MARILU HENNER: ACTRESS, HEALTH ADVOCATE, WRITER & HSAM EXTRAORDINAIRE
by Grace Xanthos / photography by Jeff Katz
There are so many memorable things about the beautiful Marilu Henner: Her television shows like Taxi and Evening Shade; her many movies, including Bloodbrothers, LA Story, Noises Off, The Man Who Loved Women, Johnny Dangerously, and Hammett; and her Broadway appearances, including roles in hits like Chicago, Grease, Pal Joey, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, and Over Here! Then there are her many TV and radio quest appearances, movie voice-overs, and talk show and news interviews. She even had her own talk show, Marilu, which ran for 165 episodes in 1994. Later, she hosted FitTV and Discovery Channel’s Shape Up Your Life. But that is just the beginning!
One would think Marilu would be exhausted by her extensive acting career, but her creativity and concern for health, fitness, parenting, and self actualization really shine through in her writing. Many people are surprised that this “actress” has published 10 books (including a 3-part audio book). In fact, she has created an entire interactive website, Marilu.com (“Home of the Total Health Makeover”), dedicated to health and personal improvement. It offers fitness programs, recipes, classes and workshops, chat rooms, videos, success stories, and links that members can follow to work towards their own fitness makeovers.
However, the most remarkable thing about Marilu is actually her memory itself, which is the topic of her latest book. Marilu is one of only twenty people in the world confirmed to have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM), an amazing feat in itself.
But her book, Total Memory Makeover: Uncover Your Past, Take Charge of Your Future (2012), has already made it to the New York Times Best Sellers List and Publisher’s Weekly List of Bestsellers in Hardcover/Nonfiction. So if you think Marilu is all about acting, think again!
In 2010, after lengthy research and meetings with “HSAMers,” Lesley Stahl did a 60 Minutes piece about six people who were then confirmed to have such memory (viewable on YouTube). That is when the world found out about Marilu’s membership in a group of very unique individuals who have the ability to remember not just birthdays and Christmas parties, but the precise details of almost any day in their lives. When given a date, such as March 16, 1995, many HSAMers can recall not only the day of the week, but also what they wearing, saying, doing, seeing, hearing, and even smelling and tasting, complete with what other people were wearing and saying along with important historical events or news stories.
Marilu actually “relives” the recalled dates with all her senses. As she explains it, I am actually there again in first-person perspective looking out through my eyes and reliving the experience as if it were happening for the first time…. I can revisit an experience with an old boyfriend, for example, and see it through my eyes then, but with a different understanding because of who I am today.
Her goal is to teach other people memory strategies to help them develop what she calls BAM, “better autobiographical memory.”
At the time the 60 Minutes story aired, there were only six people known to have such a unique type and level of recall. It is not the same as a “photographic memory,” although it certainly helps in remembering things like books read and topics of conversations. Even today, doctors have identified only twenty such individuals.
Dr. James McGaugh, Research Professor of Psychobiology and Pharmacology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), has found that people with HSMA not only display distinctive attributes, but they also have “a comparatively larger than [normal] temporal lobe and caudate nucleus” in their brains. I bet Donald Trump, who “fired” Marilu from The Celebrity Apprentice in 2008, is sorry now!
Prior to discussions with the 60 Minutes staff, Marilu knew her memory was different than most people, but she didn’t know just how rare it was. She found out when Lesley Stahl asked her if she would allow her memory to be tested on camera. In November 2009, she began working with Dr. McGaugh and his staff at UCI. After an MRI, genetic and motor skills testing, and even saliva samples, Marilu was given over 500 questions to answer that “included every memory test known to man, as well as hundreds of questions on current events,” all of which she correctly answered. Only then was she officially declared to have HSAM.
In a 2012 interview with CBS This Morning, Marilu referred to her rare ability as a “gift,” which works much like the scene selection feature on a DVD player. She simply thinks of a certain day in her life, and it replays in her memory as she relives it. For example, she shared, “I don’t lose my parents…. I lost my parents a long time ago and it’s insurance against the loss. It’s the strongest defense against meaninglessness that we have, and everything is connected to memory. Everything is something that we’re doing [based] on our past” (cbsnews.com).
In her new book, Total Memory Makeover (dedicated to her husband and two sons), the writer discusses her magical memory to help readers tap into—as her subtitle implies—memories of their own pasts to create a lifestyle free of past patterns and mistakes. As she puts it, “When you are cognizant of your memories and can call upon them as needed, it keeps you from making the same mistakes over and over again and helps you avoid that pitfall Einstein called insanity.”
Although some people with HSAM do not view their ability in such a positive light and some people are reluctant to review past events that may have a negative overtone, Marilu views it as a form of personal therapy. She reminds readers that when it comes to past pain or emotional trauma, the “impulse to forget isn’t totally healthy.”
Most therapists would likely agree with her viewpoint when she discusses the value of learning from past mistakes: “Although these are painful moments to relive in your mind, it is therapeutic and beneficial to face and understand them. Negative experiences provide the most memorable and useful lessons”; “the better you remember your own experiences, the faster you will ‘get it.’” Why is this so important? It’s simple, “When you fear your past, you give it power.”
Of course, memories of happy and successful times are also important. For one thing, remembering success helps us repeat it. Further, remembering the people and events we care about is vital because, as Marilu points out, “Without making a conscious effort to remember the people we care about most, those thoughts and feelings will surely fade.” Through a series of personal anecdotes, examples, exercises in self-exploration, and practice lessons, Marilu helps readers enhance their recall, so they can all “change the now by remembering then.”
Obviously her message is spreading, as demonstrated in the glowing reviews of her book and the rate at which it is flying off the shelves. Using many of the techniques in her new book, Marilu now teaches memory classes around the country to help others learn to be fully present in each moment of their lives and increase their own memory skills “as a line of defense against meaninglessness.” She is also a consultant on the CBS drama Unforgettable, in which the character of Carrie Wells (played by Poppy Montgomery) has HSAM abilities. Ironically, Marilu has guest starred on the show as Carrie’s aunt, who may have early onset Alzheimer’s.
As many in the twenty-first century live in the fast-lane and try to multitask their way through life, Marilu takes a different approach:
The problem with multitasking is that because you’re dividing your time between two or more activities, you’re really only experiencing each at 50 percent (or less) capacity…. You might be able to walk and chew gum, but for tasks that require you to think, there needs to be a limit.
Just think about it for a minute: Can you truly remember all the details of your child’s last school project or play, every nuance of a romantic dinner with a spouse or lunch with a friend, or even just the details of your last business meeting or class? Most likely, no—because your mind was too busy multitasking. By not being fully present, you will likely remember very little about most days, including the great stuff.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone, and you need to read Total Memory Makeover. With it, you too can learn that “Being present is a skill worth developing for communication and practically everything else in life, especially memory.”
We need to enjoy the everyday moments, record them, and then later we can replay them to help us make good decisions and “slow down enough to see what is coming.” Total Memory Makeover provides tools to help anyone learn to do this. It helps us “warm up” our memories like muscles, so they function better with less effort.
Marilu poetically shares with readers something she learned from her father: “Our lives hinge on the ballet of three activities… Anticipation, Participation, and Recollection [APR].” I don’t know about you, but I plan on taking her advice. I am learning to consciously relate everything I do to APR, and I’ve already skipped ahead to her chapter on “Memory and Health.” As for my personal memory makeover, I’m up to Exercise #7: “Sense Memory,” and I am fully appreciating every step of the journey to BAM!