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The pornography of pharmacology

Pagan Kennedy on drugs, memory, and the lure of nostalgia
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  June 27, 2006

In her twenties, Pagan Kennedy rode her bike around Allston, scribbled her 'zine Pagan's Head, and manufactured an identity for herself. She's 43 now, lives in Somerville, and has since written eight books of fiction and narrative non-fiction and numerous articles. Her most recent novel, Confessions of a Memory Eater, follows Win Duncan, a middle-aged English professor with a crumbling marriage and a deteriorating career. He gets a call from an old friend who’s developed a new drug called Mem that allows its users to target any memory and re-experience it down to the most minute detail. Win becomes a beta-tester for Mem, and is immediately hooked on escaping his present by reliving his past. The book anticipates a time when chemicals will be able to alter the way we experience time and ourselves.

The Phoenix sat down with the author on a sunny morning at Rosie’s in Porter Square. She’s had a busy winter and spring: she finished Confessions, which was eight years in the making, as well as a non-fiction work, The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair and a Medical Revolution, about the first female-to-male sex change operation. Kennedy could easily pass for 30: she has a relaxed, girlish face and untended-to hair, wore shorts and a T-shirt, and left her bicycle locked outside the bakery. It was apparent right away that she’s curious, delighted by ideas. And it was a surprise to hear her speak of growing frustrated with her own memory gaps; it seems incongruous for someone who seems so young. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.     

If Mem existed, would you take it?
Boston’s kind of like that drug to me. I used to live in Allston, and thought, “this is the best place ever. I’m never, never moving to Somerville.” All the places that were my haunts -- I never go there anymore -- seeing all those places preserved, you tunnel back into them. When you live in a city long enough, it’s got layers of your different selves.

What about an actual pill?
I would take it, but with great care. We all edit our memories like crazy. Like the way you get nostalgic for times that you know intellectually were really crappy. If you could go back and target the best parts? It’d be hard to keep moving forward. One thing that strikes me as so strange is that we’re so disconnected from our past selves. Like what would the eight year-old you think of you now? That’s something that’s unsettling to me. I’d love to go back to be able to talk to the eight year-old.

When you were working on the book, did you do a lot of research on memory and drugs, or did you rely primarily on your imagination?
I did a huge amount of research on memory drugs. Scientists are discovering switches that trigger long term memory. But I really wanted the kind of memory drug they’d never invent. With all the switches and the new drugs, they never talk about the emotional side. They see the brain as a computer and you just shove in a chip. But how would your personality change? Would the stronger the memories change the way you feel about the present? I needed to invent a cartoon-y, recreational drug to examine issues that we’re going to be examining ten years down the line.

So do you see the book as science fiction?
Technically it’s science fiction because I’m taking a technology that doesn’t exist and putting it into our world. I’m saddened by genre divisions -- there’s a lot I think literary people can learn from genre. The whole Hollywood high-concept thing I’m getting more and more excited about. I see it as sort of thinking experiments: an author finds this bizarre thing to put into motion that’s going to play out, that’s going to force us to think in knew ways about familiar subjects. And when you find one of those concepts it’s so great. There are so many authors that I love that do small domestic books. Sometimes I’m very saddened by how many women are doing small domestic things and not doing thinking experiments. Women authors: that’s my call to arms. Stop with the small, domestic. Get out there and do things we’re not expected to be doing.

Speaking of gender stuff, did you find it challenging writing from the perspective of a middle aged man?
At first I didn’t have much sympathy for Win. As I got older, I had more sympathy. I grew to love him even with all his foibles. I was very interested in the guy mid-life crisis. Women have our version, but it’s not as much around ego and performance and success. It hits men really hard. The cultural stereotypes are more powerful and screwed up and difficult for people to measure up to. It was something that was kind of a stretch for me, the challenge of being a woman and looking at men. And I imagined a recreational drug, a club-drug, that guys at their 20th reunion would take. I liked thinking about different kinds of recreational drugs for different populations. Like what if a typical gathering of guys, football heroes with thinning hair, what if they had their own drug?

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Memories of you: Pagan Kennedy’s future nostalgia. By Nina MacLaughlin

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