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A memoir of amnesia is a paradox. To write an autobiography, one must be able to consult one’s past. But what happens when that history is obliterated? The experience of such loss and the hard-won reclamation of identity form the bases of two new books. One is by a young man whose amnesia was a side effect of a prescribed medication. The other is by a young woman who sustained a devastating head wound.
On Oct. 17, 2002, David Stuart MacLean, an American graduate student on a Fulbright fellowship, wandered dazed and frightened on a train platform in Hyderabad, India. “I couldn’t even think of what name would have been on a passport if I had one or what foreign country I was currently in,” he writes. A police officer helped get him to a hospital, where he was treated for psychosis. Only after being discharged did he learn that he was suffering from a disastrous reaction to the anti-malaria pill Lariam.
Most people can take the medication without a problem, but some experience disturbing nightmares or depression. MacLean, however, suffered weeks of persecutory delusions, hallucinations and bizarre sensory distortions. “The Answer to the Riddle Is Me” is his vivid reflection on the 10 years following the Lariam-induced break with reality and the memory problems that persisted in its wake.
Thankfully, the author could take in and store new information, but his cache of pre-Larium memories was depleted for many months. There were a handful of exceptions: When his frantic parents rushed to his bedside in India from their home in Ohio, he knew who they were. “Some motor in my brain spun and sparked a blue arc of electricity between two exiled neurons and pow: recognition. . . . They were my parents. They looked like hell.”
For the most part, though, MacLean reconstituted himself by interviewing family and friends about his former self. He learned that he had a reputation as being tightly wound and that he loved practical jokes. He was a D.J. in college. (“There was a crazy person bellowing and talking nonsense between the songs,” he observed as he listened to himself on a tape of one of his old radio shows.) He found photos of himself and mimicked his own poses. Not until he read his Fulbright application did he learn what his own research project was about: the grammar of local Indian populations when they spoke English.
He strove to fit in. “I let the other person lead the conversation, and I agreed with whatever was said,” he writes. “It was like having a conversation when your face is full of new stitches and you have to be careful not to split any of them with your emotions. I was a newly stitched together doll myself and thanks to the Oleanz and Ativan, full of cotton batting.”
The book comprises short chapters of one to several pages, presumably to reflect the staccato-like manner in which memories returned. Swaths of cultural and biological history of malaria are woven throughout. Lariam, we learn, was developed by the American Army in the 1970s; concerns about its safety arose in the 1990s after reports emerged about unprovoked violence and suicides among servicemen.
MacLean ends on a redemptive note. One day he and his girlfriend came upon a motorcycle accident. As he rushed to help, he recalled how generous local people took care of him when he lost himself in a train station on the other side of the world. “In the chaos of the world, where we carom and collide in the everyday turbulence,” he writes, “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.”
Unlike MacLean, who spent years trying to reclaim his former self, Su Meck, who was 22 when she was hit by a kitchen fan that fell from her ceiling, has spent the last two decades trying to inhabit a completely new person. Her near-fatal head wound led to complete retrograde amnesia — all her memories had been permanently wiped. For some time after the accident, she also suffered from anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories.
Her understated book, “I Forgot to Remember,” is more an account than a memoir. The matter-of-fact delivery makes the harrowing details of her ordeal stand out all the more.
Incredibly, doctors and rehab therapists pronounced Meck fit to leave the hospital after three weeks even though she did not recognize her two young sons and the man, Jim, who called himself her husband. (“Jim was assigned to me,” she writes. “I never really had a say.”) She returned to her house in Fort Worth, Tex., but it could have belonged to a stranger. In a sense, it did. “I was born into a life already in progress,” she says.
Meck had to relearn everything, starting with how to tie her shoes — a lesson from her preschooler. As her boys learned to read, tell time, draw letters, add and subtract, so did she. She studied other people intently so she could mimic their behavior. Upon discovering she would be a mother again her reaction was: “Gross! There is someone living and growing inside of me!”
In her early 40s, at the urging of relatives, Meck enrolled in college. She doubted her ability to read and write well enough, but her remarkable grit enabled her to obtain an associate degree in music, and she is working on a bachelor’s degree. “For years, I had nothing to long for,” she writes. “I had no neglected hobbies, no dormant talents, no dreams that I knew about. I existed for the sole purpose of serving my husband and children.”
Her universe has now expanded to serving others. Meck expressly wrote the book to show what traumatic brain injury is like. Her message to families is to be patient and to maintain realistic expectations, and never to accuse the injured person of faking symptoms or being intentionally difficult, as she was by her husband and, appallingly, her doctors. Despite her obvious and devastating neurological symptoms, specialists wondered if she was imagining everything because they could find nothing wrong on her brain scans (imaging techniques are more refined today).
Meck winces at the thought of other head injury patients who received such bogus diagnoses but, unlike her, simply gave up. As for her husband, had Jim Meck been better informed of his wife’s limitations, perhaps he would have been more supportive and less inclined to take refuge, as she says he did for years, in a double life of strippers and mounting debt.
Both books are tales of triumph in the search for identity. But there are striking differences as well — MacLean slowly regained his memories and original self. Meck, in comparison, was shattered; she had to etch a life onto an entirely new slate. MacLean was surrounded by supportive souls. Meck was abandoned, clinically and emotionally. One author, a writer by trade, tells his story because it is a good one: dramatic and unique. The other tells a story, no less arresting, because she has a point to make. Both succeed impressively.
THE ANSWER TO THE RIDDLE IS ME
A Memoir of Amnesia
By David Stuart MacLean
Illustrated. 292 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.
I FORGOT TO REMEMBER
A Memoir of Amnesia
By Su Meck with Daniel de Visé
280 pp. Simon & Schuster. $25.
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