Remembering Smell

Garden writer Bonnie Blodgett copes with losing a sensual experience that was more important than she ever realized

Bonnie Blodgett grapples with sensory loss in Remembering Smell. A fateful blast of Zicam nasal spray apparently zaps the writer’s olfactory nerve, leaving her adrift in a scent-free world. The St. Paul-based garden writer must learn how to operate without the use of her most important navigational tool.

Her journey begins in November 2005 with a raging case of the sniffles. The homeopathic spray she uses for relief sets her sinus passages ablaze before killing the nerve receptors in her nose. She cannot snort out the stench—“the disgusting, dead-animal sweetness”—that seems to have no source. A doctor diagnoses her with anosmia, which means literally “without smell,” and tells her that she’s experiencing phantosmia, the first stage of sensory deprivation that is the olfactory equivalent of phantom limb syndrome.

When she loses the ability to smell altogether, Blodgett becomes disoriented and depressed. The familiar odors that anchored her to her surroundings—ingrained dog hairs, simmering food and blooming flowers—become a distant memory. Devoid of smells, her home becomes “a barren cell,” and her husband becomes a stranger. “The scent of his skin and hair … used to beckon me there without my even knowing it,” she writes. Now, “I sometimes forgot he was in bed beside me.”

She becomes robotic. She eats unconsciously and gains 25 pounds. She finds that storytelling has lost its magic and she can no longer enjoy fiction.  Blodgett turns to cerebral pursuits and seeks solace in science: “It was comforting to read that science was trying to cure emotional problems caused by life-changing trauma,” she writes.

Because smell is invisible, doctors have often overlooked its psychic impact.  Blodgett identifies with the despair of famous anosmiac Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of rock band INXS and his “emotional breakdown—the mood swings, the irascibility, the deep and debilitating feeling of distance from the world.”

Blodgett resolves to go through the motions until feeling returns. One of Steinbeck’s characters provides an analog: Adam, the cuckolded husband in East of Eden, wallows in self pity before a neighbor knocks some sense back into back him. Where a good old-fashioned fistfight worked in the 19th century, Blodgett tries to kick-start her emotions with prescription drugs and gym visits.

She ponders the connection between memory and smell. In Speak, Memory Vladimir Nabokov posits “memories are more elusive if they lack corroboration by all the senses, especially the sense of smell.” She is overcome with nasal nostalgia when, deep in the Minnesota winter, she looks at a picture of her trellised gardens: “The idea was to create an olfactory symphony—composed of notes, just the way perfumers did it—with roses and wisteria as the high and middle floral notes and herbs as the less feminine but zestier and longer-lasting low notes.” Then, just when she reaches the point of acceptance, her sense of smell magically returns.

At turns self indulgent and insightful, Blodgett’s memoir probes a lesser-known cavity of the human experience, and though this reader’s interest in the topic might have been satisfied with a magazine article, the story’s many historical, scientific and literary references make the writer’s experience resonate for a larger audience.

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