Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity — from survivor’s guilt to survivor’s elation, to the awe and disbelief evoked by spectacles of destruction, to the way we manage anxiety over impending dangers. Even more impressive is her skill at bending crisp, clear language into shapes that illustrate the shifting logic of the disastrous, keeping the reader oriented amid continual upheaval ... Gabbert turns her attention to the blind spots and mistaken impressions that constitute our subjective experience of self and world, from false memories and phantom limbs to witch trials and compassion fatigue ... With its expansive curiosity and encyclopedic style, Gabbert’s book can make for unsettling reading, especially in a time of actual crisis ... The essays often seem uncannily to anticipate circumstances that the author simply couldn’t have known about: They have a clarity and prescience that imply a sort of distant, retrospective view, like postcards sent from the near future ... But I imagine Gabbert would offer an alternate explanation for this oracular effect. Increasingly, the threats and fissures that mark our reality are known, but this doesn’t make them any easier to comprehend. It’s only when a potential disaster turns actual that it becomes real to us — and in that moment it will still feel incomprehensible, impossible, unforeseen.
The novelist Walker Percy once asked, 'Why do people driving around on beautiful Sunday afternoons like to see bloody automobile wrecks?' With this simple question, Percy reveals the depth of human malaise. We seek the bloody in the beautiful and savor the gratifying and self-satisfied thrill of knowing we ourselves have momentarily escaped the suffering of the accident. In her absolutely stunning collection of essays, The Unreality of Memory, which is part medical and psychological sleuthing and part memoir, Elisa Gabbert takes up Percy’s question and places it in our current cultural context ... Gabbert doesn’t only probe into our fascination with the pull of death and disaster. She also peers behind the curtains of mortality and time to explore the ways that memory and story either lull us into complacency about moral evil or allow us to embrace impending death ... Gabbert candidly asks startling and unsettling questions about our view of human nature and the ways we are often complicit in the suffering of others. With the world teetering on the brink of the political, social, environmental and medical abyss, The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times.
Gabbert wrote these essays before the coronavirus pandemic, but the somber conclusions she draws from past disasters can be easily applied to our current emergency ... For all of the prescience in the first two sections, some of the essays in Part Three feel prematurely aged ... Gabbert’s timely essays consider how to navigate this new reality, and the duality of knowing disaster is imminent, but living as if the future is bright. As Gabbert writes at the end of the essay 'Doomsday Pattern,' 'I feel this way all the time now. Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.'