The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia/David Stuart MacLean: Reflections

Monday, January 20, 2014

It will all begin again at Penn tomorrow. English 135. A crowd of new faces in a small, elegant room. A shared discovery of the power and pitfalls of memoir and narrative nonfiction. I've taught this class several times now, but it's never nearly the same. I look over old notes. I change my mind. I ask new questions. I read new memoirs hungrily, looking for a new angle on treacherous themes.

This weekend, I read David Stuart MacLean's The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which had been sent to me not long ago by the wonderful editor Lauren Wein. The story of one young man's terrifying descent into not-knowing, hallucinations, and loss, it is also the story of reconstruction—of how one reassembles the fractured and vague-edged self, especially when every discovered hint of the past does not suggest, perhaps, an ideal person.

MacLean is a writer on a Fulbright grant in India when he startles into sudden wakefulness at a train station. He does not know who he is, where he is, what he is doing, and there is nothing in his pockets—not a ticket, not a passport—that offers clues. He was, he writes, "alone, alone with no idea how far I was from anyone who knew me. I was alone and empty and terrified. I wiped my face with both palms. I blacked out."

It will only grow worse. He will (so much luck in this) be led toward help by a tourist police officer. He will be put into one hospital and then another. Friends will be sent his way, or facsimile of friends. His parents will arrive, beleaguered, from Ohio. He will be taken home and he will be helped to understand what can barely be understood: he has had an allergic reaction to a common anti-malaria prescription medication. He has severe amnesia, he is subject to terrible nightmares, he cannot, at times, distinguish between reality and his hallucinations. He may never be the same.

The same, however, as what? As who? Studying photo albums in his parents' house, stroking the head of a dog who recognizes him, spending time with the girl he purportedly loved, he orbits the wreckage of a former life that does not always seem entirely enviable. This MacLean to whom David is trying to return wasn't always the nicest guy and was such a loud goof that many of those who are told about his medical condition assume that it is just another stunt, just David being David—again. Navigating with only pieces of a self, with fought-for moments of lucidity, with breaks of anger and breaks of despair, MacLean struggles to find a purpose. He smokes way too much, drinks even more. He alienates some of those who love him.

It's a brutal story, and MacLean does not hold back—on himself, on the condition. He does not write to be a hero, does not write for sympathy; he writes to make a number of important things clear. He elucidates mosquitoes, malaria, this prescription drug. He issues cautions. He suggests that we might have empathy for those who took the drug and returned radically changed—for those countless military personnel, for example, who were exposed to the drug's dire consequences. He asks us to consider what the self is, and how much control we have over our own behaviors, over the lines we leave behind, over the heartbreaks we generate, over the who we can be.

And on every page he writes brilliantly, scouringly, viscerally. We see it all. We feel it.

Like this:
My mom sat on the edge of my bed and smoothed my hair as the doctor talked quietly with my dad. She pushed her thumb into the space between my eyebrows, and I recognized that gesture, too. It was something she'd done my whole life, wordlessly telling me not to worry so much. I still didn't have my memory, but now I had an outline of myself, like a tin form waiting for batter.


Liviania said...

I am not a big memoir reader, but this one sounds fascinating. I definitely want to try it now.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

This sounds intense and gripping.

Serena said...

These are the memoirs I should have been reading all these years...I'm so glad you are bringing them into my life.

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