Memento is a film written and directed by Christopher Nolan about a man named Leonard Shelby, seeking revenge for the rape and murder of his wife. He himself was injured in the crime committed as he tried to save his wife, causing him brain damage that resulted in ‘severe anterograde memory dysfunction’ or short-term memory loss. He is unable to create new memories and the only memories retained in him are those that happened right before his injury.
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He copes with his condition by taking Polaroid pictures of people or things he encounters and scribbles notes on them and keeps them in his pockets to remind him of what happened with the picture. He also writes notes to himself on paper as well as tattoos of important information on his body such as the name of the man he is looking for, his car plate number, among others.
He is searching for the culprit because he believes that the police investigation of the crime was unsuccessful. The movie raises so many questions about the personal identity of Leonard because the present Leonard is very much different from the old one because of his condition. It is this paper’s goal to discuss if indeed Leonard’s personal identity has been lost or has just been changed due to his condition.
Short-term memory dysfunction makes Leonard vulnerable to the corruption of people who take advantage of him because he does not remember what he says or does even if it was only about a quarter of an hour ago. One example is Teddy, a former police officer who knows that Leonard already killed his wife’s murderer, does not remember, and is still in pursuit of the criminal for revenge.
He takes the opportunity to use Leonard and his drive for revenge by telling him he will help Leonard find the killer, but in truth, will involve Leonard in a drug deal and push him to kill the drug dealer by telling him he was the killer of his wife. Another character in the movie is Natalie who uses Leonard to avenge the death of her boyfriend (the drug dealer), not knowing that it was Leonard himself who actually killed him.
Leonard keeps referring to Sammy Jankins, who has the same condition as he does. Leonard relates that Sammy’s wife, desperate for him to be back to normal, thought he was just faking the condition. She tested if Sammy would think twice in giving her insulin shots repeatedly within a few minutes which was a deadly risk on her part. However, Sammy still gave her multiple shots, which is evidence that his memory dysfunction was real.
Whereas the old Leonard was successful and happily married, the current Leonard has been turned into a cold-blooded killer. Has he changed into a totally different person because of the traumatic experience he had? Has his identity been altered by his past? Or does his personal identity remain to be the same despite his condition?
Locke claims that personal identity includes what a person stands for, the same beliefs, considerations and thinking regardless of time or place. All these are embedded in the consciousness of the person. Closely related to the case of Leonard, Locke explains,
“the sameness of a rational being: and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that that action was done” (Locke: 293).
Applying this to the case of Leonard, it may then be assumed that the old Leonard has lost his personal identity for he no longer holds the consciousness that encompassed his old self. However, Locke also argues,
“The question being what makes the same person; and not whether it be the ideal identical substance, which always thinks in the same person, which, in this case, matters not at all” (Locke: 294).
This contention of Locke may be referred to in questioning Leonard’s transformation especially in his passionate pursuit of revenge for his wife. Revenge did not actually change Leonard’s identity because the desire for revenge would remain constant no matter what condition he was in. Having severe anterograde memory dysfunction or not, any person in his situation would seek to avenge the inhumane acts done to a loved one. A drastic change may have happened to Leonard’s personality because of the injury, but even with the “substance” of avenging for the crime done to his wife, his true identity is still preserved.
The movie communicated to the audience that one can condition himself to keep the memories he wants to keep, forget what he wants to forget and distort some memories to suit himself. Teddy revealed to Leonard some information that may have been distorted by Leonard in his mind. For example, Leonard related that Sammy Jankins’ condition was responsible for the death of his own wife due to insulin overdose which he himself administered.
Such a story was actually fabricated by Leonard as a mask for his own fault against his wife who actually survived the assault of the criminals, but died due to insulin overdose. Leonard manipulated his memory to forget that it was actually he who killed his wife because his condition made him give her multiple shots of insulin upon her command. Hume explains that a person’s memory links past perceptions as a chain of thought to make events seem continuous.
Thus, memory is responsible in the production of one’s identity by associating the links of resemblance among the perceptions (Hume: 303). Leonard created memories of other people to resemble his own, but conditioned his mind to believe it was their memory and not his. Therefore, the incident of Sammy being responsible for the death of his own wife was part of Sammy’s memory and not Leonard’s so it is not part of Leonard’s identity.
Hume agrees that “as a memory alone acquaints us with the continuance and extent of this succession of perceptions, it is to be considered, upon that account chiefly, as the source of personal identity. Had we no memory, we never should have any notion of causation, nor consequently of that chain of causes and effects, which constitute our self or person” (Hume:303).
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Memento can be quite disturbing not only because of the plot but also of the puzzling chronological order of events. However, it makes viewers reflect on their concept of personal identity. Perry concludes that giving attention to the problems of personal identity actually makes one thresh out their own knowledge of self (Perry:7).
Every day, judgments on personal identity are made nonchalantly, but when one thinks deeper, he is confronted with the underlying principles implicit in such judgments. In viewing Leonard’s struggles with his own personal identity, and perhaps imagining trading places with him, people can realize that although their personal identities may be flawed, they are intact. For Leonard Shelby, “live for the present” takes a different level of meaning which ordinary people can just take for granted.
Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. USA: Dover Publications, Inc. 1739. Print.
Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. UK: Penguin Classics. 1690. Print.
Memento, Dir. Christopher Nolan. Perf. Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano Columbia Tristar Entertainment. 2000. Film.
Perry, John. Personal Identity. USA:University of California Press. 1975. Print.