David Stuart MacLean’s terrifying memoir of amnesia
David Stuart MacLean’s incandescent memoir “The Answer to the Riddle is Me” tells the story of the author’s terrifying bout with an episode of amnesia, set off by his allergic reaction to an anti-malarial drug. MacLean discusses his book Thursday, Feb. 27, at Ravenna Third Pl
Special to The Seattle Times
David Stuart MacLean
The author of “The Answer to the Riddle is Me” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, at Ravenna Third Place Books, 6504 20th Ave N.E., Seattle. (206-525-2347; thirdplacebooks.com).
David Stuart MacLean’s new book contains more than one confounding riddle. Let’s start with this: How can a memoir be conceived by a man who lost his memory?
“The Answer to the Riddle is Me” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 292 pp., $25) opens with the author awakening from a blackout in the fall of 2002 and confronting the bewilderment of not knowing where or who he is.
At first, his story seems potentially entertaining — the kind of tabula rasa trope Hollywood might convert to trifling comedy. But no, this is sheer terror. “I was in a train station in a foreign country without my passport,” he recalls. “Then I realized that 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. This is when I panicked.”
MacLean is a writer on a Fulbright fellowship in southeast India when a rare allergic reaction to an anti-malarial medication called Lariam causes him to hallucinate, blackout and forget his past. And that’s just for starters.
Through the kindness of strangers and a stay in an Indian mental hospital, he pieces together enough information to learn his name, write home and figure out some basic facts about his former life.
His parents come to retrieve him and take him back to Ohio. The prognosis at this point is hopeful. He is expected to gradually regain his memory. But the journey back to health and self are anything but smooth.
In a mental state of “perpetual anxiety,” he travels in and out of sanity, sometimes unable to distinguish the real from the imagined. “I faded in and out of my life like I was channel surfing,” MacLean writes, “but there were only two channels: the wood-glue nothingness that I kept slipping into and the continuing mysteries of who I could possibly be.”
In order to cope, he fakes it, listening to and agreeing with friends and family. But underneath the facade, nothing is firm or certain. He slowly learns about his former self — not always liking what he sees — but his brain inevitably scrambles again, and he descends into hallucination and darkness.
He battles with insomnia and thoughts of suicide and tries to obliterate the pain with alcohol. Incredibly, MacLean returns to India a few weeks after coming home. He later settles in Las Cruces, N.M.
MacLean’s prose is incandescent. When he describes his disappointment in the tedium of his day-to-day life, he writes, “After the neon explosions of my hallucinations, I felt like I was living in a consolation prize, a cheap imitation.”
After talking with his ex-girlfriend, he observes: “I couldn’t believe she wasn’t aware of how far away I was. She was having a conversation with this effigy of me.”
Because of his close encounter with Lariam, he provides sobering insights into the controversial use of the drug by hospitals and the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay.
If you are seeking a stirring narrative that plucks at the heart strings and ties up loose ends, this book will disappoint. MacLean’s account is raw and unsparing, and will surely take you out of your comfort zone — the reader is immersed in the writer’s oblivion and his vertiginous journey of recovery — but the reward for sticking with it is the privilege of reading MacLean’s profound and finely nuanced meditation on memory and identity.
David Takami is the author of “Divided Destiny: A History of Japanese Americans in Seattle.”