Book review: A harrowing tale of piecing a life back together
David Stuart MacLean’s troubles began about a decade ago on a train platform in India. “I have no idea who I am,” the 28-year-old MacLean said to a police officer. He couldn’t recall his name or even what country he was in.
The officer tried to calm MacLean, saying he saw this kind of thing all the time. “You foreigners come to my country and do your drugs and get confused. It will be all right, my friend.”
MacLean wasn’t on illicit drugs but rather a legal one prescribed by a doctor: an antimalarial medication called Lariam. He was having a rare adverse reaction – severe memory loss – and because he had no idea what was going on, he believed that this officer was right. “I didn’t have a name, but I now knew what kind of person I was,” MacLean writes in his harrowing memoir of forgetting, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me.
While he was at a police guesthouse, images of events that never happened sprang to his mind: He saw himself doing heroin and “whatever else we could find” in a dingy apartment with a redhead named Christina. At the officer’s urging, MacLean emailed his parents, apologizing for taking drugs and promising to “be a better son and earn your respect back.”
Then he was admitted to a mental institution, where he was strapped down and doped up. He hallucinated that Jim Henson was in his room, offering him a riddle that held the key to getting out of this mess. A little later, his parents arrived from Ohio and tried to help their son fill in the gaps in his memory: You’re not an addict but a writer, they told him, and you’re in India on a Fulbright, doing research for a novel.
They were going to take him home, where Sally and Anne would be excited to see him. He would be excited to see them, too, he said, “whoever the hell they were”; the names of his dog and his girlfriend had failed to ring a bell.
Later, back at his apartment in India, which felt foreign to him, he tried not just to recover the past but also to keep the present from slipping away. Obsessively snapping photos, he figured that “if I lost everything again, I’d be up-to-date.”
This fear of relapse persists throughout the book and is perhaps the most frightening part of MacLean’s predicament. What if, after all this work to cobble himself back together, he would have to do it all over again? “Each moment of happiness was now prey to melancholy,” he writes. “What use was a specific moment of happiness if it couldn’t be recalled, exhumed from the gray matter of the brain to relive the happiness?”
As MacLean returns to India to finish up his Fulbright and then moves back to New Mexico to finish grad school, his memory does get progressively better, but in fragments rather than as a panorama. For example, when his father gives him a CD of a country show that MacLean had hosted on a student radio station, MacLean feels no kinship with his on-air persona – “It was this person who was supposed to be me” – but he can remember the lyrics of songs he played. Similarly, he doesn’t recognize a picture of a close friend he once lived with but can vividly remember the two of them dancing at a wedding.
In much of his reconstructed life, he seems to be an actor in a play in which everybody else knows the lines but him. He tells his girlfriend, Anne, he loves her – not because he feels deeply connected to her, but because she seems to love him and he gathers that, before his memory loss, he felt similarly. Rather than recognizing people when he sees them, he has to “learn to recognize people recognizing me.”
While much of MacLean’s writing is piercing in its directness and economy, it occasionally veers into metaphor overload: At one point MacLean fancies himself a “wood-glued pinata,” at another a “newly stitched-together doll of myself”; later he’s “scooped out like a jack-o-lantern” and so on. It’s no surprise that he seeks solace in cigarettes and alcohol, and feels suicidal as early as Page 18.
But this is more than the tale of one man’s depression. MacLean deftly weaves in a history of malaria, the drugs developed to treat it and their wrenching side effects – from hallucinations to anxiety and depression. He notes that Lariam (or its generic, mefloquine) has been given to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an area not prone to malaria, in a tactic that has been called “pharmaceutical waterboarding.”
A former Army epidemiologist has said that it’s “becoming the ‘Agent Orange’ of this generation.” And even though the U.S. Army has stopped prescribing mefloquine for Special Forces troops in malaria-prone areas, a recent news report says it’s the third-choice option for other parts of the military.
However dark at points, MacLean’s account of his struggle to piece his life back together brings up a host of questions: How much of your sense of self stems from your experiences, and how much is it influenced by others’ ideas of who you are? And if pieces of your past started to disappear, how would that change your future?