Wednesday Writers Workshop: Employing the Proust Phenomenon

It happened to me when I was visiting an ailing friend, and I used the bathroom attached to his hospital room to wash my hands. Of course, I didn’t use his personal bar of soap, being mindful of germs and all, you know.  No, I conscientiously used a squirt of the sanitize-the-living-shit-out-of-your-hands soap that was in the wall-mounted container next to the sink.  This stuff…

And as soon as I dried my hands, I was knocked over by an overwhelming urge–to bury my nose in them.  The smell, the familiar smell provoked such a strong and positive response that it shocked me.  I knew it immediately was the same stuff that was in my room at Cedars Sinai Medical Center for the six or so weeks I spent there after my cerebral aneurysm ruptured.  When the nurses and aides came into my room, they stopped first to wash their hands in it.  When they gave me my daily in-bed bath, they used this same soap.

Clearly, there is a direct line in my emotional memory bank between that smell and my experience as a hospital patient at CSMC.  It’s known as the Proust phenomenon, the way that certain smells can instantaneously take us back to a specific time and a place in our life.  What fascinates me though is not simply the fact of my Proust phenomenon, but that the emotional tone it carried was so incredibly positive.

Shouldn’t the soap used by medical personnel on themselves and on me during a period in time when I was so incredibly ill evoke negative feelings?  Shouldn’t washing my hands with that stuff today bring back all the fear and pain and confusion I felt lying captive in the ICU?

But it didn’t.  It provoked only positive emotions.

I tried to parse what they might actually be, but I could get no further than “comforting”.  I see the nurses stopping at the sink on the way over to adjust a line or change the IV bag.  I can feel the warm sudsy washcloth on my legs and arms and that feeling of being clean, freshened.

So maybe I associate that smell with the medical personnel coming in to help me.  But that seems to me a paltry reason, nothing that would justify the huge urge I have to bury my nose in my hands, to wrap my arms around me and just breathe in the odor. Is it possible that the Proust Phenomenon can pick and choose which memories it will tap into?  Or is there something about that time and that smell that I’m not yet getting?

Have you experienced the Proust phenomemon in your life?  When?  What was the smell and where did it take you?  Give yourself a 15-20 minute time limit and just write it out.


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