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Caris Corfman's Healing Act
An actress with memory loss fights to reclaim her life in and out of the theater
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Time To Remember
Caris Corfman's Healing Act
An actress with memory loss fights to reclaim her life in and out of the theater
by Daniel Pendick

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am very sad to report that as this issue of Memory Loss & the Brain went to press, Caris Corfman, the subject of this profile, passed away. As you will see in the following article, Caris was an accomplished actress. I found her to be a patient and generous interviewee, honest, witty, and gracious. We at ML&B extend our condolences to Caris's friends, family, and many colleagues for their loss. -D.P.


An elegantly dressed middle-aged woman walks out under the dimmed lights of the Olney Theater Center in Olney, Maryland. She steps off the stage and closes in on the audience with a friendly smile, open and gracious, as if greeting guests at a yard party. "Hello, my name is Caris." She begins to ask a few of the people up front for their names. She repeats the names, introducing herself to each. "Hello, how are you?" she says pleasantly. "Just in case I forget to say so later, thank you."

Forgetfulness and gratitude are two of the defining characteristics of Caris Corfman's life this opening night at the Olney. Now 51, it's been more than a decade since she lost much of her ability to form new memories after a series of surgeries to remove a non-cancerous brain tumor. All of the suffering and struggle that ensued belies the warm smile she wears this evening: it is her first public performance since the mid-1990s. Yet without reminders, she might have forgotten that she even had a performance to give that day of her one-woman show, Caris' Peace. On a lectern onstage lie books of stapled and color-coded index cards that store the details of the performance that Caris can no longer recall purely from memory.

Though Caris's ability to make new memories remains impaired, scores of lines from plays she performed before surgery remain ever vivid. In performance, they pour out of her: a soliloquy by Joan la Pucelle in Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part I; a speech by Constanze Weber, wife of Mozart, the character she played in the original Broadway production of Amadeus; a reading from Tennessee Williams's play The Glass Menagerie.

To see these performances is to see an accomplished and confident actress at work, deploying all the tools of the trade: her ability to communicate emotion with a subtle gesture or inflection of her voice; her down-to-earth sense of humor; her command of the stage space. What is missing is the ability to memorize lines. To return to the stage, Caris had to navigate a tectonic break with her former life and create a whole new way to perform.

Filmmaker Gaylen Ross and actress Rebecca Nelson are present at the Olney to film the event. For years, they've been gathering footage for an upcoming documentary about their friend. Although some press coverage of Caris's show has lingered on the intriguing juxtaposition of acting and memory loss, Ross finds that to be the least interesting aspect of Caris's story. Ross wants to document her friend's recovery and transformation. "It's not about spotlighting a disability," she emphasizes. "To me it's about looking at Caris as a whole, creative, intelligent human being figuring out a way to reclaim her life."

"Life Hits You Over The Head With A Mallet."

By the time Corfman's health problems began, she was a successful working actor living in New York. Her reading of the Joan la Pucelle part had won her a seat at the prestigious Yale School of Drama, from which she graduated in 1980. She acted in the Yale Repertory Theatre. And then she launched herself onto the New York stage, playing numerous roles in on- and off-Broadway productions, regional theater, and on film and television. Then things started to go wrong. As Caris explains in one scene of her one-woman show, "Life hits you over the head with a mallet."

Or, rather, it hit her over the brain. A tumor was growing near her pituitary gland, the pea-sized pendulum of tissue at the base of the brain. Sometimes called the "master gland," the pituitary plays ringmaster to the body's major endocrine glands, like the adrenals and thyroid. Her menstrual cycle stopped. The tumor continued to grow, undiagnosed. It began to interfere with the free flow of cerebral-spinal fluid in her brain, which stabbed Caris' head with pain.

Then she started to pass out; a scan of her brain revealed the tumor. In April 1993, surgeons implanted a shunt to drain off the pressure that threatened to kill her. Then Caris endured four surgeries to remove the tumor. It took until summer 1995 to completely excise the tumor from her head. The surgery damaged her pituitary as well as a key component of the brain's memory machinery, the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is the gateway to long-term memory. Moment-to-moment experience trickles into two seahorse-shaped organs in the middle brain. Those that persevere are locked into long-term memory; others fade away. Before the surgeries, Caris could spend an afternoon memorizing lines for a new play, make a few phone calls, meet a friend for dinner, and the next day be ready for rehearsal. The details of the phone calls and dinner conversation would fade, but the lines of the play would be locked into memory as indelibly as ink on paper.

After the surgery, the ink smudged or washed off the page altogether-including Caris' memory of her mother's death. Caris was very close to her mother, Eunice Luccock Corfman. Raised by Presbyterian ministers in Shanghai, Eunice lived a decidedly memorable life. She won the O. Henry award for one of her short stories, To Be An Athlete. In 1968, she published a novel, The Roaring Shock Test. At the time of her death in March 1980, Eunice worked in the Science Reports Branch at the National Institutes of Mental Health. Her husband, Philip Corfman, M.D., was a gynecologist and high-ranking administrator at the National Institutes of Health, overseeing contraceptive research.

While recovering from her surgeries, Caris' battered memory machinery could not recall her mother's passing. Rebecca Nelson, her friend, fellow New York actor, and former Yale classmate, recalls this as one of the most painful aspects of the period. "You're talking about someone who has died and she doesn't remember it," Nelson explains. "You have to relive it with her."

"I'm not a misbehaving child"

The period following the surgeries was dark. Caris was now 43. In the time it took to operate on her brain, she went from an independent working actress to a dependent patient with severe short-term memory impairment. The woman who graduated the Yale School of Drama and immediately landed a role in Broadway's Amadeus couldn't remember to whom she spoke the day before and asked the same questions repeatedly. She had to be reminded to eat, to drink, to bath. Other people made decisions for her. The freedoms and privileges of being an adult were suddenly revoked. It made her angry and resentful. "Self pity? Yes! I wallowed in it," she says in her show. "But I had a damn good reason to." She felt that people talked to her like she was stupid because of her memory problems. The condescension stung. "I'm not a misbehaving child," she explains in her show, "I'm a confused adult."

As time passed, her brain slowly healed. Like many people with damage to short-term memory, the degree of her memory impairment depends on the situation and the experiences. She is not "the actress without a memory." It's just that some things stick better than others. Her memory is impressionistic, better for important events-those that have emotional resonance-like holidays. She keeps a journal, and has for many years. It helps to preserve the details of the life she can no longer carry in long-term memory.

She might remember that her friend Gaylen Ross filmed a rehearsal of her show. But she may not remember the details of the rehearsal itself. The mundane details of daily life often escape her. Caris is left for the most part living in the moment, responding to what passes in front of the lens of her immediate attention: a reminder to take her medications, a scheduled trip to the health club or to see her psychotherapist, a telephone interview with a writer for Memory Loss & the Brain.

Another challenge she faces every day is living without normal pituitary function. She takes a handful of medications daily to stay alive: synthetic thyroid hormone, estrogen, calcium, medicines to control her cholesterol and tryglycerides, insulin and other medicines to control her blood sugar, and a drug to prevent seizures. Caris now lives in her own apartment, though with the help of an attendant to maintain her daily routines, not to mention an explicit and detailed list of the things she needs to do every day that she would, on her own, forget to do.

"I want to get back on stage"

As Caris recovered from her surgeries, the actor in her started to rattle the gates that memory loss imposed around her life. "She said, 'I want to get back on stage,'" recalls Brad Watkins, a high school classmate and the producing director of the Olney Theatre Center. She said she wanted to get her career going again, that she needed to be an actress again. She asked about doing voice-overs-anything to work in her profession again.

"Her desire to have a sense of purpose, and that being most eloquently expressed through her creativity, emerged early," Brad explains. "Even when she was in rehab she was trying to work in bookstores, trying to find things to do that she was capable of doing." Like Caris's other friends, Brad wanted to support her in any way he could. So he went to see her in Virginia, where she was living in a group home for people with brain injuries. He brought along a tape recorder and asked her to talk. "I wanted to help her perk her memories."

Then the idea arose of Caris doing a performance of some kind about her experience with brain injury. Brad and another colleague from the theater world, playwright and actor Mark Berman, encouraged Caris to get started. "We both sort of said, 'You need to be writing your ideas down and we can talk to you after that,'" Brad says. "And she did."

The seeds of what evolved into Caris' Peace were incubated in a borrowed room at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, Maryland. Caris read some samples of the material she had compiled. "Some of it was terrible, some of it was absolutely inspiring," Brad recalls. "I saw so much art inside of her." Eventually, Caris and Brad began to work together more closely on the show, with Brad serving as advisor, editor, and co-author. Brad told her what wasn't working and suggested topics she should write about-like her mother. It was a difficult process for both Caris and Brad. "A few times, I almost quit," he says.

Caris was not simply an actor working on a show, but an actor with a severely impaired memory. Unable to remember lines and build on previous rehearsals, Caris and Brad had to devise a new way of creating a performance, one that accommodated an actress working always in the present tense. Caris was often frustrated by the limitations imposed by her memory. She frequently stopped cold in the middle of a scene, complaining that it didn't feel right. "It didn't feel the way it used to feel," Brad says. "She had to learn to act more from the spirit of the material, ad-libbing as needed." But her frustration with what she could not do eventually yielded to a grudging acceptance of what she could do. The show took shape.

Most frustrating of all, Caris could not memorize the stories of her own life that she had written; nor could she reliably remember the order in which she would perform them. So she wrote this material on stacks of index cards and stapled together the cards for each scene to maintain their proper order. The stapled books of cards were color coded to help Caris distinguish between them and prevent confusion. These and other tricks, such as lighting and music changes, provided enough cues that Caris could navigate the show.

"Caris is a racehorse"

Caris' Peace premiered at the Olney Theatre Center in July 2004. After the opening meet-and-greet segment Caris calls "the name game," she progresses through a series of reminiscences of her past and present life, telling her stories: childhood memories of her family's home in New York's Hudson Valley; her relationship with her mother; her training at Yale; and of course the story of her memory loss and its consequences for her life and career.

Alternating with her reminiscences, Caris performs selections from plays she had mastered before her memory loss. At these moments, her memory remains acute. Piece by piece, Caris knits together the story of herself, from her first glimmer of interest in acting, through her education and professional accomplishments, to her memory loss. From time to time, scenes segue into music and Caris begins to sway and twirl-her creative spirit unleashed. An innate sense of stagecraft propels Caris through the performance. The audience sees only Caris, the actress, not the index cards

"The first night of the performance, Becky said to me, 'You watch, Caris is a racehorse. As soon as she hits the floorboards the actress will come out,'" Ross recalls. "And it was unbelievable. She didn't miss one moment." In October 2005, Caris performed her show at The Flea Theater in New York City and. In June 2006, Caris' Peace ran again as part of the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art in Philadelphia.

"Something about perseverance"

Although Caris' Peace is a milestone in the recovery of an actress with memory loss, Caris still struggles to create a place for herself in the world. Her disability imposes some harsh limitations, like the need for an attendant, denial of traditional acting roles, and difficulty with reading and other tasks that people with intact memories take for granted.

Although Caris would undoubtedly prefer to have intact short-term memory, its loss is not without minor compensations. It has made her a better actor in one sense: She is always in the moment during her show, present and focused on the performance-a state of mind all actors struggle to achieve. And, her friend Rebecca notes, Caris lacks much of the self-consciousness other people bring to conversation. "I just love being around her," she says. "She's so funny. It's refreshing, you know, there's no guile. Other people are more calculating. She's spontaneous; there's less internal editing."

Today, Caris Corfman's days still follow a programmed schedule: throwing pottery at the Jewish Community Center, yoga classes, swimming, watching movies, and occasional travel. She has reclaimed parts of her life-but not all of it. She lives moment-to-moment, day-by-day. Some things she must simply endure, like the forgetting and the occasional confusion. But there is still much to enjoy, like the things that break the routine of her day-lunch with her father, an interview with a reporter, or just a drive in the countryside. "I'm a survivor," Caris says. "I'd like to think of myself as someone who has had some hard times and come up better than she was before."

Asked what she would most like people to remember about her and her story-particularly people living with memory loss-she pauses, searching for the right words. "Something about perseverance, something about music-and dancing," she says. "Music and dance has so much to do with…. life. With enjoying and living, with exuberance. When one is dancing, it's out of this world."

                        -- Copyright © 2006 Memory Loss and the Brain

Further Reading

Brain Injury Association
105 North Alfred Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
Email: publicrelations@biausa.org
Website: http://www.biausa.org
Tel: 703-236-6000 800-444-6443
Fax: 703-236-6001

"Over My Head," by Claudia L. Osborn. (Andrews McMeel Publishing: 2000. 256 pages, paperback). This is an autobiographical account of a doctor who sustained a serious brain injury and her recovery.

"Memorizing Her Lines Is Out of the Question," by David Carr. (New York Times, Section 2, Late Edition (East Coast), October 9, 2005, p.2.)

Gaylen Ross/GRFilms Inc.
www.grfilmsinc.com