brick ranch sits in the sort of landscaped Denver neighborhood whose trees look scrubby under the enormous skies of the Great Plains. Medicine isn’t an easy path for a Black man. “When Alex enters a room, his patients sometimes think he’s come to pick up their food tray,” Lynn told me. “He says that’s an important job, too, just not something a physician does. Black families are always happy to see him, though.”

When his hospital asked for volunteers to see COVID-19 patients, Alex stepped up. “We constantly read updates and revised our practices to try to keep people safe,” he said. “It was scary but also exciting, a rare chance to practice medicine at an historic moment. I wondered if this was like the early days of trying to get a handle on HIV/AIDS. As patients began arriving, it felt like we were taking off in a plane we hadn’t finished building yet.”

While reporting this story, I asked people via social media to tell me what had made the deepest impression on them so far about the pandemic and what they thought they’d remember. Memory experts then helped me assess the submissions—and what they indicate about how our minds work.

Many replies to my prompts and to my follow-up questions began with the moment a person learned the college dorm was closing, the performances were suspended, the restaurant was shutting down. The psychology professor Henry L. Roediger III and the anthropology professor James Wertsch, scholars of collective memory at Washington University in St. Louis, introduced me to the “primacy effect,” one of the ways a memory gets “pinned” (as we say of tweets), to be easily retrievable.

In an experiment conducted in 1974, 1991, and 2009, whose results were published under the title “Forgetting the Presidents,” Roediger and his co-author, K. A. DeSoto, asked people to recall in five minutes all the presidents they could. The popularity of George Washington as a response exemplified the primacy effect, the tendency to remember firsts. The “recency effect”—another pin—was exemplified by participants easily naming contemporary White House occupants.

And the imprinting of dramatic story lines—which I’ll call the “narrative effect,” a very powerful pin—explains why Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Richard Nixon live on in popular memory. A few decades hence, Roediger has noted, recent-ish presidents such as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gerald Ford may very well have gone the way of 19th-century figures such as Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce—forgotten by most Americans. They weren’t the first and they’re no longer the most recent, nor were their terms in office remarkable for being action-packed.

These natural memory aids work whether we’re naming the Founding Fathers or recalling a turning point in our own life.

“I’ll never forget those first spooky, surreal days of shelterin-place in the Bay Area,” wrote Kevin Simpson, an artist, in response to my prompts. “It’s one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced places in the world, and yet we were scrounging stores for bread; paper towels; cleaning products; something, anything, to make a makeshift mask. Roads eerily silent, people crossing the street when you’d near each other on a sidewalk while walking a dog.”

“I’ll never forget the moment in March when a colleague at the local borough hall told me that we’d been asked to evacuate the building immediately because of the pandemic,” wrote Howard Fredrics, who runs a public-access television station in Park Ridge, New Jersey. “I grabbed my office computer and ran. I haven’t been back.”

“I don’t think people will ever forget March of 2020 and how the world changed in the matter of a week or so,” Dan P. Mc Adams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and an expert in narrative memory, told me. “I remember that week. I can tell you the days of the week.”

Someday, when this is all behind us, children may ask what it was like to live through a global pandemic. Given the primacy effect, we’ll probably start with the moment we realized something weird was afoot—my canceled Delta tickets, my sports-fan husband’s lost NBA season, and Alex Enurah’s sense of taking off in an unfinished plane.

THOUGH WE MAY vividly recall “how it began,” many of our pandemic memories will be hazier. I seem to remember a bright, clear morning in late March, when sheets of cool spring air billowed toward me on a walk, and I thought, Okay, I can do this. I made a few long-term plans (“long-term” in the sense of “in case lockdown lasts six weeks”): Shift my college classes to remote teaching, via Zoom. Read all of Charles Dickens, because if not now, when? Cultivate pollinator-friendly native plants in the backyard. But in truth, I can’t be sure if my early-pandemic plans were the thoughts of one bright, breezy morning or the thoughts of many such mornings. That’s typical, the memory experts told me.

“Most of our memories are in the form of generalities,” says Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory University.

Because most of life is routine and recurring, she told me, you remember what life was like. “I might tell you about my memories of childhood: ‘One of the most important things to me was having Shabbat dinner every Friday night with my family.’ You might ask: ‘Tell me about one of those family dinners.’ I’d say: ‘Oh gosh, I don’t think I can.’ ”

In Denver, in the Enurah-VanderWielen home, as Alex’s plague year began with the steep uptick in COVID-19 cases at his hospital, his wife was in the third trimester of a much-wanted pregnancy. The couple had previously lost two pregnancies, and Lynn had suffered a dangerous postpartum hemorrhage when their son, Hans, was born. Lynn began working remotely, but mostly hung out with Hans, a giggly 2-year-old. She’d already been anxious about childbirth; the fear that Alex could get sick now compounded it. “My memories of childbirth are I lived because Alex took care of me,” she said. “He wasn’t my medical provider, obviously, but he was the one who said, ‘Lynn’s in trouble.’ Being pregnant during COVID scared me for a lot of reasons, but mostly it was the thought If I have to deliver the baby without Alex, will I survive it?

“Hans and I stopped going to the grocery store, stopped playing with other kids at the park. Our neighbors grocery-shopped for us.

Hans and I had one fun outing left: the car wash. I’d bring a juice box and snacks and we’d ride through, watching the bubbles. He always asks to go. My car has never been this clean on the outside.”

As Fivush had suggested, most of the submissions to my prompts took this form: “What life was like.” I assume my memories will do the same. I walked the dogs a lot. I read Dickens. I discovered that Zoom classes, Zoom Thanksgiving, and Zoom game nights were a far cry from actual gatherings, but far better than nothing. I hugged those of my family members who were part of my “pod” and desperately missed the ones who lived a plane ride away. My grandson turned 4.

FIVUSH IS INTRIGUED by which moments get tucked away in the slick curlicues of a person’s brain, and why those moments— rather than the tens of millions of others from a lifetime— are saved. We use our memory in part to create a continuous sense of self, she told me, “a ‘narrative identity’ through all of life’s ups and downs: I am a person whose life has meaning and purpose. I’m more than the subject of brute forces. There’s a Story of Me.”

What we tend to remember most specifically are high moments and low moments, which become “episodes” in our memory, invested with meaning. In April, Alex Enurah fell ill.

“When I first felt a little tired,” Alex said, “I assumed it was from working long hours and trying to catch up on sleep in a house where a 2-year-old knows where to find you. I said, ‘My pelvis hurts,’ and my 36-weeks-pregnant wife gives me a look. My COVID test came back positive, so I isolated downstairs.”

“The baby’s due date was May 11, 2020, and Alex got sick in mid-April,” Lynn said. “I made him breakfast, lunch, and dinner; placed his dishes on the washer and dryer; and went back upstairs before he opened his door. I worried that if I got sick, it could affect the baby, or they’d take her away from me after birth.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM THE ATLANTICView All

What Richard Wright Knew

A previously unpublished novel reveals his bleak prescience about race in America.

8 mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

THE WAR ON NOSTALGIA

The myth of the Lost Cause is passed down like an heirloom. What would it take for the truth to break through?

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

The Power of Refusal

New novels by Rachel Cusk and Jhumpa Lahiri explore women’s struggle to withdraw and create.

9 mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

STACEY ABRAMS WRITES A THRILLER

How she became a novelist, what politics and writing have in common, and why, at the end of every good story, someone’s got to die

10 mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

How To End Extreme Child Poverty

Buried deep in the latest pandemic stimulus package is a transformative approach to helping families.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

Purgatory At Sea

Off the coast of Italy, cruise ships are being repurposed as holding pens for migrants rescued from the mediterranean.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

Whose Side Is Kavanaugh On?

Conservatives hope to weaponize his bitterness. Liberals are inviting him over for dinner.

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

Elvis Reenters The Building

In rural Ohio, a performer bookends a year of struggle and survival.

9 mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

Burn All The Leggings

What do you wear to the reopening of society?

9 mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021

Alison Bechdel's Spiritual Sprint

In her new memoir, the cartoonist runs, climbs, bikes, skis, spins, and Solo exes her way toward transcendence.

6 mins read
The Atlantic
June 2021