Monday, April 7, 2014
'The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia' : A construction of self in the wake of forgetting
When I was in college at the University of Minnesota, I took an Honors Seminar class that focused on memory and the construction of self. We met on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8am, and took turns leading discussions and bringing breakfast. I've always been fascinated by the role that memories serve in shaping who we are as people, and during those discussions, I found myself questioning how I constructed my own identity. What memories shaped who I am? What else shaped me into the person I am?
So what happens when you wake up on a train platform in India without the slightest idea of who you are or how you arrived at the train platform in the first place? No memories at all.
David Stuart MacLean's debut book "The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia" answers the above mentioned question with articulate prose and profound self discovery. On October 7, 2002 when MacLean woke up and "could feel a heavy absence in [his] brain, like a static cloud" on the train platform in Hyderabad, India, he sobbed as a kind officer took him to a halfway house assuming that he was just another American tourist who was addicted to drugs. MacLean ends up in a mental institution where he regains some memories, but mostly fades in and out of short bouts of waking and sleeping nightmares. As he realizes after his parents arrive, his memory loss stems from a severe allergic reaction to the anti-malaria drug Larium (which was routinely prescribed by his doctor after David received a Fulbright scholarship in India).
MacLean's short, choppy chapters of hallucinations, recovery and missteps take the reader on a journey as he rediscovers who he is and asks the questions that my Honors Seminar class asked - what makes us who we are? How do our memories create our present? What do we remember and what do we forget, and what if we forget everything and need to be reconstructed by the stories from our friends, family, girlfriends, students, and photographs. David even tries to find who he is / was by reading the marginalia he wrote in books. As he tears through old email correspondences, he finds aspects of himself that he likes and others that he doesn't. When he tells people about his Larium induced amnesia, some are reluctant to believe him because he was the type of guy who would make up a practical joke like that.
Along with MacLean's harrowing journey to remember who he was and construct a present forward life, he includes the history of the drug Larium that stole his memory. The frightening aspects of this legal drug shocked me. Even more shocking is the fact that people who are endemic to India or other malaria susceptible areas in the world have built up a natural immunity to malaria. David makes the point that "malaria separates the native form the visitor . . . When we travel to places we don't belong, even our blood is conspicuous."
The power of the book resides in the first half while David fluctuates between psychosis and clarity. His darker hours before his parents arrive and when he first returns to Ohio led me to read on, but as the book progressed David's very understandable depression, alcohol soaked evenings, vacillation between good and bad choices and self discovery felt a bit monotonous. I still can't explain why. Maybe MacLean isn't a very likable guy - neither the guy he was before Larium claimed his memory nor the guy he becomes after his recovery are particularly endearing. There are tender moments and moments of writing brilliance as David navigates his new life. In one chapter David and his girlfriend, Emily, come upon a motorcycle accident, and Emily, without hesitating leaps out of the car to help the people injured in the accident. In retrospect he reasons, "In the chaos of this world, where we carom and collide in the everyday turbulence, there's something about the specific gravity of the helpless individual, the lost and the fractured, that draws kindness from us, like venom from a wound." And that drawing of kindness mirrors David's experience with "Josh" the kind policeman who helped him from the platform and all the friends and family members who help him to answer the riddle of himself regardless of what kind of wise cracking fool he was before he woke up without him memory.
That helplessness and vulnerability that he shows in his memoir gave me just enough to like it and keep reading his metaphor heavy writing. At the end, though, I wish he would have spent more time with the questions that we asked so many times in my Honors Seminar. How do we construct our sense of identity? How much of our lives are built from memories? What memories are worth holding onto and which are worth letting go? And when we don't have a choice of holding on, how do we construct a new sense of self?