The Answer to the Riddle Is Me: A Memoir of Amnesiaby David Stuart MacLean
On October 17, 2002, David MacLean “woke up” on a train platform in India with no idea who he was or why he was there. No money. No passport. No/i>
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“A mesmerizing, unsettling memoir about the ever-echoing nature of identity—written in vivid, blooming detail.” —Gillian Flynn, best-selling author of Gone Girl
On October 17, 2002, David MacLean “woke up” on a train platform in India with no idea who he was or why he was there. No money. No passport. No identity.
Taken to a mental hospital by the police, MacLean then started to hallucinate so severely he had to be tied down. He could remember song lyrics, but not his family, his friends, or the woman he was told he loved. His illness, it turned out, was the result of the commonly prescribed antimalarial medication he had been taking. Upon his return to the United States, he struggled to piece together the fragments of his former life in a harrowing, absurd, and unforgettable journey back to himself.
“[MacLean] is an exceedingly entertaining psychotic . . . [A] raw, honest and beautiful memoir.”—New York Times
“A deeply moving account of amnesia that explores the quandary of the self . . . MacLean has written a memoir that combines the evocative power of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, the lyric subtlety of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and the narrative immediacy of a Hollywood action film. He reminds us how we are all always trying to find a version of ourselves that we can live with.”—Los Angeles Times
DAVID STUART MACLEAN is a PEN/American Award–winning writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Ploughshares, and on the radio program This American Life. He has a PhD from the University of Houston and is a cofounder of the Poison Pen Reading Series.
MacLean fearlessly explores his journey to the edge of madness and his subsequent return to sanity in an unsettling, sometimes riotous, memoir. Destabilized by the brutal side effects of anti-malaria medication in India, MacLean hurtled into near-total amnesia. “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.” Committed to a mental hospital, where his allergic drug reaction is diagnosed, MacLean flails unsuccessfully for solid mental touchstones while making vivid, sometimes lovely observations about the swirl of life around him. After a rough return to his Ohio home, he adapts skills “used by any con man” to feign recognition and familiarity with his personal history. He breaks up with his girlfriend, nearly a stranger, and returns to India. The harsh effects of the drug Lariam are described soberly and clinically, but his account of returning to a foreign land proves especially disorienting, though an interlude of romantic misadventure offers some comic relief. He painfully reconstructs his breakdown, which was followed by a return to graduate school and a dreary routine of drinking, punctuated by troubling dreams that left him awake, alone, and bereft. The uneasy peace he attains grows stronger by the end of the book, when it’s oddly cheering to read “everyday crazy is something I can handle.” Agent: Eleanor Jackson, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary. (Jan.)
“If bad things are going to happen, we are lucky when they happen to someone with the wit, humanity and sweetness — to say nothing of an eye for detail and a gift for pacing — that MacLean brings to this wrenching tale . . . Readers who flip open the book will find MacLean, preserved between pages, goofy and serious, lost and found.” — Chicago Tribune “A deeply moving account of amnesia that explores the quandary of the self . . . MacLean has written a memoir that combines the evocative power of William Styron’s Darkness Visible, the lyric subtlety of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, and the narrative immediacy of a Hollywood action film. He reminds us how we are all always trying to find a version of ourselves that we can live with.” — Los Angeles Times “[MacLean] writes eloquently about the bizarre and disturbing experience of having his sense of self erased and then reconstructed from scratch.” — The New Yorker “As harrowing as this territory is, MacLean makes an affable, sure-footed guide . . . Thanks to his raw, honest, and beautiful memoir, readers will already have a clear idea what his experience was like. We can be grateful MacLean has remembered so much, and so well.” — New York Times “[A] vivid reflection on the ten years following the Lariam-induced break with reality and the memory problems that persisted in its wake . . . 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.” — New York Times Book Review “Written in terse, vivid prose spiked with blackouts and violent hallucinations reminiscent of a Ken Kesey classic, MacLean’s story of the yearlong quest to regain his life reads like fiction, and reminds us that while memories may be painful, truth is all too often elusive.” — Mother Jones “Incandescent . . . 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.” — Seattle Times “MacLean fearlessly explores his journey to the edge of madness and his subsequent return to sanity in an unsettling, sometimes riotous, memoir.” — Publishers Weekly “Mesmerizing.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review “Riveting, sad, and funny . . . Both a sharply written autobiography and an insightful meditation on how much our memories define our identities.” — Booklist “A gripping medical mystery, a heartwarming personal journey, and a chilling indictment of the commonly prescribed drug that upended MacLean’s life — but left his superb literary skills intact.” — Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks “A mesmerizing, unsettling memoir about the ever-echoing nature of identity, written in vivid, blooming detail.” — Gillian Flynn, author of Gone Girl
A young writer reckons with his life after amnesia. On Oct. 17, 2002, first-time author MacLean came to while standing in a crush of people on a train platform in India. He had no passport and no clue where he was or what his name was. He then panicked and blacked out again. When he regained consciousness, he was still standing on the platform, utterly confused and terrified, when a kindly police officer found and took him under his protection. Had the author not had his driver's license with him, this memoir may never have been written. The 28-year-old MacLean was in Hyderabad, India, studying on a Fulbright scholarship, a world away from the state of New Mexico that had issued his license. In episodic bursts, the author relates moments he recalls from that day forward. Many of the scenes describing his wild hallucinations and slow return to relative sanity powerfully convey an immediacy, as MacLean and his parents, who rushed from the States to the neuropsychiatric institute where he was taken, learned the cause of his "acute polymorphic psychosis." When MacLean was found, those who first assisted him assumed his amnesia and severe disorientation were the result of recreational drug abuse, but blood work soon revealed the culprit to be an allergic reaction to a prescribed drug with a grave history of inducing psychosis: mefloquine, the popular antimalarial drug better known as Lariam. Much of the memoir's power comes from MacLean's intense descriptions of the altered states he endured as he tried to rediscover his identity. Recalling the return to his parents' home, he writes: "I felt myself slipping, worried that I'd never recover, that I'd be in this wood-glue-filled piñata for the rest of my life. And then if I did recover, if I got everything back, who knew if it would happen again? How many times would I end up touring the exhibits of my curated self?" A mesmerizing debut. MacLean spares no detail in tracing his formidable reconstruction.
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Read an Excerpt
These then are some of my first memories. But of course as an account of my life they are misleading, because the things one does not remember are as important; perhaps they are more important.
I was standing when I came to. Not lying down. And it wasn’t a gradual waking process. It was darkness darkness darkness, then snap. Me. Now awake.
It was hot. My thin shirt clung to my back and shoulders, and my underwear was bunched into a sweaty wad. The heat left the ground in wavy lines, and the air was tinged blue with diesel exhaust. A woman in a burqa pushed past me. A small man in a ragged red vest ducked around me. He was hunched under the massive steel trunk on his back; the corner of the trunk nicked my shoulder as he maneuvered by. I was in the center of a crowd, half surging for the train, half surging for the exits. I stood still. I had no idea who I was. This fact didn’t panic me at first. I didn’t know enough to panic.
In front of me was a train. A heaving, shuddering train, its engine, half-submerged in smoke, painted a deep red. It blasted its horns, then clanked and panted into motion. People waved to me from open windows as the train shook itself free of the station. I waved back and noticed the whiteness of my arm, covered in hairs the color of straw. I tracked the train’s slow-motion progress. As I choked on the bursts of blue exhaust and stared at the receding last car, I wondered if I should have been on that train.
I checked my front pockets for a ticket. Nothing.
Not even a passport.
Now I began to worry. I had lost my passport. I was in a train station in a foreign country without my passport. 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.
A man in a small nearby stall clanked a pan against a propane burner. He banged and scraped a spatula against the pan that clanged against the metal burner. The sound was impossibly loud. Louder than the train had been. I wanted to ask the man for help. I didn’t want the man to know I needed help. I wanted him to stop banging the pan.
I could feel a heavy absence in my brain, like a static cloud. I couldn’t remember anything past waking up. There was a thick mass of nothing up there. My muscles were taut, caught in a constant flinch, waiting for someone, anyone to punch me. I was 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.
I woke up, and I was still standing there on the bustling concrete platform. Not knowing how long I had before I’d black out again, I tried to formulate a plan. There were small monkeys scavenging among the train tracks. Pigeons pecked among the detritus, then flew what they found up to the peaked roof, where they nested in the gaps between the beams and corrugated metal.
A television monitor hung from one of the metal rafters, flickering with information. My neck craned, I watched as unfamiliar letters flashed on the screen. I couldn’t read them. Did I forget how to read? I needed it to make sense. If I was going to get out of here, I needed the words to make sense. The screen was old, emitting a low buzz, and the columns frequently twisted from one side to the other, like there was a tug of war among the vacuum tubes inside the black box. The screen went blank, and I was surprised when it came on again that it was filled with something that I could understand. I experienced a moment of exhilaration fueled by the simple recognition of typed English.
The train names, though, were anything but clear. The Janma Bhoomi Express. The Bhubaneshwar Express. I watched the screen as a drowning man watches the arc of a thrown life preserver. I tried to will the words to make sense, to be useful, to pull me out of whatever I was sinking into. But the screen went blank and cycled to an unfamiliar language. Each time it came back to English I experienced the same adrenaline rush. The words continued to twist on the screen. I don’t know how long I stared at it. Long enough to draw attention.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I reluctantly panned my gaze down from the monitor and saw a young man wearing a peaked cap. He carried a long wooden stick, and perched above his lip he had a slight mustache. The mustache looked unsure of whether it would last till the end of the week.
“Is there something the matter here?” he asked me.
He looked kind. He looked competent. I needed something now that the television wasn’t cooperating. Anything resembling comfort or competence would do.
“I have no idea who I am,” I said.
Some dam burst inside of me as soon as I said it. I started crying.
The man took a moment to consider his strategy. He finally decided on, “There. There.” He patted me on my shoulder. “I am a tourist police officer.” He pointed to a complicated bureaucratic mandala sewn on his shoulder. “I am here for you. I have seen this many times before. You foreigners come to my country and do your drugs and get confused. It will be all right, my friend.”
I was relieved. I should have known. This was the kind of trouble drug addicts ended up in all the time. It was serious, but I was thankful that this police officer had let me know who I was and that I wasn’t to be trusted. I knew who I was. He had given me a key to my identity. I didn’t have a name, but I now knew the kind of person I was.
“Do you have on your person anything like a passport?”
I shook my big sobbing head, suddenly a puddle again. Prompted by the man’s assessment of me, I started to remember doing drugs with an unattractive redhead in a dark apartment. Her ginger face was covered in acne and nickel-sized freckles. Images of her coming toward me twirling little baggies full of toxic stuff flickered in my brain. Cooking. Injecting. Snorting. Scoring. This is what drug addicts do. Then they get lost and end up on train platforms taxing the patience of good men.
“Do you have anything like a wallet on your person?”
I patted down my back pockets, afraid that I would have nothing to report. But out of my right back pocket I produced a brown leather lump stamped with a picture of a cowboy with guns drawn.
“I do,” I said. My tears turned joyful. I flipped the wallet open, and there was a New Mexico driver’s license. I shoved my forefinger on the square-inch picture. “That’s me.” I was electric with happiness. I had been found.
“Okay, Mr. David,” the man said. “My name is Rajesh. You may call me Josh. You are an American. It will be easier for you to call me that.”
I wanted to grab him and dance with him. I had a name and a nationality now. The sterile emptiness of my immediate waking was gone. I bounced from sobbing to smiling in seconds.
Josh pocketed my wallet and grabbed my bicep. “Let us get you somewhere safe.”
He escorted me off the platform and into the main hall of the train station, where there was a wall of ticket sellers behind bars who were slowly dispensing with a crush of people who looked like they meant to push themselves through the bars into the ticket sellers’ laps. The cavernous room was thick with language I didn’t understand. With his hand kindly clamped on my upper arm, Josh pulled me through the hall. Everyone we passed turned and watched.
I was following a man upstairs, the back of his head bobbing as we navigated a dark stairwell that smelled of cement dust. As we spiraled up narrow flights, the landings had rough filigrees of light coming through a pattern carved into the cement wall. His name was Josh, I suddenly remembered.
We walked up an eternity of stairs. On every other landing there was a glass door lit from the inside. Office suites with a slice of air-conditioning coming out from the gaps between the door and the floor. Every floor another business with people bustling inside. Josh kept walking past them all. My legs ached. I was sweating. My underwear chafed me. I was confused, but I knew Josh. I remembered that he was taking care of me. But then I realized that I didn’t know Josh. That a man came up to me in a train station and he took my wallet and then he took me to this place, this hot dirty stairwell. I went with him. I was following him. What kind of idiot was I? Part of my brain urged me to run. He was a scam artist. Even if he was real and he was a cop, I was a drug addict. I needed to get the hell out of there. I needed to find the ugly red-haired girl. We got separated, she and I. I was supposed to pick her up at the train station. Or I was supposed to get on a train to meet her somewhere else. I’d botched it because I was dumb enough to lose my mind. Her name popped into my mind.
“Christina,” I said. Acne-scarred, redheaded Christina, the perfect partner for squalid drug romps in foreign countries.
I continued to walk behind Josh as my mind spun through all the possibilities. Robbed and killed by Josh, the scam artist. Arrested and jailed by Josh, the policeman. But I kept following him up the stairs. The inertia of confusion overtook me. I trusted his silly attempt at a mustache, an earnest mustache grown by someone not entirely aware of the way other people saw him. The scritch scritch scritch of our shoes on the gritty steps echoed all over the dark and narrow stairwell. Where were we going?
We arrived at the top floor. The stairwell opened up to a generous landing. Three bicycles leaned against the wall in a jumble. Bicycles built like tanks. The grit on the ground was the concrete itself, unfinished and flaking off in chunks. Josh yanked the glass door open, and as he did so it screeched against the jamb.
We entered the sudden chill of a highly air-conditioned Internet café. The room was open, with twenty or so computers buried in waist-high carrels. It was empty except for three young men hunched over a single carrel.
From the cluster of men, the heaviest stood up and jogged over to us. He was the clerk of the shop. Josh pointed to me and said something I didn’t understand to the clerk. The man looked at me and shook his head. Josh showed the man the card he had taken from my wallet. The clerk took my card, tapped something into the terminal at the front desk, read something off the screen to Josh, and they talked for a moment more. As they spoke, I watched flowers blooming in their mouths and falling down vines toward their feet. The language they spoke was remarkable. The conversation quickly became a thatch of pulsating tendrils. It ended with the clerk waving in the direction of the terminals.
I blinked. The tendrils were gone.
“Would you like some tea?” Josh asked.
Josh whistled at the clerk, who had rejoined his friends at their carrel. Josh ordered the tea as the clerk stared at him blankly. He then punched one of his friends in the arm, a rail-thin boy in a powder-blue button-down. The boy sucked his teeth in disapproval but jogged out of the café.
The kid came back with the tea. Balancing the tray on the carrel’s lacquered edge, he passed us each a teacup, sloshing its light brown milky contents onto its saucer. I nearly dropped mine because of the sudden heat.
“Do not try and drink it yet. Let it cool for a moment,” Josh instructed me. I took a sip of my tea anyway. It was still hot, but it was the sweetness that scalded me. Sugar and cardamom pods.
I sent an e-mail to my parents containing a message Josh dictated for me:
Mother and Father,
I am in trouble. I am in India and seem to have lost my passport. I am currently very confused and lost. It will be all right as I am with the police, and they are assisting me. Would it be all right if I came home to stay with you? I will endeavor to be a better son and earn your respect back. Please know that I am very sorry that I ever touched these drugs, and this experience has taught me never to do so again. I will be in contact again soon to instruct you how best to assist me in this.
My head hurt. There was too much I didn’t know.
The clerk came over, and he and Josh argued loudly. While they jabbered at each other I opened an e-mail from someone named Geeta. There were many e-mails from her dotting my in-box, so I figured she had to be important. Her e-mail read,
David (or should I call you Dah-wid like your watchman?)
I can’t wait for you to get here. My landlady is crazy, but she’s lent me her scooter for us to use. Do you know how to drive one? If you can, we could go down to the beaches. I have a bikini, but I need a husband around before I wear it down here, otherwise I’m just another Indian American whore. So I’m asking you two things: can you drive a scooter and will you be my husband?
These are obviously very very important pressing questions. So peel yourself away from those scary movies you’re always watching (Evil Dead, really? You live alone and watch things like that?) and tell me you’ll fake marry me and drive me down to a beach.
I need sand between my toes. Stat!
PS: I’ve gotten tired of writing OX on my e-mails. I don’t know why that yoked mammal is such an affectionate way of ending our correspondence. So I’m substituting something a bit more badass. Prehistorically badass. With teeth!
Her name wasn’t Christina. It was Geeta. The woman I was supposed to meet was named Geeta. I hit the reply button.
i am safe thanks to the tourist policeofficer.
where are you?
i’’m feeling like i’m ready to go home.
don’t have my passport but figuring ways around that.
I sent the e-mail and closed the browser.
Josh’s hand was around my bicep again. He pulled me out of the café and down the steps.
Going down the stairs was much faster than going up. We zipped past the shadows and grit. It was a quick three flights. Down. Pivot. Down. Pivot. Down. We exited into a busy intersection. I blinked away the darkness and found myself in a shock of light and heat and smells. Rickshaws. Cars. Riotously painted trucks belching exhaust. Mopeds, motorcycles, bikes. All tangled up together. All honking in the midday haze. The edges of the world kept peeling up and curling in this heat.
At the center of the snarl of the intersection, inserted in the chaos, three boys popped from vehicle to vehicle, clasping their hands together in routine genuflection, affecting a moment of solemnity, then darting their hands out for rupees. They were identical. Each wore small wire frames with no glasses in them, each wore a short length of cotton wrapped around him like a diaper, each was shaved bald, each had a tiny mustache drawn above his lip, and each was slathered head to toe in silver paint. Silver heads. Silver glasses. Silver dhotis. Silver sandals. Three silver boys dancing in the middle of the street in the middle of the day. Their tiny silver heads glinted as they climbed upstream through traffic like salmon.
Meet the Author
DAVID STUART MACLEAN is a Pen/American award-winning writer. His work has appeared in Ploughshares and on the radio program This American Life. He has a PhD from the University of Houston and is a co-founder of the Poison Pen Reading Series. He lives in Chicago with his wife.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The begining is wonderful, a ride into the unknown. Once that ends th e story feels a little bit winded.
I'm not sure what I expected. Bought the book because heard an interview with the author on NPR and his situation sounded intriguing. Unfortunately the interview was all that was needed...the book didn't reveal very much about his situation.
Saw this in NY times and it seems interesting...