History Lessons

History Lessons

A Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Brain

  • Ebook
  • ISBN 9781468309805
  • 272 Pages
  • Overlook Books
  • Adult


Born in Louisiana to a soon-to-be absent father and an alcoholic mother—who tried to drown him in a bathtub when he was three—Clifton Crais spent his childhood perched beside his mother on a too-tall bar stool, living with relatives too old or infirmed to care for him, or rambling on his own through New Orleans, a city both haunted and created by memory.
Indeed, it is memory—both elusive and essential—that forms the center of Crais’s beautifully rendered memoir History Lessons. In an effort to restore his own, Crais brings the tools of his formal training as a historian to bear on himself and his family. He interviews his sisters and his mother, revisits childhood homes and pores over documentary evidence: plane tickets, postmarks, court and medical records, crumbling photo albums. Probing family lore, pushing past silences and exhuming long-buried family secrets, he arrives, ultimately, at the deepest reaches of the brain. Crais examines the science of memory and forgetting, from the ways in which experience shapes the developing brain to the mechanisms that cause the chronic childhood amnesia—the most common and least understood form of amnesia—from which he suffers.
Part memoir, part narrative science and part historical detective story, History Lessons is a provocative, exquisitely crafted investigation into what it means to be human.


“Writers such as Crais are bringing us one step closer to seeing the conscious mind within the living brain by mixing the familiar tools of memoir with neuroscience. In History Lessons, he re-collects, in a very literal sense, his childhood” —Cara Parks, The Nation

“[P]oetic passages combine with Crais’ impish humor to make reading History Lessons a weirdly pleasant sensation. . . .In History Lessons, there is no self-pity; no easy resolution . . . ‘Forgetting is a necessary condition of living,’ he concedes, although, by serving history and the arts, “we continue in the telling.” – Atlanta Journal Constitution

A beautifully composed account. . . .The author’s thoughtfully written experience of his attempt to discover what was lost to him illustrates clearly—and painfully—that history is not just a record of spectacular battles won and lost but also of smaller domestic disasters and their collateral damage. The ambiguities of a life only half recalled are fully illuminated in this chronicle of trying to understand what has been forgotten. —Library Journal, starred review

“Writers such as Crais are bringing us one step closer to seeing the conscious mind within the living brain by mixing the familiar tools of memoir with neuroscience . . . It is his lament over his amnesia that forms some of the book’s most moving passages . . . It is profoundly sad to realize the memories for which he longs are irretrievably gone; it is impossible not to hope that despite all odds, his past will be returned to him.” —Cara Parks, New Republic
“[P]acks an emotional wallop” —Publishers Weekly

“This memoir of anguish and struggle is a story of remarkable strength and unlikely, inexplicable resilience.”—Kirkus

“In this extraordinary work, Clifton Crais deploys his skills as a historian to attempt to overcome his amnesia concerning a traumatic childhood, plagued by an alcoholic mother and a largely neglectful father. His account of his journey into his personal past offers profound insights into the relationship between history and memory, interwoven with new understandings  of how memory works, both neurologically and socially, derived from advances in the science of memory. Beautifully written, History Lessons offers valuable insights into the relationship between history and memory, a topic of enormous current controversy among historians. In addition to its contributions to this debate, it offers a highly readable and largely triumphant tale of a young boy who made his way in the world to become a major historian of the travails of others, using the memory of his own childhood wounds to arrive at a deeper understanding of the ‘wounds of the past.’”—Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of History, Johns Hopkins University

“Magnificent . . . A searing, deeply moving work.” —Los Angeles Times
“Well-written and fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A splendid book that bolsters a literary memoir with the neuroscience of memory, History Lessons beautifully evokes class, race, and loss in a way utterly unique to New Orleans.” —Dan Baum, bestselling author of Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans